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

I’m a Florida teacher in the era of school shootings. This is the terrifying reality of my classroom during a lockdown drill.

Outside of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

“Remember,” I tell the children, looking them in the eyes in the darkened classroom. “Remember to keep the scissors open. They’ll stab better that way.”

My students, the target demographic for many a Disney Channel sitcom, laugh nervously at me as they try to go back to their conversations. I stare at the talkative tweens huddling in a corner and sigh.

“Seriously, class,” I say in the tone that teachers use to make goosebumps rise. As they turn back to me with nervous laughter, I hold up that much-maligned classroom tool, the metal scissor that’s completely ineffective at cutting paper. “If a gunman breaks in, I’ll be in the opposite corner with the utility knife.” Said tool is in my hand, and more often used to cut cardboard for projects. All the blood it’s hitherto tasted has been accidental. “If I distract him and you can’t get out, we have to rush him.” I don’t mention that my classroom is basically an inescapable choke point. It is the barrel. We are the fish.

They lapse into silence, sitting between the wires under the corner computer tables. I return to my corner, sidestepping a pile of marbles I’ve poured out as a first line of defense, staring at the classroom door. It’s been two hours of this interminable lockdown. This can’t be a drill, but no information will be forthcoming until it’s all over.

I wonder if I really believe these actions would do anything, or am I just perpetrating upon my students and myself the 21st century version of those old “Duck and Cover” posters.

We wait.

The lockdown eventually ends. I file it away in the back of my head like the others. Scissors are handed back with apathy, as if we were just cutting out paper continents for a plate tectonics lab. The tool and marbles go back into the engineering closet. And then, this Wednesday, the unreal urge to arm myself in my classroom comes back. A live feed on the television shows students streaming out of Marjory Stoneman Douglas, a high school just a short drive away. I wonder whether the teachers in its classrooms have passed out scissors.

*

The weapons. It’s not a subject we teachers enjoy bringing up. You’d have an easier time starting a discussion on religion or politics in the teacher’s lounge then asking how we all prepare for the darkness of the lockdown. Do you try to make everyone cower, maybe rely on prayer? Perhaps you always try to convince yourself it’s a drill. Maybe you just assume that, if a gun comes through the door, your ticket is well and truly up. Whatever token preparation you make, if at all, once belonged only to the secret corners of your own soul.

In the aftermath of Parkland, teachers across the nation are starting to speak. The experience of being isolated, uninformed, and responsible for the lives of dozens of children is now universal to our profession, whether because of actual emergencies or planned drills. You don’t usually learn which is which until at least an hour and sometimes not until afterwards. In both cases, the struggle to control the dread and keep wearing the mask of bravery for your students is the same.

And you need a weapon.

I’ve heard of everything from broken chair legs lying around that never seem to be thrown away to metal baseball bats provided by administration. One teacher from another district dealt with it by always keeping a screwdriver on her desk. “For construction projects,” she told students. She taught English.

There’s always talk, half-jokingly (and less than that, lately) from people who want teachers armed. I have a friend in a position that far outranks my own whose resignation letter is ready for the day teachers are allowed to carry guns in the classroom.

I mean, we’ve all known teachers who’ve had their cell phones stolen by students …

*

Years earlier, I am in the same corner. I am more naïve, the most soul-shaking of American massacres still yet to come. The corner is a mess of cardboard boxes gathered for class projects, and one of them is big enough for several students to crawl inside.

One girl is crying, her friend hugging her as she shakes. She’s a sensitive girl; a religious disagreement between her friends having once brought her to tears. “How can they be so cruel to each other?” She asked me after one had said that Catholics didn’t count as Christians.

I frown. It’s really my fault. An offhand comment on how the kids needed to quiet down because I’m not ready to die pushed her too far. Seriously rolling mortality around in her head, she wanted nothing more than to call her family. None of them are allowed to touch their cell phones, however, and the reasoning makes sense to me. The last thing we need is a mob of terrified parents pouring onto campus if someone’s looking to pad their body count.

She has to go to the bathroom, and there are no good options.

I sit with her, trying to comfort her, wondering what the occasion is. Is there a shooter? Maybe a rumor has circulated online. Possibly there’s just a fleeing criminal with a gun at large and headed into our area. Keeping watch with a room full of potential hostages, I wonder if I can risk letting her crawl through the inner building corridors until she reaches a teacher’s bathroom. We wait together.

It seemed different when I was a teen. In those brighter pre-Columbine times, the idea of a school shooting was unreal to me, just the plot of that one Richard Bachman book that never seemed to show up in used book stores. I hadn’t known back then that Bachman (really Stephen King) had it pulled from circulation after it’d been found in a real school shooter’s locker.

