The Other 60 Percent

Schools entice students to bike, walk

Bikes are lined up in front of Rose Hill Elementary School in Commerce City on a recent morning.

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.

That 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.

Rose HIll students get fitted for free new bike helmets, as part of a Safe Routes to School training program there.
Rose HIll students get fitted for free new bike helmets, as part of a Safe Routes to School training program there.

This 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.

Jenna Berman, an educator with Bicycle Colorado, coaches a Rose Hill fourth-grader on how to ride safely.
Jenna Berman, an educator with Bicycle Colorado, coaches a Rose Hill fourth-grader on how to ride safely.

“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.

Students ride or walk beneath a "zap," a high tech card reader, to log their biking or walking trip to school each day.

Soon, 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]

Business of education

Memphis leaders say diversifying school business contracts will help in the classroom, too

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Winston Gipson confers with his wife and daughter, who help run Gipson Mechanical Contractors, a family-owned business in Memphis for 35 years.

Winston Gipson used to do up to $10 million of work annually for Memphis City Schools. The construction and mechanical contracts were so steady, he recalls, that his minority-owned family business employed up to 200 people at its peak in the early 2000s.

Looking back, Gipson says being able to build schools was key to breaking through in the private sector.

“When we got contracts in the private sector, it’s because we did the projects in the public sector,” said Gipson, who started Gipson Mechanical Contractors with his wife in 1983. “That allowed us to go to the private sector and say ‘Look what we’ve done.’”

But that work has become increasingly scarce over the years for him and many other minorities and women. The program designed to address contract disparities in Memphis City Schools was cut during its 2013 merger with Shelby County Schools.

A recent study found that a third of qualified local companies are owned by white women and people of color, but such businesses were awarded just 15 percent of the contracts for Shelby County Schools in the last five years.

It was even worse for black-owned construction companies, like Gipson’s, which make up more than a third of the local industry but were awarded less than 1 percent of contracts.

The disparity is being spotlighted as the city prepares to mark the 50th anniversary of the death of civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr., who was assassinated in Memphis while trying to fight for the rights of minority workers in 1968.

On Jan. 25, Chalkbeat will co-host a panel discussion on how Shelby County Schools, as one of the city’s largest employers, can be an economic driver for women- and black-owned businesses. Called “Show Me The Money: The Education Edition,” the evening event will be held at Freedom Preparatory Academy’s new Whitehaven campus in conjunction with MLK50 Justice Through Journalism and High Ground News.

Community leaders say school-related business contracts are a matter of equity, but also an education strategy. Since poverty is a crucial factor in why many Memphis students fall behind in school, the lack of job opportunities for their parents must be part of the discussion, they say.

The district already is taking steps to improve its record on minority contracting, starting with setting new goals and resurrecting the city district’s hiring program.

Big district, big opportunity

Shelby County Schools is Tennessee’s largest district. With an annual budget of more than $1 billion, it awards $314 million in business contracts.   

An otherwise dismal 1994 study of local government contract spending highlighted Memphis City Schools’ program to increase participation of historically marginalized businesses as one of the county’s most diverse, though some areas were cited as needing improvement. The same study criticized the former county school system, which lacked such a program, for its dearth of contracts with Minority and Women Business Enterprises (MWBEs).

But when the two districts merged in 2013, the program in Memphis City Schools disappeared.

“We had to cut, cut, cut,” said school board member Teresa Jones. “We were trying to stay alive as a district. We did not focus as we should have.”

Jones, a former school board chairwoman, said it’s time to revisit the things that were working before the merger. “We have to get back,” she said, “to make sure there’s equity, opportunity, access, and an atmosphere that promotes business with Shelby County Schools.”

District and community leaders say the consolidated district has lost its ability to develop relationships with qualified minority-owned businesses.

“There was an infrastructure where African-Americans felt comfortable enough approaching the school system” for work, said Melvin Jones, CEO of Memphis Business Contracting Consortium, a black business advocacy group formed in 2015. “There was trust. During the merger, they dropped the infrastructure.”

Brenda Allen

Without the outreach, “we’re seeing the same vendors,” said Brenda Allen, hired last summer as procurement director for Shelby County Schools after working in Maryland’s Prince George County Public Schools, where she oversaw a diversity contracting program.

“We’re not marketing the district like we should,” she told school board members in November.  

Shelby County Schools is not alone in disproportionately hiring white and male-owned companies for public business. Just 3 percent of all revenue generated in Memphis goes to firms owned by non-white people, even though people of color make up 72 percent of the city’s population, according to a 2016 report by the Mid-South Minority Business Council Continuum.

Not coincidentally, district and community leaders say, Memphis has the highest rate of young adults who aren’t working or in college, and the highest poverty rate among the nation’s major metropolitan areas. About 60 percent of students in Shelby County Schools live in poverty and all but three of the district’s schools qualify for federal funding for schools serving high-poverty neighborhoods.

Jozelle Luster Booker, the CEO of the MMBC Continuum, developed an equity contracting program for the city utility company following the 1994 study that was so critical of the city. The program funneled half a billion dollars to minority-owned businesses — an example of how government policies can promote equitable contracting, and grow businesses too.

“When that happens, you could basically change the socioeconomic conditions of that community, which impacts learning,” Booker said. “They’re ready to learn when they come to school.”

Shelby County Schools plans to hire a consulting firm to help develop a procurement outreach program and set diversity goals for its contractors and subcontractors. The program will launch in July, and Allen plans to hire three people to oversee it.

PHOTO: Brad Vest/The Commercial Appeal
Bricklayers from TopCat Masonry Contractors LLC work on an apartment complex in downtown Memphis in 2014.

