First Person

Wellness focus pays off for Loveland school

When declining enrollment five years ago forced the staff at Loveland’s B.F. Kitchen Elementary School to think about ways they might attract more students, none of the usual magnet strategies seemed to fit.

Kids at B.F. Kitchen Elementary in Loveland get 30 minutes of physical education five days a week.
Students at B.F. Kitchen Elementary School in Loveland get 30 minutes of physical education five days a week.

International Baccalaureate, also known as IB? Core knowledge? Science and technology?

“We thought, ‘Does every single child like science?’” said principal Kandi Smith. “Does every child get excited about technology?  No.”

Then the P.E. teacher mentioned that she’d heard about a school somewhere in the Midwest that was a wellness-focused school.

That notion intrigued the staff. They began brainstorming about what they might do to promote fitness and wellness at Kitchen, and exploring how such an emphasis might impact their students.

“Once we really saw how this would touch every child in the school, not just those good at math or science, we haven’t looked back,” Smith said.

Entire school day emphasizes fitness, nutrition

Over the next four years, the school went all out to emphasize fitness, wellness and good nutrition in every class.

Healthier US School Challenge logoIt got rid of candy and sodas, and added lots of fresh fruit and vegetables to the lunchline. It made P.E. a daily requirement. It moved recess to before lunch. It started offering exercise classes such as Zumba and yoga after school.

And it partnered with community organizations to expand fitness opportunities available to its students – 65 percent of whom qualify for free or reduced-price lunches.

Now, all fourth-graders taking swimming lessons. Fifth-graders teach the younger students about healthy choices at a yearly health fair. Poudre Valley Health System brought the students into its Healthy Kids Club and supplies them with gym bags stuffed with workout equipment.

Also, the school is working with Colorado State University to create a guided reading group for kids, so students can work on reading skills while reading books on nutrition.

This month, Kitchen won the top award in the national Healthier US School Challenge, a U.S. Department of Agriculture initiative that’s part of First Lady Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move! Campaign.”

“They’re ahead of the game,” said Jane Branch, school nutrition director for the Colorado Department of Education. “This is certainly the direction that a lot of schools are heading, but Kitchen was in a position to reach the top. They’ve certainly proven what’s possible. Kitchen has set the bar very high.”

And you should see the kids’ fitness scores.

“They’ve skyrocketed,” said P.E. teacher Kristin Quere, the same teacher who suggested the notion of a wellness school five years ago. “When you compare fitness scores across the district, there has been substantial improvement.”

Teachers, parents see changes in youngsters

Third-grade teacher Christina Steele said she doesn’t mind all the emphasis put on physical activity, even if it sometimes comes at the expense of time for core academic subjects.

“There’s always something that has to give,” said Steele. “How I look at it, it’s proven that kids learn better with movement. You can try to cram everything in, or you can give them an activity break, which takes away from instruction time, but they’ll get more out of the remaining instruction. So I see it as a win/win.”

Steele tries to incorporate movement into her classroom lessons whenever she can, and her students know they are free to get up and move whenever they feel the need, as long as they’re not disruptive.

“Anytime I can get them up and moving, I notice a change in how they interact,” she said. “They’re more motivated, more energized. They want to participate more.”

Karen Lehigh has two daughters at Kitchen, a first-grader and a fourth-grader. She’s been taken aback by some of the conversations she’s had with her daughters around food lately.

“Last year, my older daughter, Lauren, wanted me to buy jicama at the grocery store. I wouldn’t even have known how to serve it,” she admitted. “But she came home and said ‘Just cut it up and dip it in ranch dressing.’ It was amazing. At one point in her life, she wouldn’t eat broccoli or cauliflower. Now she eats it at school and says she likes it.”

Lehigh is hoping the lessons her girls learn now will stay with them as they move into their teenage years.

“I want to have them able to look at food and think of their bodies as needing fuel to be able to exercise,” she said. “I want them not to look at their bodies and think ‘Oh, I’m fat,’ but to look at themselves and think ‘I’m healthy.’ I hope they’ll have this mentality when they’re 16, so they’ll know that if you eat healthy and your body is healthy, and you take care of it, it will look how it’s supposed to.”

Fifth-grader Tyler Ryan remembers back to the old days – back when he was a first-grader – and he knows things have changed a lot.

“Before, we didn’t do a lot of active stuff,” he said. “But I’ve been doing yoga after school now, and I like it.”

Juggling schedules posed greatest challenge

Getting to this point hasn’t been easy, Smith said. Moving recess to the morning, for instance, took enormous effort.

“It takes a lot of coordination to get all those kids lined up, get their hands washed, get them outside,” she said. “We could have abandoned the whole thing that first year because it was such a paradigm shift for us. But you just make it work.”

