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 principal who thinks personalized learning shouldn’t be a debate.

PHOTO: Lisa Epstein
Lisa Epstein, principal of Richard H. Lee Elementary, supports personalized learning

This is the first in what we hope will be a tradition of thoughtful opinion pieces—of all viewpoints—published by Chalkbeat Chicago. Have an idea? Send it to cburke@chalkbeat.org

As personalized learning takes hold throughout the city, Chicago teachers are wondering why a term so appealing has drawn so much criticism.

Until a few years ago, the school that I lead, Richard H. Lee Elementary on the Southwest Side, was on a path toward failing far too many of our students. We crafted curriculum and identified interventions to address gaps in achievement and the shifting sands of accountability. Our teachers were hardworking and committed. But our work seemed woefully disconnected from the demands we knew our students would face once they made the leap to postsecondary education.

We worried that our students were ill-equipped for today’s world of work and tomorrow’s jobs. Yet, we taught using the same model through which we’d been taught: textbook-based direct instruction.

How could we expect our learners to apply new knowledge to evolving facts, without creating opportunities for exploration? Where would they learn to chart their own paths, if we didn’t allow for agency at school? Why should our students engage with content that was disconnected from their experiences, values, and community?

We’ve read articles about a debate over personalized learning centered on Silicon Valley’s “takeover” of our schools. We hear that Trojan Horse technologies are coming for our jobs. But in our school, personalized learning has meant developing lessons informed by the cultural heritage and interests of our students. It has meant providing opportunities to pursue independent projects, and differentiating curriculum, instruction, and assessment to enable our students to progress at their own pace. It has reflected a paradigm shift that is bottom-up and teacher led.

And in a move that might have once seemed incomprehensible, it has meant getting rid of textbooks altogether. We’re not alone.

We are among hundreds of Chicago educators who would welcome critics to visit one of the 120 city schools implementing new models for learning – with and without technology. Because, as it turns out, Chicago is fast becoming a hub for personalized learning. And, it is no coincidence that our academic growth rates are also among the highest in the nation.

Before personalized learning, we designed our classrooms around the educator. Decisions were made based on how educators preferred to teach, where they wanted students to sit, and what subjects they wanted to cover.

Personalized learning looks different in every classroom, but the common thread is that we now make decisions looking at the student. We ask them how they learn best and what subjects strike their passions. We use small group instruction and individual coaching sessions to provide each student with lesson plans tailored to their needs and strengths. We’re reimagining how we use physical space, and the layout of our classrooms. We worry less about students talking with their friends; instead, we ask whether collaboration and socialization will help them learn.

Our emphasis on growth shows in the way students approach each school day. I have, for example, developed a mentorship relationship with one of our middle school students who, despite being diligent and bright, always ended the year with average grades. Last year, when she entered our personalized learning program for eighth grade, I saw her outlook change. She was determined to finish the year with all As.

More than that, she was determined to show that she could master anything her teachers put in front of her. She started coming to me with graded assignments. We’d talk about where she could improve and what skills she should focus on. She was pragmatic about challenges and so proud of her successes. At the end of the year she finished with straight As—and she still wanted more. She wanted to get A-pluses next year. Her outlook had changed from one of complacence to one oriented towards growth.

Rather than undermining the potential of great teachers, personalized learning is creating opportunities for collaboration as teachers band together to leverage team-teaching and capitalize on their strengths and passions. For some classrooms, this means offering units and lessons based on the interests and backgrounds of the class. For a couple of classrooms, it meant literally knocking down walls to combine classes from multiple grade-levels into a single room that offers each student maximum choice over how they learn. For every classroom, it means allowing students to work at their own pace, because teaching to the middle will always fail to push some while leaving others behind.

For many teachers, this change sounded daunting at first. For years, I watched one of my teachers – a woman who thrives off of structure and runs a tight ship – become less and less engaged in her profession. By the time we made the switch to personalized learning, I thought she might be done. We were both worried about whether she would be able to adjust to the flexibility of the new model. But she devised a way to maintain order in her classroom while still providing autonomy. She’s found that trusting students with the responsibility to be engaged and efficient is both more effective and far more rewarding than trying to force them into their roles. She now says that she would never go back to the traditional classroom structure, and has rediscovered her love for teaching. The difference is night and day.

The biggest change, though, is in the relationships between students and teachers. Gone is the traditional, authority-to-subordinate dynamic; instead, students see their teachers as mentors with whom they have a unique and individual connection, separate from the rest of the class. Students are actively involved in designing their learning plans, and are constantly challenged to articulate the skills they want to build and the steps that they must take to get there. They look up to their teachers, they respect their teachers, and, perhaps most important, they know their teachers respect them.

