First Person

How to get kids walking and biking to school

More than a dozen bikes were parked in front of Rose Hill Elementary School one recent morning, and principal Samara Williams eyed them with pleasure.

bicyclesThat translated into roughly a dozen fewer cars clogging the Commerce City school’s small driveway, dropping off and picking up children. And a dozen youngsters who got a good morning’s exercise peddling them to school.

“We’re a neighborhood school, and most kids live within a one-mile radius,” said Williams. “We want them to walk or ride their bikes.”

To help encourage that, Rose Hill partnered this year with Bicycle Colorado to bring in a Safe Routes to School training program. Safety coordinators came in to teach the youngsters about bike safety, and to present them with free bike helmets. After completing the training, the children got to participate in a “bike rodeo” to show off their bike handling skills.

Related story
Read an earlier EdNews’ story about Safe Routes to School.

Bicycle Colorado, a statewide nonprofit bicycle advocacy organization, is one of the state’s leading recipients of Safe Routes to School funds, which are administered through the Colorado Department of Transportation. In 2010, more than $2 million in federal SRTS grants will fund more than two dozen projects around the state.

The really big-ticket items involve improved infrastructure to make pedestrian pathways around schools safer. But the grants also fund less-costly education and encouragement programs to get more students to walk or ride their bikes to school.

Since 2005, Bicycle Colorado has aggressively sought those funds to allow it to partner with school districts, health departments and other municipal groups to promote bike safety classes, bike clubs and other kid-friendly enticements.

healthy schools and bike to schoolThis year, Bicycle Colorado is conducting programs in six school districts, including Adams 14, Adams 12, Denver, Boulder Valley, Poudre School District in Fort Collins, and Calhan schools. Elsewhere, other groups – such as Boltage in Boulder and the P.E.D.A.L. Cycling Club of Loveland – are also partnering with schools and other community groups to boost bike ridership and walking through a variety of programs and approaches.

“We’re looking to reverse a national trend in the number of students biking and walking to school,” said Dave Cowan, Education Director of Bicycle Colorado. “It’s about a quarter of what it was in the 1960s. It’s really a startling number. In the 1960s, 60 to 70 percent of students who lived within two miles of school walked or biked. Now it’s down to 14 percent.”

The reasons for such low bike ridership vary, depending on a given school’s demographics and location. So do the strategies for boosting it.

Different schools, different approaches

“In the wealthier schools districts, you might have a lot more parent involvement, more stay-at-home moms who are willing to get involved with programs to encourage kids to walk or bike to school,” said Jenna Berman, Education Program Manager for Bicycle Colorado.

“But in those districts, parents may be invested in having chosen a different school for their child, and they drive their kids to school. Whereas in a place like Commerce City, the kids will go to the school in the neighborhood.”

Cowan said Bicycle Colorado customizes its approach for different districts.

bike to school and healthy schools“The students in some schools have a lot of access to bicycles,” he said. “Then we emphasize the bicycling piece of it. But in other districts, the kids either don’t have bikes, or there’s a fear of the bikes being stolen if they bring them to school, so we emphasize the pedestrian angle more, organize ‘walking school buses,’ develop maps for recommended walking routes.”

At Rose Hill, biking was emphasized even before the school partnered with Bicycle Colorado this year to do a Safe Routes to School program. Every kindergartner at the school gets a free bicycle, and bikes are also given away at monthly assemblies. Williams said the school adopted a wellness program two years ago to battle the childhood obesity epidemic.

“I’ve had parents come up and thank me,” she said. “They’ve embraced the emphasis on biking and on exercise. They’ll say, ‘I didn’t know what to do about my child being chubby.’ ”

Reaching out to middle schoolers

In Denver, Bicycle Colorado has partnered with Denver Health for several years now to promote the DPS Rides program, a bike safety program for elementary schools. Last year, the program was expanded to include Lake Middle School. This year, DPS Rides On – the middle school curriculum – will also be in Kunsmiller and Smiley.

“It’s a little tougher to get access to the kids in middle school,” Berman said. “At Lake, they have an after-school program run by Mi Casa, so we partnered with them to create an after-school bike club.”

Participants got six weeks of advanced bike safety instruction, and went on regular group bike outings. Those who attended all the safety classes got a free bicycle at the end of the program.

Quotable
“In the 1960s, 60 to 70 percent of students who lived within two miles of school walked or biked. Now it’s down to 14 percent.”
–Dave Cowan, Bicycle Colorado

Eddie Romero, a 7th grader Lake Middle School, took part in the bike club last year, and he can’t wait to do it again this year.

“I wanted to get more exercise last year, and I did,” he said. “I really like riding bikes. On the last day our club met, we went to a park far, far away and rode our bikes all the way, and we ate Subway when we got there.”

Cody Buchanan, assistant manager of the after-school programs for Mi Casa Neighborhood Center, which is located within Lake, said it was “a huge treat” for kids at the low-income school to take home a mountain bike.

