The Other 60 Percent

Six small districts win healthy kids grants

The first time staff in the tiny rural Bethune School District in eastern Colorado tried to explain to youngsters that French fries would not count toward the veggie category on the food pyramid, they were met with blank stares.

Equally vacant stares met them when pomegranates and kiwis were introduced to a few lunch menus in the 131-student school district near the Kansas border.

Not anymore. Students are now used to logging the foods they eat on website. Most of them don’t bat an eye at the new physical education requirements or the constant chatter among teachers about the ongoing “My Biggest Loser” contest. They’re used to no butter anywhere in sight and whole wheat lunch rolls and the fact they need three physical education credits to graduate from high school.

Today, the Colorado Department of Education announced that Bethune and five other small districts will receive $20,000 over two years from the Colorado Legacy Foundation via the Colorado Health Foundation. Founded in 2007, the Legacy Foundation is governed by an independent board of trustees that develops initiatives to support the Colorado Department of Education’s initiatives in innovation, entrepreneurship, 21st-century teaching and learning and the dissemination of best practices.

A tight budget prompted Bethune Superintendent Shila Adolf to go for the Healthy Kids Learn Better grant. The CDE, which requires all district have health and wellness plans in place, awarded $160,000 in grants to 10 small and large districts. The money will be available to districts March 5.

Adolf said she believes strongly in kids and staff staying healthy. She personally has lost 14 pounds since August. All told, the 18  “Biggest Loser” participants lost a combined 137 pounds. The system was tweaked, though, when it became clear nobody wanted the thin staffers on their teams.

Now, body mass index is calculated into a point system as well. Some of the Legacy dollars will pay for rewards such as Safeway gift cards and school spirit gear for winners. One of the goals is to reduce the district’s health insurance premiums. Teachers are encouraged to go on walks during breaks and are supplied with pedometers and water bottles. Together, they take Latin Zumba classes taught by a district teacher.

The school now gives students choices of food rather than dumping it on a plate for them. Seventy percent of the school’s children qualify for free and reduced price lunch. And 94 percent of those youth participate in the federally funded lunch program.

“(Students) are choosing fresh vegetables more often,” Adolf said. “We removed students’ ability to have seconds on the main entrée. They can only have seconds on fruits and vegetables. For a while, the kids thought the lunch ladies were so mean. But once we showed them the right serving size for their age, they found out they had been eating two to three times that amount.”

“Now, I think they’re very excited about it.”

Adolf has a personal goal to lose another 30 pounds.

This is exactly the sort of innovation the Colorado Legacy Foundation is trying to support through the $868,080 it received last summer from the Colorado Health Foundation. The one- and two-year grants are designed to improve student achievement by implementing best practices related to nutrition, physical education, health education, school-based health and workplace wellness for students and staff.

“Healthy students and academic achievement go hand in hand,” said Helayne Jones, executive director of the Colorado Legacy Foundation. “The Colorado Health Foundation’s latest health report card documents that Colorado continues to fall behind in important areas affecting children’s health.”

All 10 school districts will use the Legacy Foundation’s 2009 Best Practices Guide to assist them with their health and wellness programs. Available here, the guide is the second in a series of annual best practices published by the Colorado Legacy Foundation in collaboration with the CDE.

Grant recipients can use the money to pay for costs associated with conducting the completion of the Best Practices Guide checklist and implementing the Best Practices Guide plan including classroom education, program activities, equipment; training, staff wellness programs, policy development, school or district team meetings and stipends.

In the Boulder Valley, Interim Director of Nutrition Services Ann Cooper plans to use the money to boost the number of students who eat school-made lunches. Right now, about a third of the district’s 26,000 students participate. She’d like at least half of them to eat at school so economies of scale work in her advantage when budgeting for food purchases.

Cooper said she plans to get cooks to give samples of lunch menu items – say, chicken quesadillas – to students a day or two before they’re really on the menu so they might pick up a tray the day they’re served. Cooper said it’s great when parents pack healthy lunches but not all of them do.

“A lot of parents may not know what healthy food is. We see kids with Lunchables and things like that.”

Julie Poppen can be reached at [email protected].

Districts awarded $10,000 per year for two years:

Bethune School District – Nutrition, health education, physical activity and employee wellness

Campo School District RE-6 – – Nutrition and employee wellness

Durango School District 9-R – Health education and employee wellness

East Grand School District – Nutrition and employee wellness

Elizabeth C-1 School District – Health education and physical activity

Monte Vista C-8 School District – Health education, nutrition, physical activity and employee wellness

Districts receiving $10,000 for one year:

Boulder Valley School District – Nutrition

Colorado Springs School District 11 – Coordinated school health

Thompson School District – Employee wellness

Weld County School District 6 – Nutrition

raising the curtain

Aurora high school students started rehearsing a musical about an earlier time — and discovered ‘harsh truths’ about today

Ebony Nash, left, sings during a rehearsal of Ragtime at Hinkley High School. (Photo by Yesenia Robles, Chalkbeat)

Nine weeks ago, more than 50 theater and choir students at Aurora’s Hinkley High School came together to begin work on a musical set in turn-of-the-20th-century New York.

