First Person

13-year-old promoting a fast-food free world

A 13-year-old Denver boy with a passion for good health and environmental sustainability is getting a national reputation as the unlikely founder of a national movement to stamp out fast food.

Koa Halpern, now 13, was just 10 when he launched his organization, Fast Food Free.

Koa Halpern launched his organization, Fast Food Free, when he was just 10, following a school research project on the dangers of fast food. He’s presently home-schooled, but at the time he was a student at the Challenge School, a magnet school for gifted students in the Cherry Creek district. Armed with all the research that a gifted, philosophically committed child could lay his hands on, he set up a web site – – and began his one-man crusade to get the world to examine its addiction to Big Macs, Whoppers, etc.

Koa included information about animal cruelty, nutrition and obesity, and environmental degradation attributable to fast food. He started putting together regular newsletters on the topic. He began doing simple presentations to school and church groups.

Violin-playing funds his work

His parents, Roland and Marilyn Halpern, supported him in his passion, but told him he’d have to pay for any expenses himself. So the Suzuki-trained violinist took his fiddle down to the 16th Street Mall for some musical fund-raising. He’s raked in more than $2,000 that way – not bad wages for a 10-year-old. He’s plowed all his earnings back into his company, and he’s been able to cover his estimated $1,000 to $1,250 annual budget. His funding goal is to raise enough so he can apply for official 501(c)3 status, making gifts to his non-profit organization tax-deductible.

“You know how kids are,” said his mom. “In the beginning, we were reluctant because he was taking on fast food. I mean, that just seemed like such an endeavor. I was thinking, ‘Why can’t he just give some books to disadvantaged kids or something?’ But when he learned more about the fast food industry, he said to me, ‘Mom, it’s not like I’m 78 and this is my only career option. I’m 10, and I better do this now before I become a high school student, because I have the time to do it now.’”

“Telling him to fund it himself really tempered the steel,” Marilyn Halpern said. “That made it more compelling for him.”

While other kids were out playing, Koa would devote himself to his organization, sometimes spending 10 to 15 hours a week researching, writing and marketing his ideas.

Koa Halpern designed the Fast Food Free logo himself.

Yet few people took notice. This was, after all, little more than an elementary school science project run amok, according to some.

And then, last year, 5280 magazine did a little story about Koa and his crusade. Then came a little item about him in the Denver Post.

One thing led to another, and now Koa has been featured as one of eight “Kids Who Make a Difference” in the national Parenting magazine. “Renegade Lunch Lady” Ann Cooper, who was already a star in the school nutrition world before taking over as nutrition director for Boulder Valley schools, named him a “Lunch Box Hero” last fall. (Cooper is also an expert on EdNews Parent open to taking parent questions). New Hope Natural Media, a Boulder-based promoter of organic and healthy-lifestyle publications and trade shows, invited him to speak at a national conference this spring in Anaheim, Calif. Word of his organization has appeared in publications around the world.

Thousands have now taken the pledge

The hits on his website have increased from a trickle to a deluge. And the number of people who’ve agreed to “take the pledge” – a modest promise to stay away from fast food for just two weeks – is now in the thousands.

At least 200 of those pledgers came from nature lovers, after Fast Food Free agreed to give $1 to the Audubon Society of Greater Denver for every member who took the pledge last fall. Koa promised Audubon members that foregoing fast food would help birds, whose habitat is destroyed to make way for fast food cattle farmland and paper hamburger wrappers.

For more information
Visit the Fast Food Free website

Watch a New Hope Natural Media video of Koa describing his work with Fast Food Free.

“Initially, the pledge was for a month,” said Koa, himself a lifelong vegetarian who hasn’t visited a fast food restaurant since he was 4. “But it seemed like everybody – especially the people who ate fast food to begin with – were extremely reluctant. But after we shortened it, then many of the people who ate fast food more often started taking the pledge. The whole venture was wildly successful.”

He figures that after just two weeks of going without, fast food addicts start to feel better, feel happier.

“So from then on they’ll eat less fast food, or even no fast food,” Koa said. “I’ve learned that it’s best not to do things like say ‘You have to become a vegetarian for the rest of your life!’ No, it’s better to take small steps. Even little steps like just being a vegetarian for one day. Taking little steps can have an enormous impact on your health and on the health of the planet.”

Campaign is called ‘anti-American’

Koa has found that taking on the fast food industry doesn’t always make him popular.

“I’ve discovered that people either love my non-profit, or they hate it,” he said. “The ones who hate it say that some of the statistics I present are made up and such. They say my message is un-American because fast food is all-American. Really, many of their arguments don’t hold too much weight. But if there’s something that doesn’t seem to be too realistic, then I investigate that and check is out. So I know that my statistics are true.”

One of his toughest critics was his grandmother.

“She’s a really passionate advocate of eating fast food,” Koa said. “She wishes I would change my mind with this fast food free business. However, in the last couple of months, she’s become much more supportive. She hasn’t taken the pledge, and really, I don’t know at this point if she will.”

One of Koa’s biggest fans is Sue Deuber, principal of Voyager Public Charter School in Honolulu, where the boy attended kindergarten and first grade.

“From the very beginning, Koa was a unique child,” Deuber said. “His incredible intelligence and his unusual sense of social responsibility were evidence from the time he was 5. I remember him promoting donations to local charities in lieu of birthday presents and single-handedly holding mini fundraisers to support the school at school events. From his earliest days, Koa was making a difference.”