Back then my high school had plenty of bomb threats, but they were a joke. We’d all march out around the flagpole, sitting laughably close to the school, and enjoy the break. Inevitably, we’d all learn that the threat had been called in by a student in the grip of “senioritis,” a seemingly incurable disease that removes the victim’s desire to work. We’d sit and chat and smile and never for a second consider that any of us could be in physical danger. The only threat we faced while waiting was boredom.

*

Today, in our new era of mass shootings, the school districts do what they can, trying to plan comprehensively for a situation too insane to grasp. Law enforcement officials lecture the faculty yearly, giving well-rehearsed speeches on procedures while including a litany of horrors meant to teach by example.

At this level, we can only react to the horrors of the world. The power to alter things is given to legislators and representatives who’ve been entrusted with the responsibility to govern wisely while listening to the will of the people. It’s they who can change the facts on the ground, enact new laws, and examine existing regulations. They can work toward a world where a lockdown is no longer needed for a preteen to grapple with gut-churning fear.

We’re still waiting.

K.T. Katzmann is a teacher in Broward County, Florida. This piece first appeared on The Trace, a nonprofit news site focused on gun violence.

First Person

What we’ve learned from leading schools in Denver’s Luminary network — and how we’ve used our financial freedom

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Cole Arts and Science Academy Principal Jennifer Jackson sits with students at a school meeting in November 2015.

First Person is a standing feature where guest contributors write about pressing issues in public education. Want to contribute? More details here

Three years ago, we were among a group of Denver principals who began meeting to tackle an important question: How could we use Colorado’s innovation schools law to take our schools to the next level?

As leaders of innovation schools, we already had the ability to make our own choices around the curriculum, length of school day, and staffing at our campuses. But some of us concluded that by joining forces as an independent network, we could do even more. From those early meetings, the Luminary Learning Network, Denver’s first school innovation zone, was born.

Now, our day-to-day operations are managed by an independent nonprofit, but we’re still ultimately answerable to Denver Public Schools and its board. This arrangement allows us to operate with many of the freedoms of charter schools while remaining within the DPS fold.

Our four-school network is now in its second year trying this new structure. Already, we have learned some valuable lessons.

One is that having more control over our school budget dollars is a powerful way to target our greatest needs. At Cole Arts & Science Academy, we recognized that we could serve our scholars more effectively and thoughtfully if we had more tools for dealing with children experiencing trauma. The budget flexibility provided by the Luminary Learning Network meant we were able to provide staff members with more than 40 hours of specially targeted professional development.

In post-training surveys, 98 percent of our staff members reported the training was effective, and many said it has helped them better manage behavioral issues in the classroom. Since the training, the number of student behavior incidents leading to office referrals has decreased from 545 incidents in 2016 to 54 in 2017.

At Denver Green School, we’ve hired a full-time school psychologist to help meet our students’ social-emotional learning goals. She has proved to be an invaluable resource for our school – a piece we were missing before without even realizing how important it could be. With a full-time person on board, we have been able to employ proactive moves like group and individual counseling, none of which we could do before with only a part-time social worker or school psychologist.

Both of us have also found that having our own executive coaches has helped us grow as school leaders. Having a coach who knows you and your school well allows you to be more open, honest, and vulnerable. This leads to greater professional growth and more effective leadership.

Another lesson: scale matters. As a network, we have developed our own school review process – non-punitive site visits where each school community receives honest, targeted feedback from a team of respected peers. Our teachers participate in a single cross-school teacher council to share common challenges and explore solutions. And because we’re a network of just four schools, both the teacher council and the school reviews are small-scale, educator-driven, and uniquely useful to our schools and our students. (We discuss this more in a recently published case study.)

Finally, the ability to opt out of some district services has freed us from many meetings that used to take us out of our buildings frequently. Having more time to visit classrooms and walk the halls helps us keep our fingers on the pulse of our schools, to support teachers, and to increase student achievement.

We’ve also had to make trade-offs. As part of the district, we still pay for some things (like sports programs) our specific schools don’t use. And since we’re building a new structure, it’s not always clear how all of the pieces fit together best.

But 18 months into the Luminary Learning Network experiment, we are convinced we have devised a strategy that can make a real difference for students, educators, and school leaders.

Watch our results. We are confident that over the next couple of years, they will prove our case.

Jennifer Jackson is the principal of Cole Arts & Science Academy, which serves students from early childhood to grade five with a focus on the arts, science, and literacy. Frank Coyne is a lead partner at Denver Green School, which serves students from early childhood to grade eight with a focus on sustainability.