“A majority of our kids were already riding their bikes around the neighborhood anyway, so the big thing was to teach them to ride safely so they aren’t a danger to themselves or others,” Buchanan said.

“We’re looking at a different incarnation of the bike club here for next spring,” he added. “They’ll furnish us with another set of bikes we can have to run the program, and we’ll really look for the kids in last year’s club to step up as leaders.”

A high-tech alternative

In Boulder, a different model has emerged. Boltage – formerly known as Freiker (short for “frequent biker) – uses some high tech to track the number of kids who bike or walk to school, and keeps a running tally that’s accessible on the internet. Students win awards based on the number of bike or walking trips they log.

It all began several years ago when Boulder software engineer Rob Nagler wanted to encourage his young children to ride their bikes to school. He started offering them incentives – their choice of a small trinket for every five days they pedaled to school. It worked.

Other youngsters at his children’s school, Crest View Elementary, found out about the Nagler kids’ deal. Nagler – who biked with his children to school every day – handed out punch cards to the other student bikers. For every 10 punches, they, too, got to select a trinket.

bike to school and healthy schoolsSoon, Nagler determined there was a better way to do this than hanging out in front of school every day, punching kids punch cards. Four years ago, he built the first “freikometer,” a wireless, solar-powered radio frequency identification (RFID) tag reader.

Riders were given tags to attach to their backpacks. When they rode under the freikometer, the trip was counted and the data uploaded to a website.

“Once we had that technology, other schools heard about it. It was a technology we could put in other schools,” said Zach Noffsinger, a Boulder attorney who also serves as vice president of Boltage.

A few more technological improvements, and now the system can read the chips on participants’ backpack tags. It not only logs the trip but calculates the distance each student has traveled. Parents can go online to see how many trips their children have taken.

Today, freikometers – now called “zaps,” – have been installed in 32 schools nationwide, up from 13 in the spring. Six are in Colorado: Crest View and Foothill elementaries in Boulder, Burlington Elementary in Longmont, Casey Middle School in Boulder, Monroe Elementary in Denver and Calhan Elementary in Calhan. Noffsinger said a seventh is likely to be added soon.

To learn more

The technology isn’t cheap. The first-year expenses are $5,090, which includes purchase of the zap, 500 RFID tags and one year of software use and support. After the first year, it costs $950 a year to use the software.

“I have no doubt that the price tag is a barrier to some schools,” Noffsinger said. “But we’re certainly seeing plenty of demand out there, and I think it’s just the tip of the iceberg. Frankly, we don’t do a lot of marketing. We had over a 100 percent increase in the number of participating schools this year, and mostly it was just through word of mouth.”

“Freiker” became “Boltage” earlier this year to better reflect the program’s changing focus, Noffsinger said.

“Freiker was the name of our prototype system,” he said. “But it’s short for ‘frequent biker,’ and we needed to change the name to reflect a broader active transportation focus. We’ve really moved into the realm of walking as well as biking now.”

The results have been nothing short of astounding. On the first day of school at Crest View, 140 students logged a bike or walking trip to school. That’s more than a quarter of the student body.

“When the program at Crest View started, there were maybe six bikes parked in front of the school. The bike racks had tumbleweeds growing around them,” Noffsinger said. “Now they’ve installed 14 bike racks, and they’re continually adding more and we completely fill them up.

“In terms of tracking the kids, we saw a doubling of kids riding their bikes to school after we started the program, and we’ve seen great increases at other schools as well.”

Rebecca Jones can be reached at rjones@ednewscolorado.org.

Related story
Read an earlier EdNews’ story about Safe Routes to School.

First Person

I’ve spent years studying the link between SHSAT scores and student success. The test doesn’t tell you as much as you might think.

PHOTO: Photo by Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images

Proponents of New York City’s specialized high school exam, the test the mayor wants to scrap in favor of a new admissions system, defend it as meritocratic. Opponents contend that when used without consideration of school grades or other factors, it’s an inappropriate metric.

One thing that’s been clear for decades about the exam, now used to admit students to eight top high schools, is that it matters a great deal.

Students admitted may not only receive a superior education, but also access to elite colleges and eventually to better employment. That system has also led to an under-representation of Hispanic students, black students, and girls.

As a doctoral student at The Graduate Center of the City University of New York in 2015, and in the years after I received my Ph.D., I have tried to understand how meritocratic the process really is.

First, that requires defining merit. Only New York City defines it as the score on a single test — other cities’ selective high schools use multiple measures, as do top colleges. There are certainly other potential criteria, such as artistic achievement or citizenship.

However, when merit is defined as achievement in school, the question of whether the test is meritocratic is an empirical question that can be answered with data.

To do that, I used SHSAT scores for nearly 28,000 students and school grades for all public school students in the city. (To be clear, the city changed the SHSAT itself somewhat last year; my analysis used scores on the earlier version.)