The district also is part of a city-led group that provides a common certification process for businesses seeking contracts with city and county governments, the airport, the transit authority, and Memphis Light Gas & Water. The city’s office of business diversity and compliance also has a list of qualified minority businesses, offers free business development courses, and accepts referrals from other government entities to reduce redundancy.

“As you spend public dollars, you always want those dollars to be spent in your neighborhoods because that money comes back into your economy,” Allen said. “When people have jobs, you should see crime go down. You should see more people wanting to do business in the community if you have a good program.”

Leveling the playing field

In order for it to work, there has to be consistent reports, measures and, most of all,  accountability, according to Janice Banks, CEO of Small Planet Works, who helped the district with its disparity study.

Gipson agrees.

A wall of his second-floor Memphis office is lined with photos of some of his most significant projects during his 35 years of business, including a multimillion-dollar mechanical contract with AutoZone when the Memphis-based car part company moved its headquarters downtown in the early 2000s.

The work was made possible, he said, because of public sector jobs like constructing nine schools under Memphis City Schools. But that work evaporated after the merger. “It’s mostly been Caucasian companies that do the work (now),” he said. “It’d be one thing if you didn’t have anyone qualified to do it.”

Shelby County Schools will have to show commitment, he said, if it wants to level the playing field.

“You have the mechanism in place to make a difference,” he said. “Now do you make a difference with that mechanism or do you just walk around, beat your chest, and say we have a disparity study and let things run the way they’ve been running?”

“If you don’t make it happen, it will not happen,” he said.

college plans

As Washington decides their fate, ‘Dreamers’ preparing for college are stuck in limbo

PHOTO: Joe Amon/The Denver Post
Randi Smith, a psychology teacher at Metro State University, marched to support Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals during a citywide walkout in downtown Denver, CO.

While many high schoolers spend spring of their senior year coasting through classes and waiting to hear back from colleges, undocumented students who hope to attend college spend their time calling lawyers, consulting school counselors, and scouring the internet in search of ways to pay for school without the help of federal financial aid or student loans — assuming they even get in.

That process, anxiety-provoking even in a normal year, has become incalculably more chaotic this admissions season — even traumatic — as these young undocumented immigrants watch President Trump and lawmakers wrangle over Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, the program that has until now allowed them to remain in the country without having to fear deportation.

As the policy battle nears a climax, these students aren’t just breathlessly waiting to learn whether they’ll be accepted into college — they’re waiting to see whether they have a future in this country.

“It’s different for me. It’s definitely more stressful and there are times when you want to give up,” said an undocumented student at KIPP NYC College Prep High School, who is graduating this year and applying to colleges. She requested anonymity because of her legal status. “But then I remind myself that regardless of what’s going on, I’m still going to do what I’ve set myself to do.”

High school counselors are also feeling the strain. They already faced the difficult task of helping undocumented students compete for private scholarships, and finding schools that will support those students once they’re on campus. Now those counselors also must monitor each twist and turn of the immigration debate in Washington, while, somehow, trying to keep their undocumented students focused on college.

One of those counselors is John Kearney, who works at Guadalupe Centers Alta Vista High School, a charter school in Kansas City, Missouri. Dozens of his soon-to-graduate students are beneficiaries of DACA, a program created under former President Obama that allows undocumented immigrants who were brought to the country as children to avoid deportation and work here legally. Lately, they have been asking him why they should even consider college when their fate in the U.S. is so uncertain.

“The big question is, ‘Why? Why go to college, and then I can’t even work, then why?’” said Kearney, who also helped start a nonprofit that provides scholarships to undocumented students. “It’s a really tough question.”

As of Friday, President Trump and lawmakers were still locked in heated negotiations over DACA, which Trump said this fall that he would eliminate unless Congress enshrined it in law. Without an agreement, it is set to expire March 5, just as graduating seniors firm up their college plans. If that happens, young immigrants, often called Dreamers, could lose the few crucial protections they have. For many, their DACA status has already lapsed.

Even with DACA’s protections, Dreamers face massive hurdles to enroll in college: They don’t qualify for federal aid or loans, and, in some states, are barred from receiving financial aid or even attending public universities. Out of the estimated 65,000 undocumented students who graduate from high school every year, only 5-10 percent enroll in college.

Following Trump’s announcement in September, counselors have also had to race against the clock counting down to DACA’s expiration: That meant juggling college application deadlines with the October cutoff for students to apply for renewed DACA status.

The KIPP charter school network received a donation this year to help students pay for the renewal fee, which has been a godsend for many students — including the young woman who is graduating from KIPP NYC College Prep High School.

As soon as she learned the school would pay the fee for her, she immediately called her father, who is also undocumented and repairs beauty-salon equipment for a living.

“My dad was definitely trying to round up the money before the deadline, so it was a blessing that the school was able to find a donor,” she said. “I told him not to worry about it and it was a relief — like a weight off his shoulders.”

If the girl was trying to relieve her father’s stress, her college counselor, Rob Santos, was trying to do the same for her. Even as she balanced college-application essays, transcripts, and the rest, she was also coming to realize how quickly her life would change if DACA is not extended.

“There was definitely extra emotional support that I’ve had to provide this year,” Santos said. “I definitely had my DACA student in my office, and tears were happening.”

Santos keeps a running list of the colleges that accept students who don’t have permanent legal status and the few scholarships available to them. Many of those scholarships require undocumented students to have DACA status. If the program ends, it’s unclear whether students will still be eligible.

Still, Santos said his dreamer student rarely talks about the political furor surrounding her future in the U.S. as she awaits her college-acceptance letter. Instead, she’s more likely to discuss her hope of one day studying business and fashion.

“Our DACA students are resilient. They’re optimistic,” Santos said. “But they’re also realistic for what could actually happen.”