First Person

Wellness policies not working in rural Colo. schools

School district wellness policies have resulted in few substantive changes in the nutritional quality of meals served in rural lunchrooms, researchers have found.

Local Wellness Policies – required of all school districts participating in the National School Lunch Program as a way to boost opportunities for physical activity and healthy eating – appear to have had very little impact on either, a recent study of Colorado schools shows.

The reason – the policies are often vaguely worded, use terms such as “are encouraged to” rather than “required” and, once written, tend to be stuffed in notebooks never to be seen again. School officials focus on those mandates for which they are held accountable – raising test scores – rather than on those for which results are neither measured nor rewarded.

And many view their choices as “either/or” instead of “both/and,” failing to see how concentrating on improving a school’s physical and nutritional environment will positively impact academic performance, researchers say.

“I was surprised,” said Elaine Belansky, an assistant professor at the Colorado School of Public Health and associate director of the Rocky Mountain Prevention Research Center, who was the principal investigator for the study.

And not just surprised at the lack of results.

“I was surprised by how much pressure schools and superintendents are facing,” she said. “How the expectations keep piling on them with very few getting removed from their plate, and I’m surprised that the federal government makes unfunded mandates and puts schools in a position where they may not look good because they don’t have the resources attached to the mandate.”

Low-income rural schools were surveyed

The researchers surveyed principals and food service managers in 45 low-income rural Colorado elementary schools before and after the Local Wellness Policies were implemented in 2006. They found that very little had changed between 2005 and 2007.

While P.E. class time went up an extra 14 minutes per week, in accordance with wellness-policy language, recess time actually decreased by 19 minutes, for a net loss of 5 minutes of physical activity.

As one rural superintendent told researchers, “What we continue to hear is ‘No Child Left Behind.’ I haven’t heard ‘Don’t leave fat kids behind.’ It’s about keeping kids academically fit. That’s foremost on our minds.”

And some recommended nutritional changes – banning sales of sodas or junk food from vending machines, increasing the number of daily fresh vegetable options in the lunchroom, offering a salad bar – simply didn’t happen, despite wellness policy goals.

The study found that some things did improve. More schools prohibited offering sugary or fatty treats during classroom parties and they increased the average number of daily fresh fruit offerings at lunch. More schools began serving skinless poultry at lunch. But researchers concluded that these positive changes had nothing to do with the Local Wellness Policies.

“The reason they made those improvements was because of site visits from the Colorado Department of Education,” Belansky said. “The food service managers talked quite positively about those site visits, and they felt they had gotten great ideas from the department’s nutrition staff.”

The most recent study findings were reported in the November issues of the Journal of the American Dietetic Association. Earlier findings were reported last year in the Journal of Public Health Policy.

Officials go for “low-hanging fruit,” not meaningful change

Belansky lauded the schools for the improvements they did make, but bemoaned the fact that more substantive changes didn’t result.

“Having policies in place about the food that can be served in classroom parties is a good change, but it’s not the kind of change that gives you a big bang for the buck when addressing childhood obesity,” she said. “It doesn’t affect a child’s daily food consumption.”

Belansky concluded that rural schools need assistance from universities, from the state department of education and from other organizations to determine the best evidence-based practices and to focus on those changes that will yield the most results.

“We need to help schools who are so overwhelmed, who have so few resources, and really guide them in a process where they’re taking on not just the low-hanging fruit,” she said, “but doing things that will really address the childhood obesity epidemic.”

Weakly worded sample policy gets watered down

Unfortunately, she said, most rural school districts – when squeezed by federal demands that they devise a Local Wellness Policy – simply used a template supplied to them by the Colorado Association of School Boards. That template was already weakly worded.

“Then the districts took that template and made the wording even weaker,” she said. “So I wonder if we couldn’t work with CASB to start with a stronger template next time, knowing that schools will tone it down.”

Occasionally, however, the wellness policies became “living” documents rather than unheeded and unread policies. That happened only when a “champion” emerged to constantly remind school staff about the policy and ensure that it was followed.

CASB spokesman Brad Stauffer said the wellness policy template the organization supplied to school districts was intentionally weak, but that CASB expected local districts to have their own discussions about what policy language best meets their own needs and circumstances.

“When we use words like ‘encourage,’ it is intentional and appropriate,” he said. “School districts care about good nutrition for students and are working toward offering better choices. However, many of the nutritional strategies, such as serving more fresh fruits and vegetables, are costly and additional funding is not presently available.”

Geoff Gerk, superintendent of Fremont County school district RE3 – which serves 225 students in Cotopaxi – acknowledged using the CASB LWP template, tweaking it only slightly to reflect the fact that the district is on a four-day week. And in Cotopaxi, they don’t worry about kids loading up on sweets at a nearby convenience store. There aren’t any.