Squeezing in 30 minutes of P.E. every day for every student has also required some creative scheduling – especially on Wednesdays, when students are let out an hour early so the staff can have professional development time.

The answer was to double up P.E. classes on Wednesdays: two classes at a time instead of one, with a classroom teacher serving as Quere’s assistant.

“The team teaching has been wonderful,” Quere said. “Pairing a classroom teacher with a P.E. teacher is extremely powerful. We teach the kids multiplication tables while they’re moving. There are endless math and activities we can do.”

Today, Kitchen no longer has to worry about attracting students. Its enrollment has shot up from under 200 five years ago to 261, which is 11 students above capacity.

Smith doesn’t really think it’s the emphasis on wellness that has brought the growth. IB and arts programs are the kinds of things parents will drive their children across town to have access to, she said. Not wellness programs.

No, she’s pretty sure it’s the bad economy that has packed her school.

“We’re in a lower-income neighborhood, and people are moving into the area because this is where they can afford to live now,” she said. “But what I do find is that once they come into Kitchen, they don’t want to leave.”

Fitness Results 2009-2010

See just how B.F. Kitchen students’ fitness scores compare with other elementary schools in the Thompson district.

First Person

What I learned about the limits of school choice in New York City from a mother whose child uses a wheelchair

PHOTO: Patrick Wall

As a researcher interested in the ways online platforms impact learning and educational decision-making, I’ve been trying to understand how New York City parents get the information to make a crucial decision: where to send their children to school.

So for the past six months, I’ve been asking local parents about the data they used to choose among the system’s 1700 or so schools.

I’ve heard all sorts of stories about the factors parents weigh when picking schools. Beyond the usual considerations like test scores and art programs, they also consider the logistics of commuting from the Bronx to the East Village with two children in tow, whether the school can accommodate parents and children who are still learning English, and how much money the parent-teacher association raises to supplement the school’s budget.

But for some families, the choice process begins and ends with the question: Is the building fully accessible?

The federal Americans with Disabilities Act requires public buildings constructed after 1992 to be fully accessible to people in wheelchairs. However, most New York City public school buildings were constructed prior to that law, and high construction costs have limited the number of new, fully accessible buildings.

As a result, a shocking 83 percent of New York City schools have been found non-compliant with the ADA, according to a two-year federal Department of Justice investigation whose findings the city Department of Education largely disputes. Recently, the city’s Office of Space Management has begun surveying buildings for full accessibility, but more work remains to be done.

One parent’s struggle to find a school suitable for her son, who has a physical disability but no cognitive issues, illustrates what a major role accessibility plays in some families’ decision-making.

Melanie Rivera is the mother of two and a native New Yorker living in Ditmas Park in Brooklyn’s District 22 who shared her story with me — and gave me permission to share it with others. Here is what she told me, in her own words:

My son Gabriel is seven years old. He was born with a condition called arthrogryposis, which affects the development of his joints. His hips, knees, and feet are affected and he has joint contractures, so his legs don’t bend and straighten the way most people’s do. In order to get around, he uses a combination of crutches and a wheelchair.

Before I had my differently-abled son, I was working in a preschool for children with special needs. The kids I worked with had cognitive developmental disabilities.

Despite my professional experience, I was overwhelmed when it was my turn to help my child with different abilities navigate the public school system. I can only imagine the students falling by the wayside because their parents don’t have that background.

When I was completing my son’s kindergarten application, I couldn’t even consider the academics of the school. My main priority was to tour the schools and assess their level of accessibility.

There are only a couple of ADA-accessible schools in my district, and there was no way of indicating on my son’s kindergarten application that he needed one. When we got the admissions results, he was assigned to his zoned school – which is not accessible.

I entered lengthy and extensive mediation to get him into an ADA-accessible school. At that point, I knew I would just have to take what I could get. For families whose children have special needs, “school choice” can ring hollow.

The process of finding any accessible school was a challenge. The DOE website allows families to search for ADA-accessible schools. But the site describes most schools as “partially accessible,” leaving it up to parents to call each school and say, “What do you mean by this?”

When I called the schools and asked, “Are you a barrier-free school?” the staff in the office didn’t know what the term meant. They might reply, “Oh yeah, we have a ramp.” I’d have to press further: “But can you get to the office? Can you get to every floor in the building?” The response was often, “Oh, I don’t know.”

Even the office staff didn’t know. But for my son’s sake, I needed to know.

Gabriel deserves the full range of academic and social experiences. So every day I make sure he’s learning in the least-restrictive environment — from the classroom, to phys ed, to field trips.

