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 [email protected]

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

First Person

A Chalkbeat roundtable: The promise and perils of charter networks like Success Academy

When we published an essay about the promise and perils of charter schools by our CEO and editor in chief Elizabeth Green last month, we heard from a lot of readers.

Elizabeth’s piece outlined her conclusions after more than a decade of reporting about charter school networks, and more specifically the Success Academy network in New York City. She wrote that charter school networks offer both great advantages — in their ability to provide rare coherence in what is taught across classrooms — and significant danger. Charter networks, she wrote, have changed public education by “extracting it from democracy as we know it.”

Some of our readers saw their own thinking reflected in her conclusions. Others had a very different take.

What was clear was that Elizabeth had kicked off a conversation that many Chalkbeat readers are ready to have, and that, as always, robust and respectful debate is good for everyone’s thinking.

So we reached out to people who engage with big questions about how schools are structured every single day, in their work or personal lives. Today, we’re sharing what they had to say. But we think this is far from the end of the conversation. If you want to add your voice, let us know.

 
 

 

Charter networks’ needs and goals may not be the community’s

By Tim Ware, former executive director of the Achievement Schools managed by the Tennessee Department of Education and founder of Ware Consulting Group

As the founder and former executive director of a high performing public charter middle school in Memphis, Tennessee, I am a firm believer in the promise of well-run charter schools. I also understand the limits of these schools.

A key aspect of public charter legislation is autonomy. This means that public charters decide how to staff their schools, which curriculum to use, how to allocate resources for student support, and how their daily and summer schedules work. However, this legislated autonomy creates issues that thoughtful policymakers need to address.

For instance, in Memphis, a high-performing public charter network began operating a chronically underperforming middle school as a part of a turnaround intervention effort. Despite significant improvements in learning and school culture, as well as the support of the community, the school grappled with dwindling enrollment and suffocating building maintenance costs. Fewer dollars were available to invest in high quality teaching and learning, social-emotional supports, and extracurricular activities. Ultimately, the charter operator made the difficult decision to cease operating the school.

This example illustrates the limits of public charter schools. The same autonomy that allowed them to create an approach that drove improvement for children also allowed them to decide that they could no longer operate the school. This means that, as long as autonomy exists for public charter schools (and it should), we cannot eliminate traditional districts.

The solution for historically underserved communities will be found by creating strong ecosystems of education. These ecosystems should consist of a healthy mix of traditional schools, optional schools (schools with competitive entry requirements), magnet schools, public charter schools, and private schools. By ensuring that multiple types of schools flourish and are accessible to all, parents will be able to make informed choices and select a school which best meets the needs of their most precious belonging — their child.

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Focusing on charter networks is a mistake. Districts have the same potential

By Josh Thomases, dean of innovation, policy, and research at Bank Street College of Education

Elizabeth Green’s article on Eva Moskowitz misses one important detail – districts have successfully scaled change for students. In this era of attacks on government, it is worth looking closer.

The hundreds of new small high schools opened in New York City between 2000 and 2012 transformed thousands of lives. The research firm MDRC documented that impact, showing a 9.4 percent increased graduation rate and an 8 percent increase in college attendance. Notably, this increase was driven by success with groups that school systems often fail: poorer students, black students, and students with disabilities.

This extraordinary effort happened with district educators and unions, public resources and processes.

I saw this reform inside and out. I helped create a small school in the 1990s and was part of community protests against some of the initial school closures under Chancellor Joel Klein. And, in 2004, I became responsible for the development and support of new schools within the education department.

The new schools work was an example of democracy in action – with all its imperfections. There were legendary protests against the Department of Education and arguments over race, equity and power. And through all of that, the process transformed schools.

Why the success?

  1. The point was to improve teaching and learning. Everything was looked at through this lens.
  2. Educators were the agents of change. The new schools process challenged principals, teachers, community members and parents to reimagine school.
  3. External partners multiplied the power of the changes. These included school development organizations (such as New Visions and CUNY) and local partners ranging from the Brooklyn Cyclones and South Bronx Churches. For the first six years of the reform, the unions were a partner, too.
  4. The district shifted authority towards the principal and school based staff in key areas: hiring, scheduling, budgets, and curriculum.

This is not a story of perfect success; as a district, we made mistakes and they were debated publicly. But the results show that districts can take bold action to change what is happening in schools.

Charters in New York have also demonstrated they can make an important contribution to a district. The task ahead is not to forego government, but to activate its strengths.

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Charter networks are a laboratory for consistent and high-quality instruction

By Seneca Rosenberg, chief academic officer at Valor Collegiate Academies in Nashville, Tennessee

My first year in the classroom, I desperately wanted to be the teacher my fourth graders deserved. A diligent student, I carefully examined California’s standards, the curriculum my district had adopted, new research, and popular trade books. I quickly saw that the approaches they outlined — for how to teach reading, for example — were often in direct conflict.

Veteran teachers advised: have your students fill out the mandated worksheets to avoid scrutiny, then close your door and teach as you want. This would have been good advice if only I had known what to do behind that door to help my students to learn.