At first, the kids did what high school students often do — cluster into familiar cliques, or self-segregate by race. Then the students started immersing themselves in the material.

The musical, “Ragtime,” intertwines the stories of a white family, a Jewish immigrant family and an African-American couple to spotlight differences and commonalities in the American experience.

At the urging of their teachers and directors, the Hinkley students began to use the plot and characters to examine their own actions, prejudice and biases. About 92 percent of Hinkley’s more than 2,100 students are students of color, the vast majority of them Latino.

The cliques and segregation slipped away. The production began taking shape.

“Ragtime” gets its Hinkley High School debut on Thursday and will be performed again on Friday and Saturday.

Chalkbeat sat down with a group of students involved in the production as they were in final preparations to learn about what their experience had taught them. The following is a portion of that conversation, slightly condensed and rearranged for clarity:

Janelle Douglas, a 17-year-old senior who portrays a friend of one of the story’s main characters, said the first time she saw and read through Ragtime, “it was intense.” She often cries as she rehearses her solo, sung during a funeral.

DOUGLAS: “I thought, this is powerful. This is overwhelming. This is amazing.”

Pamela Arzate, 17, plays the role of Evelyn Nesbit, a real model and actress who is incorporated into the fictional story and accused of being shallow.

ARZATE: “It’s very eye-opening because you look at it and it’s just a simple musical, but if you take a step back and go to the real world, it’s the exact same thing that’s going on today.”

Hodaly Sotelo, 17, plays the role of Mother, a woman whose attitudes toward her identity as a wife and woman evolve throughout the story.

SOTELO: “It reminds me of when I was younger and I was like, ‘Oh yeah, we’re over all that racism.’ But now, I look back and I think, what the heck? This stuff is still going on and we thought it was way over.”

Brianna Mauricio-Perez, 17, is one of two student directors.

MAURICIO-PEREZ: “It talks about all of the harsh truths that no one wants to talk about.”

DOUGLAS: “I think it’s safe to say it shows the true colors of our history.”

MAURICIO-PEREZ: “Even within our cast we did have to have a talk about how we were so separated because we were at the very beginning. Everyone was in their little groups and with their friends. You just want to keep to yourself.”

DOUGLAS: “It was literally ‘Ragtime.’”

MAURICIO-PEREZ: “We had a big talk with everybody. Things have gotten so much better. By the end of Act Two, we were all mixed up.”

Brenda Castellanos, 17, plays the role of Emma Goldman, drawn from a real-life political activist and anarchist.

CASTELLANOS: “Now that we’re closer, now that we’re all comfortable, we put in more effort.”

After nearly every rehearsal, teachers and directors give students a talk, urging them to immerse themselves in the feelings of their characters, relating to them if necessary through their parents, grandparents or ancestors who were immigrants, or through current events.

“What if you saw someone beaten, and bloodied and killed in front of you?” one director asked.

They also remind students of why the play should be impactful. “You have to figure out how for two-and-a-half hours you can give hope to that audience,” Marie Hayden, Hinkley’s choir director told students last week.

CASTELLANOS: “I think it it helps us. Every day, we get more into it and more into it until we actually believe it. You actually feel it — like how Janelle feels when she’s singing and she starts crying and makes everybody cry. We all feel connected.”

Students say they have different scenes that impact them the most, but they don’t hesitate to find how the scenes relate to their life despite the story being set in the first decade of the 1900s. Hayden’s class and the practice for the musical are safe places where they can discuss those parallels, they said.

Shavaun Mar, 16, is a junior who plays the main character of Coalhouse Walker Jr., a ragtime piano player who is the target of racial attacks and struggles with revenge and forgiveness.

MAR: “I feel like that is crucial that we give people those opportunities to talk because a lot of people have very valid things to say but they just don’t have a way to get it out.”

CASTELLANOS: “The shootings.”

ARZATE: “The racism. They help us discuss it because there’s so many things that are going on. Pretty much everyday there’s a tragedy going on. And so, in a way, we can use that sentiment, that emotion that we feel with the real world and convey it when we’re doing this show. We use those feelings and we try to think about it in that way. To display that emotion. To display it to everyone else. And not directly represent what’s going on today but just to give them that ‘aha’ moment, like ‘wow.’”

Ebony Nash, 17, plays the character of Sarah, an innocent girl who wants to help her boyfriend settle his problems.

NASH: “It just makes us want justice in real life because these things are still going on even though it’s not out there. It just makes us want justice for our community. This musical showed me that I need to become better within myself because I’m not perfect.”