I believe the Department of Education also wants to make schools accessible and to place students with different abilities in settings where they’ll flourish, but the current system is not equipped to follow through on those good intentions. While I see gradual changes, I still know that if I don’t find the best placement for my son the system definitely won’t.

At the school level, administrators should know the details of their own school’s accessibility. Teachers should learn to include children with different abilities in their classrooms. Such a commitment means recognizing the value of inclusivity — not viewing accessibility as something ADA says you must do.

Before I had Gabriel, I never thought about accessibility. I never looked at street cutouts or thought about how to enter a store with steps. We’re probably all guilty of perpetuating exclusion at one point or another.

Recognizing that will allow us to change the status quo. It will allow every individual with a physical disability to fully participate in the public school system.

Claire Fontaine is a researcher at Data & Society, a research institute in New York City focused on social, cultural, and ethical issues arising from technological development. Kinjal Dave is a research assistant at Data & Society. You can read more about their project, which seeks to better understand the ways in which diverse New York City parents draw on school performance data, online dashboards, and school review websites when researching schools for their children.

First Person

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Grace Tatter covers a press conference at the Tennessee State Capitol in 2015.

For three years, I covered the Statehouse for Chalkbeat Tennessee, reporting on how policies from Nashville trickled down into more than 1,800 public schools across the state.

Now I’m starting back to school myself, pursuing graduate studies aimed at helping me to become a better education journalist. I’m taking with me six things I learned on the job about public education in Tennessee.

1. Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.

I heard from hundreds of parents, educators, and students who were passionate about what’s happening — good and bad — inside of schools. I covered crowded school board meetings and regularly scrambled for an open seat at legislative hearings where parents had filled the room after driving since dawn to beat the opening gavel. Not incidentally, those parents usually came from communities with the “worst” schools and the lowest test scores. While many disagreements exist about the best way to run schools, there is no shortage of people, particularly parents and educators, who care.

2. Tennessee has one of the most fascinating education stories in America.

I’ve had a front-row seat to massive changes in K-12 education under reforms ushered in by Race to the Top — an overhaul being tracked closely well beyond the state’s borders. But the national interest and import doesn’t end with changes stemming from the $500 million federal award. Tennessee is home to some of the nation’s premier education researchers, making its classrooms laboratories for new ideas about pre-K, school turnaround, and literacy instruction, just to name a few. And at the legislature, more lobbyists are devoted to education than to most any other cause. A lot of eyes are on Tennessee schools.

3. The education community is not as divided as it looks.

During the course of just a few years, I watched state lawmakers change their positions on accountability and school vouchers. I witnessed “anti-charter” activists praise charter leaders for their work. I chronicled task force meetings where state leaders who were committed to standardized testing found middle ground with classroom educators concerned that it’s gone too far. In short, a lot of people listened to each other and changed their minds. Watching such consensus-building reminded me that, while there are no simple debates about education, there is a widespread commitment to making it better.

4. Money matters.

Even when stories don’t seem to be about money, they usually are. How much money is being spent on testing, teacher salaries, school discipline reform? How much should be available for wraparound services? Why do some schools have more money than others? Is there enough to go around? Tennessee leaders have steadily upped public education spending, but the state still invests less than most other states, and the disparities among districts are gaping. That’s why more than a handful of school districts are battling with the state in court. Conversations about money are inextricable from conversations about improving schools.

5. Race is a significant education issue, but few leaders are willing to have that conversation.

More than 60 years after Brown v. Board of Education, Tennessee’s schools are largely racially segregated. Yet most policymakers tread lightly, if ever, into conversations about achieving real racial integration. And in many cases — such as a 2011 law enabling mostly white suburban Shelby County towns to secede from the mostly black Memphis district — they’ve actually gone backwards. Then there’s the achievement data. The annual release of test scores unleashes a flurry of conversation around the racial achievement gap. But the other 11 months of the year, I heard little about whether state and local policies are closing those gaps — or contributing to them — or the historical reasons why the gaps exist in the first place. To be sure, state leadership is trying to address some of Tennessee’s shortcomings. For example, the State Department of Education has launched modestly funded initiatives to recruit more teachers of color. But often, race and racism are the elephants in the room.

6. Still, there’s lots to celebrate.

If there were unlimited hours in the day, I could have written thousands of stories about what’s going right in public education. Every day, I received story ideas about collaborations with NASA in Oak Ridge, high school trips to Europe from Memphis, gourmet school lunches in Tullahoma, and learning partnerships with the Nashville Zoo. Even in schools with the steepest challenges, they were stories that inspire happiness and hope. They certainly inspired me.

Grace Tatter graduated from public schools in Winston-Salem, N.C., and received her bachelor’s degree in history from the University of North Carolina. She’s now pursuing a master’s degree in specialized studies at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.