Now, as chief academic officer of Valor Collegiate Academies, a small charter school network in Nashville, I reflect daily on how our autonomy and network structure provide crucial, and often unremarked upon, resources for developing coherent systems of teaching and learning.

Like other charter networks, Valor has the flexibility to set our educational vision and then organize our own curriculum, assessments, hiring policies, student and teacher schedules, and culture to realize it. Many of our teachers and school leaders report that our shared systems, while demanding, buffer them from some of the stress that comes with making sense of dissonant policies and practices they more regularly encountered in traditional public schools.

Even more importantly, our infrastructure provides our teachers and leaders with a common framework around which expertise can be developed, shared, and improved.

For example, at Valor, our teaching teams meet frequently to study and plan from our students’ work. We have shared protocols for data analysis and teacher coaching. Each piece has been intentionally developed as part of a system. As a result, teachers have opportunities to learn that far exceed anything I had access to as a teacher — and our students benefit.

I share some of Elizabeth Green’s ambivalence about the potential impact of the rise of charters nationally, though she inflates the extent to which charters “extract” public education from democratic control — at least in states in which authorizing laws are well crafted. I am also skeptical of Moskowitz’s suggestion that perhaps “a public school system consisting principally of charter schools would be an improvement.”

But charter networks’ unique conditions do provide a useful laboratory. Critics who dismiss our high-performing charter networks’ many successes risk missing what we are learning from this critical innovation — coherent instructional systems — and how that might contribute to new possibilities for American education.

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In my city, no schools have it figured out

By Bernita Bradley, parent advocate and blogger at Detroit School Talk (and a Chalkbeat Reader Advisory Board Member)

Take all kids out of charter schools, they say. Close them down and require those students to attend their closest public school, no matter how far, how full the classrooms, and how low-performing. Hop on a bus more than 25 minutes to attend the closest high school near you and sit at the back of the class on the floor. After all, public schools were perfect before charter schools came along, and in order for them to be perfect again, we need everyone on board.

Don’t talk bad about public schools, they say. Don’t draw attention to the fact that we are still figuring out how to improve public schools and need your help. The city of Detroit must unite, be of one mind, and let all charter school leaders know that we are only supporting traditional public schools.

These arguments won’t work. I fight for quality public schools and fought for us to not lose more of them. However, if you strip parents of choice, you prove that you are not committed to providing children with what they need.

To be clear, I am an advocate for both sides. Parents don’t care about this war — we just want good schools that will educate all children equally. Can we have that conversation?

Let’s tell the truth about how, here in Detroit, both sides cherry-pick students and “counsel out” parents. Public schools just suspend students indefinitely until parents leave to find a charter school. Let’s tell the truth about how teaching to the test has affected both charter and public school teachers’ ability to make sure student academic growth is more robust.

Both sides could do better. My children have attended both kinds of schools. I’ve bused my kids 15 miles away. I’ve sent my kids to the top charter and public schools in the city. And no one — including charter schools — has this figured out.

I can’t think of a person would say they are totally happy with their child’s educational experience here in Detroit. We have come to the point where, while we’ve made friends in both charters and public schools, this is a journey full of struggles and broken promises that we would not wish on any parent.

Believe me, if we had our way there would be no need to choose. The school on the corner would be full and alive with students, parents, and teachers who have one common goal, to educate all kids.

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The rise of networks hurts the charter movement

By Steve Zimmerman, Coalition of Community Charter Schools

In the ongoing saga of Eva Moskowitz and her war against the the educational status quo, two key issues are overlooked. The first is that the rise of Success Academy has come at significant cost to the charter school movement and the democratic values that were at its genesis.

The rigidly top-down managerial approach of the Success network is the antithesis of the original idea of chartering: to free schools from district-imposed conformity so they have autonomy to innovate. There is no autonomy or innovation in a franchise. Franchisees follow the script.

The second issue is that Success Academy schools, for all intents and purposes, turn teachers into technicians. They are trained in a rigid model of classroom management with a relentless focus on student outcomes. As Elizabeth Green and others point out, the effectiveness of this system, at least in terms of test scores, is well documented and ostensibly justifies the orthodoxy of “no excuses” education reform.

Relentlessness, however, comes at a cost. Just as legendary as its record-high test scores is Success Academy’s teacher attrition. Success Academy appears to welcome an increasing number of bright young people to learn and execute the scripts, and then watch as they move on to their real careers after they burn out in three years. The consequences of this trend are chilling to imagine.

If we believe the purpose of public education to be the development of exceptional test takers, then Eva Moskowitz has clearly pointed the way to the promised land. If, however, we believe the purpose is the betterment of society and the development of the whole child, there are better models to emulate.

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Coherence is important, but charter networks aren’t necessary to achieve it

Andy Snyder, social studies teacher at Harvest Collegiate High School in New York City

Who should decide what students learn in school? Families or individual teachers? District and charter school leaders, elected officials, or panels of professors?

