The Other 60 Percent

“Recess” coaches may help classroom work

Raymundo Barreles, 7, and Osiel Cervantes, 8, students at Denver's Swansea Elementary, settle a playground dispute amicably using the "rock, paper, scissors" method, taught to them by recess coach Eben Bowers.

Recess went better at Denver’s Swansea Elementary School last week than any week Principal Mary Sours can remember in the past ten years.

Kids were running instead of standing against the wall. Disputes were minimal. Energy was expended in a productive, healthy way that left youngsters ready for learning when they went back inside.

Oh, what a difference a week can make. And Sours and her teachers don’t ever want things to go back to the way they were.

“Teachers have now seen what recess can look like,” Sours said, “and they don’t want to give that up now.”

Swansea was one of seven DPS schools to get a trial “recess coach” for a week from Playworks, a California-based non-profit organization that operates programs in ten cities across the country with the goal of making recess more productive in low-income schools.

If funding can be arranged – and Sours is determined to find the $23,000 it will cost – then come fall, Swansea will hire a Playworks recess coach to permanently transform the recess ethos of the school, located in north-central Denver.

Give credit to Eben Bowers, the visiting Playworks coach, who last year ran a program in San Francisco, and now is a national recruiter. Bowers spent his mornings going into Swansea classrooms and teaching youngsters simple games.

He spent his afternoons implementing those games – things like Four Square and kickball and Hen-and-Chicks – paying special attention to those kids who normally hang back at recess time and don’t participate. Jabari Wimbs, Playworks program director from Silicon Valley, California, assisted.

“Believe it or not, a lot of kids don’t know how to play,” said Bowers. “The more athletic kids have all the power. So there are barriers we have to break down. We want to make it safe for any kid to get into any game they want to play. Giving them that opportunity makes all the difference. It builds up a kid’s confidence and social skills.”

Dispute resolution is big, and Playworks relies heavily on the time-tested “rock, paper, scissors” (aka Rochambeau) method.

“That alone cuts down a lot on the things that typically will escalate into fights,” Bowers said. That, and “high fives,” which are employed liberally to encourage youngsters to encourage each other.

Playworks origin: a frustrated principal

Playworks began 14 years ago in Oakland, Calif., the brainchild of Jill Vialet, who at the time was director of a Children’s Museum.

“I was at a school waiting to see the principal, and she was running late,” said Vialet, president and founder of Playworks. “She was coming out of her office looking aggravated, the way only an elementary school principal can, and she had three little boys trailing behind her.

“She started going on about why recess was hell, and how teachers found every reason to be somewhere else. Then she looked at me and said ‘Can’t you DO something?’ I was taken aback. I was there to talk about an artist-in-residence program.”

Eben Bowers teaches children the rules of a game on the playground at Swansea.

But the incident got Vialet thinking – and recalling her own childhood, and Clarence, the beloved park-and-rec worker who always made sure she got in the game: “I thought, ‘I could make it so the school had a guy like Clarence.”

The next year, she launched Sports4Kids, which later became Playworks. It’s the only non-profit organization in the country to send trained, full-time coaches into low-income schools to turn recess into a more positive experience.

Not a replacement for P.E.

The recess coaches don’t take the place of physical education teachers, and they’re not certified teachers. They’re mostly young, enthusiastic recent college graduates who are trained by Playworks to know and teach good games, good sportsmanship and good fun.

The actual cost of the program is closer to $60,000 per school, but grants from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation have enabled the program to underwrite much of the expense while expanding rapidly. An $18 million grant from RWJF in 2008 is helping Playworks expand into 27 cities by 2012.

Vialet said schools will more than recoup the costs of Playworks.

“From a purely monetary sense, over the course of a year, Playworks recovers about 36 hours of instruction per teacher. It works out to about six minutes saved after every recess period, so cumulatively, it adds up over the course of a year,” she said. “Teachers, instead of spending time resolving fights, can spend time teaching. it maximizes value.”

Swansea fourth-grade special education teacher Cleo McElliott figures a smooth recess is worth even more than that.

“It takes 15 to 20 minutes out of a 45-minute block of time to get the kids to settle down after recess,” she said, as she watched her students romp with Bowers. “We’ve had too much chaos going on out here. Too much pushing and shoving. And we’d have kids lined up against the wall, standing there for 30 minutes, not getting to run off any energy. And all this impacts learning.”

McElliott said students need to run and play “but they don’t know how.”

“Some don’t even know how to play tag,” she said. “They just push a kid down and thing that’s tag. It really does affect the classroom. I hate inside days!”

Kids seek structure, predictability

By Friday, Swansea’s playground was deftly organized into small hives of activity. Bowers checked in on each of half a dozen different games going on in different parts of the yard, but the children knew the rules and were largely policing their own play.

“Kids really do like structure and predictability,” Sours said. “Every school has great kids. If you give them something purposeful to do, they will do it themselves, and you just need to monitor it. I’m seeing kids outside with a purpose now.”

Sours is not alone in appreciating the benefits of recess. A recent study of 2,000 elementary school principals nationwide, sponsored by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, found huge support for recess, even as many principals acknowledge they’ve cut out recess to meet other academic demands.

Still, four out of five principals believe recess positively impacts academic achievement, and two-thirds believe students are more focused in class following recess.

Sours said that while one week isn’t long enough to assess whether an improved recess will impact academic performance at her school, she’s already seen a decrease in discipline problems.

“When kids break a rule, they have to stand by the wall for awhile,” she said. “And I’m seeing fewer bodies by the wall. This is bringing out the best in the kids.”

FOR ADDITIONAL INFORMATION

Read “A State of Play,” the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation report on recess

Read “School Recess and Group Classroom Behavior,” a 2009 study published in Pediatrics

Click here for a peek into the Playworks playbook for ideas about active games that children can play to not only get exercise but also to learn collaboration and problem-solving skills.

Watch an interview with recess coach Eben Bowers:

Watch a video of Swansea kids playing on their playground:

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.”