“I guess we’re paying more attention to (the policy) as time progresses,” said Gerk. “But it hasn’t changed a whole lot of what we were doing prior to having it.”

Gerk said nutrition in Cotopaxi schools is much better than it was five years ago, but that he nevertheless feels frustrated by trying to fulfill extra requirements without extra resources.

“I think every agency, every person involved in education has wonderful plans, wonderful ideas, and always the best interests of the students at heart. But when you get multiple agencies, legislators, more and more federal regulations all tied to the Title (federal grant) programs, it does seem like there’s a constant barrage of things we have to do. And when we get down to it, we have to ask ‘How does this affect the kids in the classroom?’”

Making clear the link between wellness, academic performance

Belansky said the questions Gerk raises are typical of those she heard voiced by rural educators across the state.

“One of the things I’m struck by is how many principals – and superintendents and board members too – don’t know about the very good studies that show the positive relationship between physical activity and academic achievement,” she said.

“I think there’s a real opportunity for reform leaders in Colorado to help them make that link. They say they took away recess because they were worried about how time away from classroom instruction would impact CSAP scores. But studies show that when you increase physical activity, it has no negative impact on tests such as CSAP.”

Belansky said that despite the disappointing findings, she doesn’t believe the creation of Local Wellness Policies was wasted effort.

“It started a conversation at high levels of school administration,” she said. “It gave voice to those champions in the school district who wanted to address nutrition and physical activity. It gave them a reason why school officials had to have a meeting with them about this. So it was a good first step.”

But she acknowledges that meaningful changes cost money. P.E. classes can’t be extended without money to pay for staff, and the quality of P.E. classes won’t improve without money to provide continuing education to the teachers. And schools can’t provide better meals with money to buy fresh fruit and vegetables.

Lessons for urban schools as well

This study focused on rural low-income districts, but Belansky believes many of its findings are applicable across the state. She said interviews with urban school principals also found widespread unfamiliarity with district wellness policy, and a lack of authority to control what happens in the lunchroom.

Quantity of P.E. is substantially lower in Denver than in rural districts, Belansky found, but the quality is much higher. “That’s because they have fabulous professional development in Denver, which they just don’t get in rural schools,” she said.

Belansky and her colleagues will continue to collect information about what’s going on in regards to nutrition and physical activity in Colorado schools, thanks to a grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. Their first goal was to understand the impact of the Local Wellness Policies. Now they’ll move on to the next: identifying the key school environments and policies that really do impact healthy eating and physical activity. She expects that work to consume most of 2011, and hopes to submit findings for publication toward the end of next year.

For more information

Read the study findings related to physical activity in this report, “Early Impact of the Federally Mandated Local Wellness Policy on Physical Activity in Rural, Low-Income Elementary Schools in Colorado.”

Read an abstract of nutrition-related findings of the study, “Early Effects of the Federally Mandated Local Wellness Policy on School Nutrition Environments Appear Modest in Colorado’s Rural, Low-Income Elementary Schools.” Downloading the full article may require a subscription or a one-time fee.

First Person

I’ve been mistaken for the other black male leader at my charter network. Let’s talk about it.

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

I was recently invited to a reunion for folks who had worked at the New York City Department of Education under Mayor Michael Bloomberg. It was a privilege for me to have been part of that work, and it was a privilege for me to be in that room reflecting on our legacy.

The counterweight is that only four people in the room were black males. Two were waiters, and I was one of the remaining two. There were definitely more than two black men who were part of the work that took place in New York City during that era, but it was still striking how few were present.

The event pushed me to reflect again on the jarring impact of the power dynamics that determine who gets to make decisions in so-called education reform. The privileged end up being relatively few, and even fewer look like the kids we serve.

I’m now the chief operating officer at YES Prep, a charter school network in Houston. When I arrived at YES four years ago, I had been warned that it was a good old boys club. Specifically, that it was a good old white boys club. It was something I assessed in taking the role: Would my voice be heard? Would I truly have a seat at the table? Would I have any influence?

As a man born into this world with a black father and white mother, I struggled at an early age with questions about identity and have been asking those questions ever since.

As I became an adult, I came to understand that being from the suburbs, going to good schools, and being a lighter-skinned black person affords me greater access to many settings in America. At the same time, I experience my life as a black man.

Jeremy Beard, head of schools at YES, started the same day I did. It was the first time YES had black men at the leadership table of the organization. The running joke was that people kept mistaking Jeremy and me for each other. We all laughed about it, but it revealed some deeper issues that had pervaded YES for some time.

“Remember when you led that tour in the Rio Grande Valley to see schools?” a board member asked me about three months into my tenure.“That wasn’t me,” I replied. I knew he meant Jeremy, who had worked at IDEA in the Valley. At that time, I had never been to the Valley and didn’t even know where it was on the map.

“Yes, it was,” he insisted.

“I’ve never been to the Valley. It wasn’t me. I think you mean Jeremy.”