Elizabeth Green’s recent essay focuses our attention on this huge question. She points out that many other countries provide “a clear sense of what students need to learn, the basic materials necessary to help them learn it (such as a curriculum).” And she argues that some charter school networks, enabled by their anti-democratic powers, are developing coherent and meaningful ideas of what to prioritize and how to teach it well.

When I began student teaching, I was shown stacks of textbooks and boxes of transparencies, quizzes, tests, homework — corporate-branded, filled with facts, empty of meaning. I switched to another mentor and recreated the trial of John Brown. Later I left one innovative public school where administrators were attempting to bend my courses into more traditional shapes for another where the interview includes, “Describe a dream course that you would love to teach” and where we teach those courses every day.

But I’ve seen in Germany the effects of a thoughtful curriculum — classes connect between disciplines and spiral powerfully between grades, and teachers adapt rather than invent.  Improvised individual efforts often produce a worse result than a strong system. That’s why I commute in New York by subway, not bicycle.

The systemic approach can break down too. Today we curse the defunding of our transit agency, and we saw what happened to the Common Core. How can charter schools develop truly excellent curriculum when their priority seems to be preparing students to win against bad bubble tests?

Students, no matter what kind of school they attend, deserve lessons crafted by well-trained practitioners who draw from the best ideas of the profession.

In the best future I can imagine, each school or district adapts curriculum from one of several coherent curriculum packages developed over years with millions of dollars and genius and honest sweat. Teachers trained in that tradition lead students in cultivating the deep questions and necessary knowledge, and students graduate with a sense of how it all adds up and what they can bring with them into the world.

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First Person

I’m a teacher in Memphis, and I know ‘grading floors’ aren’t a cheat — they’re a key motivator

PHOTO: Creative Commons / Shelly

Growing up, my father used to tell me not to come to him with a problem unless I had a solution.

That meant I learned quickly what kinds of solutions wouldn’t go over well — like ones involving my father and his money. His policy also meant that I had to weigh pros and cons, thinking about what I was able to do, what I wasn’t, and whom I needed help from in order to make things happen.

I sometimes wish decision-makers in Memphis had a father like mine. Because more often than not, it seems we are talking about the problems void of a solution or even possible solutions to vet.

Right now, the issue in Memphis and Shelby County Schools is the “grading floor,” or the policy of setting a lowest possible grade a teacher can assign a student. They have been temporarily banned after a controversy over high-school grade changing.

Grading floors aren’t new to teachers in Memphis, or to me, a fifth-grade teacher. I have taught and still teach students who are at least two grade levels behind. This was true when I taught fourth grade and when I taught sixth grade. Honestly, as the grade level increased, so did the gaps I saw.

More often than not, these students have been failed by a school, teacher, leader or system that did not adequately prepare them for the next grade. Meanwhile, in my classroom, I have a responsibility to teach grade-level material — adjusting it for individual students — and to grade their work accordingly.

That’s where “grading floors” come in. Without a grading floor, all of my current students would have grades below a 65 percent.

Can you imagine seeing the face of a fifth-grade boy who tried his hardest on your test, who answered all the questions you gave orally, who made connections to the text through auditory comprehension, only to receive a 0 on his paper?

I don’t have to imagine – I see similar reactions multiple times a day. Whether it’s a 65 percent or a 14 percent, it’s still an F, which signals to them “failure.” The difference between the two was summed up by Superintendent Hopson, who stated, “With a zero, it’s impossible to pass a course. It creates kids who don’t have hope, disciplinary issues; that creates a really bad scenario.”

I know that as years go by and a student’s proficiency gap increases, confidence decreases, too. With a lowered confidence comes a lower level of self-efficacy — the belief that they can do what they need to do to succeed. This, to me, is the argument for the grading floor.

In completing research for my master’s degree, I studied the correlation between reading comprehension scores and the use of a motivational curriculum. There was, as might have guessed, an increase in reading scores for students who received this additional curriculum.

So every day, I speak life into my students, who see Fs far too often in their daily lives. It is not my job as their teacher to eradicate their confidence, stifle their effort, and diminish their confidence by giving them “true” Fs.

“This is not an indication of your hard work, son. Yet, the reality is, we have to work harder,” I tell students. “We have to grind in order to make up what we’ve missed and I’m the best coach you have this year.”

In education, there are no absolutes, so I don’t propose implementing grading floors across the board. But I do understand their potential — not to make students appear more skilled than they are, or to make schools appear to be better than they are, but to keep students motivated enough to stay on track, even when it’s difficult.

If it is implemented, a grade floor must be coupled with data and other reports that provide parents, teachers, and other stakeholders with information that accurately highlights where a student is, both within the district and nationally. Parents shouldn’t see their child’s progress through rose-colored glasses, or be slapped by reality when options for their child are limited during and after high school.

But without hope, effort and attainment are impossible. If we can’t give hope to our kids, what are we here for?

I don’t have all the answers, but in the spirit of my father, don’t come with a problem unless you have a solution.

Marlena Little is a fifth-grade teacher in Memphis. A version of this piece first appeared on Memphis K-12, a blog for parents and students.