When Koa visited Hawaii in February, Deuber invited him to drop by his old school and speak to former classmates about his fast food project.

“His presentation was engaging, enlightening and presented in a way that was both informative and convincing,” Deuber said.

She was so impressed by what he said to the sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders, she invited him back the next week to talk to the fourth- and fifth-graders.

“His words had an effect on almost every student in the audience.”

Next: ‘Try a Bite”

Koa’s next goal is to launch his new “Try a Bite” campaign.

“Try a Bite is going for just trying new healthier options, like organic food, locally-grown food,” he said.

He’ll take what he’s learned during his years promoting Fast Food Free and apply it to Try a Bite.

And he continues to educate his family. His folks raised him to be a vegetarian, but his commitment to health eating has gone far beyond what they envisioned.

“Last year, he asked us how come we were involved in community-supported agriculture. I hadn’t even heard of that before,” Marilyn Halpern admitted. “So we joined a CSA. We got a single egg share and a fruit share. This year we expanded to a vegetable share as well. Even in his family, he’s making us do small steps.”

“The latest thing he’s educated us on is genetically-modified foods. He watches a lot of educational DVDs on this topic. I didn’t know anything about this, but he’s educated us about it.”

Halpern, a social worker, said she’s amazed by her son’s perseverance.

“We’ve said to him, ‘You can slow down.’ But he just feels compelled to carry on. I don’t know where he gets all that determination. It’s just something within him.”

First Person

Why the phrase ‘with fidelity’ is an affront to good teaching

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

“With fidelity” are some of the most damaging words in education.

Districts spend a ton of money paying people to pick out massively expensive, packaged curriculums, as if every one of a thousand classrooms needs the exact same things. Then officials say, over and over again, that they must be implemented “with fidelity.” What they mean is that teachers better not do anything that would serve their students’ specific needs.

When that curriculum does nothing to increase student achievement, it is not blamed. The district person who found it and purchased it is never blamed. Nope. They say, “Well, the teachers must not have been implementing it with fidelity.”

It keeps happening because admitting that schools are messy and students are human and teaching is both creative and artistic would also mean you have to trust teachers and let them have some power. Also, there are some really crappy teachers out there, and programs for everyone are often meant to push that worst-case-scenario line a little higher.

And if everyone’s doing just what they’re supposed to, we’ll get such good, clean numbers, and isn’t that worth a few thousand more dollars?

I was talking with a friend recently, a teacher at an urban school on the East Coast. He had been called to task by his principal for splitting his kids into groups to offer differentiated math instruction based on students’ needs. “But,” the principal said, “did the pacing guide say to differentiate? You need to trust the system.”

I understand the desire to find out if a curriculum “works.” But I don’t trust anyone who can say “trust the system” without vomiting. Not when the system is so much worse than anything teachers would put together.

Last year, my old district implemented Reading Plus, an online reading program that forces students to read at a pace determined by their scores. The trainers promised, literally promised us, that there wasn’t a single reading selection anywhere in the program that could be considered offensive to anyone. God knows I never learned anything from a book that made me feel uncomfortable!

Oh, and students were supposed to use this program — forced-paced reading of benign material followed by multiple-choice questions and more forced-pace reading — for 90 minutes a week. We heard a lot about fidelity when the program did almost nothing for students (and, I believe quite strongly, did far worse than encouraging independent reading of high-interest books for 90 minutes a week would have done).

At the end of that year, I was handed copies of next year’s great adventure in fidelity. I’m not in that district any longer, but the whole district was all switching over to SpringBoard, another curriculum, in language arts classes. On came the emails about implementing with fidelity and getting everyone on the same page. We were promised flexibility, you know, so long as we also stuck to the pacing guide of the workbook.

I gave it a look, I did, because only idiots turn down potential tools. But man, it seemed custom-built to keep thinking — especially any creative, critical thought from either students or teachers — to a bare minimum.

I just got an email from two students from last year. They said hi, told me they missed creative writing class, and said they hated SpringBoard, the “evil twin of Reading Plus.”

That district ran out of money and had to cut teachers (including me) at the end of the year. But if they hadn’t, I don’t think I would have lasted long if forced to teach from a pacing guide. I’m a good teacher. Good teachers love to be challenged and supported. They take feedback well, but man do we hate mandates for stuff we know isn’t best for the kids in our room.

Because, from inside a classroom full of dynamic, chaotic brilliance;

from a classroom where that kid just shared that thing that broke all of our hearts;

from a classroom where that other kid figured out that idea they’ve been working on for weeks;

from that classroom where that other kid, who doesn’t know enough of the language, hides how hard he works to keep up and still misses things;

and from that classroom where one kid isn’t sure if they trust you yet, and that other kid trusts you too much, too easily, because their bar had been set too low after years of teachers that didn’t care enough;

from inside that classroom, it’s impossible to trust that anyone else has a better idea than I do about what my students need to do for our next 50 minutes.

Tom Rademacher is a teacher living in Minneapolis who was named Minnesota’s Teacher of the Year in 2014. His book, “It Won’t Be Easy: An Exceedingly Honest (and Slightly Unprofessional) Love Letter to Teaching,” was published in April. He can be found on Twitter @mrtomrad and writes on, where this post first appeared.

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.