My analysis makes clear that the SHSAT does measure an ability that contributes to some extent to success in high school. Specifically, a SHSAT score predicts 20 percent of the variability in freshman grade-point average among all public school students who took the exam. Students with extremely high SHSAT scores (greater than 650) generally also had high grades when they reached a specialized school.

However, for the vast majority of students who were admitted with lower SHSAT scores, from 486 to 600, freshman grade point averages ranged widely — from around 50 to 100. That indicates that the SHSAT was a very imprecise predictor of future success for students who scored near the cutoffs.

Course grades earned in the seventh grade, in contrast, predicted 44 percent of the variability in freshman year grades, making it a far better admissions criterion than SHSAT score, at least for students near the score cutoffs.

It’s not surprising that a standardized test does not predict as well as past school performance. The SHSAT represents a two and a half hour sample of a limited range of skills and knowledge. In contrast, middle-school grades reflect a full year of student performance across the full range of academic subjects.

Furthermore, an exam which relies almost exclusively on one method of assessment, multiple choice questions, may fail to measure abilities that are revealed by the variety of assessment methods that go into course grades. Additionally, middle school grades may capture something important that the SHSAT fails to capture: long-term motivation.

Based on his current plan, Mayor de Blasio seems to be pointed in the right direction. His focus on middle school grades and the Discovery Program, which admits students with scores below the cutoff, is well supported by the data.

In the cohort I looked at, five of the eight schools admitted some students with scores below the cutoff. The sample sizes were too small at four of them to make meaningful comparisons with regularly admitted students. But at Brooklyn Technical High School, the performance of the 35 Discovery Program students was equal to that of other students. Freshman year grade point averages for the two groups were essentially identical: 86.6 versus 86.7.

My research leads me to believe that it might be reasonable to admit a certain percentage of the students with extremely high SHSAT scores — over 600, where the exam is a good predictor —and admit the remainder using a combined index of seventh grade GPA and SHSAT scores.

When I used that formula to simulate admissions, diversity increased, somewhat. An additional 40 black students, 209 Hispanic students, and 205 white students would have been admitted, as well as an additional 716 girls. It’s worth pointing out that in my simulation, Asian students would still constitute the largest segment of students (49 percent) and would be admitted in numbers far exceeding their proportion of applicants.

Because middle school grades are better than test scores at predicting high school achievement, their use in the admissions process should not in any way dilute the quality of the admitted class, and could not be seen as discriminating against Asian students.

The success of the Discovery students should allay some of the concerns about the ability of students with SHSAT scores below the cutoffs. There is no guarantee that similar results would be achieved in an expanded Discovery Program. But this finding certainly warrants larger-scale trials.

With consideration of additional criteria, it may be possible to select a group of students who will be more representative of the community the school system serves — and the pool of students who apply — without sacrificing the quality for which New York City’s specialized high schools are so justifiably famous.

Jon Taylor is a research analyst at Hunter College analyzing student success and retention. 

First Person

With roots in Cuba and Spain, Newark student came to America to ‘shine bright’

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Layla Gonzalez

This is my story of how we came to America and why.

I am from Mallorca, Spain. I am also from Cuba, because of my dad. My dad is from Cuba and my grandmother, grandfather, uncle, aunt, and so on. That is what makes our family special — we are different.

We came to America when my sister and I were little girls. My sister was three and I was one.

The first reason why we came here to America was for a better life. My parents wanted to raise us in a better place. We also came for better jobs and better pay so we can keep this family together.

We also came here to have more opportunities — they do call this country the “Land Of Opportunities.” We came to make our dreams come true.

In addition, my family and I came to America for adventure. We came to discover new things, to be ourselves, and to be free.

Moreover, we also came here to learn new things like English. When we came here we didn’t know any English at all. It was really hard to learn a language that we didn’t know, but we learned.

Thank God that my sister and I learned quickly so we can go to school. I had a lot of fun learning and throughout the years we do learn something new each day. My sister and I got smarter and smarter and we made our family proud.

When my sister Amira and I first walked into Hawkins Street School I had the feeling that we were going to be well taught.

We have always been taught by the best even when we don’t realize. Like in the times when we think we are in trouble because our parents are mad. Well we are not in trouble, they are just trying to teach us something so that we don’t make the same mistake.

And that is why we are here to learn something new each day.

Sometimes I feel like I belong here and that I will be alright. Because this is the land where you can feel free to trust your first instinct and to be who you want to be and smile bright and look up and say, “Thank you.”

As you can see, this is why we came to America and why we can shine bright.

Layla Gonzalez is a fourth-grader at Hawkins Street School. This essay is adapted from “The Hispanic American Dreams of Hawkins Street School,” a self-published book by the school’s students and staff that was compiled by teacher Ana Couto.