“No, it was you, don’t you remember?” he continued, pleading with me to recall something that never happened.

“It wasn’t me.”

He stopped, thought about it, confused, and uttered, “Huh.”

It is difficult for me to assign intent here, and this dynamic is not consistent with all board members. That particular person may have truly been confused about my identity. And sure, two black men may have a similar skin tone, and we may both work at YES. But my life experience suggests something else was at play. It reminds me that while I have the privilege of sitting at the table with our board, they, as board members, have the privilege of not having to know who I am, or that Jeremy and I are different black dudes.

It would be easy to just chalk this all up to racial politics in America and accept it as status quo, but I believe we can change the conversation on privilege and race by having more conversations on privilege and race. We can change the dynamics of the game by continuing to build awareness of diversity, equity, and inclusion. We can also advocate to change who has seats at the table and whose voices will be heard.

I remain hopeful thanks to the changes I have witnessed during my time at YES. The board has been intentional in their efforts to address their own privilege, and is actively working to become more diverse and inclusive.

Personally, I have worked to ensure there are more people of color with seats at the table by mentoring future leaders of color at YES Prep and other black men in this work. Jeremy and I also created Brothers on Books, a book club for black men at YES to find mentorship and fellowship. Through this book club, we can create a safe space to have candid discussions based on literature we read and explore what it means to be black men at YES.

When I think about privilege, I am torn between the privilege that has been afforded to me and the jarring power dynamics that determine who gets to have conversations and make decisions in so-called education reform. White people are afforded more voices and seats at the table, making decisions that primarily impact children of color.

It is not lost on me that it is my own privilege that affords me access to a seat at the table. My hope is that by using my role, my voice and my privilege, I can open up dialogue, hearts, minds, opinions, and perceptions. I hope that readers are similarly encouraged to assess their own privileges and determine how they can create positive change.

Recy Benjamin Dunn is YES Prep’s chief operating officer, overseeing operations, district partnerships, and growth strategy for the charter school network. A version of this piece was first published on YES Prep’s blog.

First Person

I’m a Bronx teacher, and I see up close what we all lose when undocumented students live with uncertainty

The author at her school.

It was our high school’s first graduation ceremony. Students were laughing as they lined up in front of the auditorium, their families cheering them on as they entered. We were there to celebrate their accomplishments and their futures.

Next to each student’s name on the back of those 2013 graduation programs was the college the student planned to attend in the fall. Two names, however, had noticeable blanks next to them.

But I was especially proud of these two students, whom I’ll call Sofia and Isabella. These young women started high school as English learners and were diagnosed with learning disabilities. Despite these obstacles, I have never seen two students work so hard.

By the time they graduated, they had two of the highest grade point averages in their class. It would have made sense for them to be college-bound. But neither would go to college. Because of their undocumented status, they did not qualify for financial aid, and, without aid, they could not afford it.

During this year’s State of the Union, I listened to President Trump’s nativist rhetoric and I thought of my students and the thousands of others in New York City who are undocumented. President Trump falsely portrayed them as gang members and killers. The truth is, they came to this country before they even understood politics and borders. They grew up in the U.S. They worked hard in school. In this case, they graduated with honors. They want to be doctors and teachers. Why won’t we let them?

Instead, as Trump works to repeal President Obama’s broader efforts to enfranchise these young people, their futures are plagued by uncertainty and fear. A Supreme Court move just last week means that young people enrolled in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program remain protected but in limbo.

While Trump and the Congress continue to struggle to find compromise on immigration, we have a unique opportunity here in New York State to help Dreamers. Recently, the Governor Cuomo proposed and the state Assembly passed New York’s DREAM Act, which would allow Sofia, Isabella, and their undocumented peers to access financial aid and pursue higher education on equal footing with their documented peers. Republicans in the New York State Senate, however, have refused to take up this bill, arguing that New York state has to prioritize the needs of American-born middle-class families.

This argument baffles me. In high school, Sofia worked hard to excel in math and science in order to become a radiologist. Isabella was so passionate about becoming a special education teacher that she spent her free periods volunteering with students with severe disabilities at the school co-located in our building.

These young people are Americans. True, they may not have been born here, but they have grown up here and seek to build their futures here. They are integral members of our communities.

By not passing the DREAM Act, it feels like lawmakers have decided that some of the young people that graduate from my school do not deserve the opportunity to achieve their dreams. I applaud the governor’s leadership, in partnership with the New York Assembly, to support Dreamers like Sofia and Isabella and I urge Senate Republicans to reconsider their opposition to the bill.

Today, Sofia and Isabella have been forced to find low-wage jobs, and our community and our state are the poorer for it.

Ilona Nanay is a 10th grade global history teacher and wellness coordinator at Mott Hall V in the Bronx. She is also a member of Educators for Excellence – New York.