SOTELO: “It opened my eyes a lot more for sure. This kind of just makes me realize the problems I have. It makes me realize yea, I’m having immigration issues with my father right now, but that also my friends, you know, they’re going through the same thing too. This DACA stuff or this coming out stuff. I became more accepting of what other people might be going through and how I can help.”

MAR: “The past few years, I have been in a bit of a shell. So putting myself in this situation and pushing myself to be this other person has really shown me what I’m capable of and it’s helping me break out of that shell and realize who I am as a person.”

NASH: “Basically, this is our getaway from real life because we get to come on stage and be somebody else. It also makes us want to put the story out right so people can understand. So people can feel what we want them to feel.”

CASTELLANOS: “That there’s hope after all this corruption that’s going on.”

DOUGLAS: “That even in your bad times you can still laugh, cry, dance.”

NASH: “What I want people to get from this is change. To learn how to change and learn how to forgive and learn how to come together as a community and just, like their worth.”

SOTELO: “And to be strong. To stand up for what’s right.”

ARZATE: “And it might sound weird, but I feel like they should feel a certain level of uncomfort because that means that they’re going to look at themselves while seeing the musical. Maybe they’ll go ‘I’m uncomfortable because I do that’ or ‘I have that prejudice’ or ‘I feel that certain way,’ so if they come out and they feel uncomfortable and then at the end they’re like, ‘Wow. There’s that hope for change.’ Hopefully that like…”

DOUGLAS: “… It inspires them to do better.”

ARZATE: “Like, you can do it.”

SOTELO: “It’s kind of like a water droplet. One small move can domino-effect to something bigger.”


Taking attendance

Want to make middle school admissions more fair? Stop looking at this measure, parents say

PHOTO: Monica Disare
Middle school students write their names down at a high school fair in Brooklyn.

Parents across New York City have pushed for changes in the way selective middle schools pick their students, saying the process is unfair.

Now, a group of Manhattan parents has come up with a novel solution: Stop looking at students’ attendance records.

The parent council in District 2 — where about 70 percent of middle schools admit students based on their academic records — points to research showing that students from low-income families are far more likely to miss school. Those children are at a distinct disadvantage in the competition for the district’s top middle school seats, the council argues, even though factors beyond the control of any fourth-grader — especially family homelessness — often account for poor attendance and tardiness.

“This outsized focus on attendance disproportionately impacts students who don’t have secure housing and may not have secure healthcare, and that is troubling to me,” said Eric Goldberg, a member of the community education council in District 2, which includes stretches of Lower Manhattan and the Upper East Side. “There are many factors that should not impact a student’s educational opportunities — and the way the system is set up, it does.”

Eighteen of the district’s 24 middle schools are “screened,” meaning they rank applicants based on factors including test scores, grades, and interviews. Of those, all but one school also considers how often students were late or absent in fourth grade, according to the parent council.

Most of the schools assign points to each factor they consider. Some give absences 10 times more weight than science or social studies grades, the council found, while others penalize students for even a single absence or instance of tardiness.

Disadvantaged students are especially likely to miss school.

A recent report by the city’s Independent Budget Office found that homeless students are more likely than other students to be chronically absent — typically defined as missing about 10 percent of the school year.

Schools with the highest chronic absenteeism are in communities in “deep poverty,” which have the highest rates of unemployment and family involvement with the child-welfare system, according to a 2014 report by the New School at the Center for New York City Affairs.

“We can use chronic absenteeism as a good guess of all the other things kids are dealing with,” said Nicole Mader, a senior research fellow at the New School and a co-author of the report. “If these middle schools are using absenteeism to weed kids out, that means they’re going to automatically weed out those kids who have the most barriers to academic success already.”

The attendance requirement can put pressure on any family, regardless of their financial status or housing situation.

Banghee Chi, a parent of two children in District 2, said she sometimes sent her younger daughter to school with a fever when she was in fourth grade rather than have her marked absent.

Her daughter would show up to class only to be sent to the school’s health clinic — which would call Chi to pick her up. Chi was thinking ahead to middle school, when a missed day of class could hurt her chances of getting into the most sought-after schools.

“It was something I was really conscious and aware of during my child’s fourth-grade year,” she said. “I think it’s unfair.”

The education council’s resolution, which will be put to vote in December, is nonbinding because middle schools set their own admissions criteria. But a show of support from parents could lead to action from the education department, which has been prodded by integration advocates to make other changes in high school and middle school admissions.

This summer, the department announced it would end the practice of “revealed rankings,” which allowed middle schools to select only those students who listed them first or second on their applications. The city is also appointing a committee of parents, educators, and community leaders in Brooklyn’s District 15 to come up with a proposal for making that district’s middle school applications process more fair.

“We’re collaborating with communities across the city to make school admissions more equitable and inclusive, including in District 2,” said department spokesman Will Mantell in an email. The department looks forward “to further conversations about this resolution and other efforts to improve middle school admissions in District 2.”