Along the way, we’ve found that students respond favorably when adults treat them as individuals. When teachers make important decisions for them, they see learning as a passive exercise. But, when you make it clear that their needs and opinions will shape each school day, they become invested in the outcome.

As our students take ownership over their learning, they earn autonomy, which means they know their teachers trust them. They see growth as the goal, so they no longer finish assignments just to be done; they finish assignments to get better. And it shows in their attendance rates – and test scores.

Lisa Epstein is the principal of Richard H. Lee Elementary School, a public school in Chicago’s West Lawn neighborhood serving 860 students from pre-kindergarten through eighth grade.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect that Richard H. Lee Elementary School serves 860 students, not 760 students.

First Person

I’ve spent years studying the link between SHSAT scores and student success. The test doesn’t tell you as much as you might think.

PHOTO: Photo by Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images

Proponents of New York City’s specialized high school exam, the test the mayor wants to scrap in favor of a new admissions system, defend it as meritocratic. Opponents contend that when used without consideration of school grades or other factors, it’s an inappropriate metric.

One thing that’s been clear for decades about the exam, now used to admit students to eight top high schools, is that it matters a great deal.

Students admitted may not only receive a superior education, but also access to elite colleges and eventually to better employment. That system has also led to an under-representation of Hispanic students, black students, and girls.

As a doctoral student at The Graduate Center of the City University of New York in 2015, and in the years after I received my Ph.D., I have tried to understand how meritocratic the process really is.

First, that requires defining merit. Only New York City defines it as the score on a single test — other cities’ selective high schools use multiple measures, as do top colleges. There are certainly other potential criteria, such as artistic achievement or citizenship.

However, when merit is defined as achievement in school, the question of whether the test is meritocratic is an empirical question that can be answered with data.

To do that, I used SHSAT scores for nearly 28,000 students and school grades for all public school students in the city. (To be clear, the city changed the SHSAT itself somewhat last year; my analysis used scores on the earlier version.)

My analysis makes clear that the SHSAT does measure an ability that contributes to some extent to success in high school. Specifically, a SHSAT score predicts 20 percent of the variability in freshman grade-point average among all public school students who took the exam. Students with extremely high SHSAT scores (greater than 650) generally also had high grades when they reached a specialized school.

However, for the vast majority of students who were admitted with lower SHSAT scores, from 486 to 600, freshman grade point averages ranged widely — from around 50 to 100. That indicates that the SHSAT was a very imprecise predictor of future success for students who scored near the cutoffs.

Course grades earned in the seventh grade, in contrast, predicted 44 percent of the variability in freshman year grades, making it a far better admissions criterion than SHSAT score, at least for students near the score cutoffs.

It’s not surprising that a standardized test does not predict as well as past school performance. The SHSAT represents a two and a half hour sample of a limited range of skills and knowledge. In contrast, middle-school grades reflect a full year of student performance across the full range of academic subjects.

Furthermore, an exam which relies almost exclusively on one method of assessment, multiple choice questions, may fail to measure abilities that are revealed by the variety of assessment methods that go into course grades. Additionally, middle school grades may capture something important that the SHSAT fails to capture: long-term motivation.

Based on his current plan, Mayor de Blasio seems to be pointed in the right direction. His focus on middle school grades and the Discovery Program, which admits students with scores below the cutoff, is well supported by the data.

In the cohort I looked at, five of the eight schools admitted some students with scores below the cutoff. The sample sizes were too small at four of them to make meaningful comparisons with regularly admitted students. But at Brooklyn Technical High School, the performance of the 35 Discovery Program students was equal to that of other students. Freshman year grade point averages for the two groups were essentially identical: 86.6 versus 86.7.

My research leads me to believe that it might be reasonable to admit a certain percentage of the students with extremely high SHSAT scores — over 600, where the exam is a good predictor —and admit the remainder using a combined index of seventh grade GPA and SHSAT scores.

When I used that formula to simulate admissions, diversity increased, somewhat. An additional 40 black students, 209 Hispanic students, and 205 white students would have been admitted, as well as an additional 716 girls. It’s worth pointing out that in my simulation, Asian students would still constitute the largest segment of students (49 percent) and would be admitted in numbers far exceeding their proportion of applicants.

Because middle school grades are better than test scores at predicting high school achievement, their use in the admissions process should not in any way dilute the quality of the admitted class, and could not be seen as discriminating against Asian students.

The success of the Discovery students should allay some of the concerns about the ability of students with SHSAT scores below the cutoffs. There is no guarantee that similar results would be achieved in an expanded Discovery Program. But this finding certainly warrants larger-scale trials.

With consideration of additional criteria, it may be possible to select a group of students who will be more representative of the community the school system serves — and the pool of students who apply — without sacrificing the quality for which New York City’s specialized high schools are so justifiably famous.

Jon Taylor is a research analyst at Hunter College analyzing student success and retention.