First Person

Want kids to move? Form a Healthy Kids Club

Elementary schools across Colorado are searching for ways to get their students out of their seats and moving around, to satisfy a new state law mandating at least 150 minutes of physical activity each week.

Larimer County students at a Healthy Kids Club fun run last spring. Photo courtesy HKC.

That’s something some northern Colorado school districts have been doing for years now, thanks to the efforts of the Poudre Valley Health System, the private, not-for-profit medical hub that serves Larimer and Weld counties.

Among the many community outreach programs sponsored by PVHS is the Healthy Kids Club, a collaborative effort being touted by education officials as an example of what’s possible – and what’s working.

Healthy Kids Club works in partnership with schools in the Poudre, Thompson, Windsor, Johnstown and Greeley school districts to bring them a variety of classroom resources and organized activities to get kids moving and eating right.

“When we started in 1998, we did a pretty extensive evaluation with the schools, mostly in Fort Collins, about health trends, and what they were seeing in their kids,” said Laurie Zenner, Healthy Kids Club manager. “Even in ’98, they were seeing the trends that now are getting so much more press – about obesity, too much screen time, fast food, etc.”

Back then, the response was to develop after-school programs for low-income youngsters, including a series of “fun runs.” After that came short health education units that classroom teachers could use. About six years ago, HKC began devising tools to help teachers add activity breaks into the course of the school day.

Today, HKC offers a whole suite of activity, educational and fund-raising programs for schools. Among them:

  • The Healthy Kids Run Series for children ages 5-12 and the Fit.Teen run series for youth 13-18.
  • The Girls Gotta Run program for fifth-grade girls.
  • The Schools on the Move activity-tracking program for elementary and middle schools. Last year, 70 schools participated in the challenge program, which takes place each February. Prize money was awarded to 20 schools.
  • In-school health education programs on more than 100 topics that align with the Colorado State Health standards. Most of the lessons are geared to kindergarteners and fourth-graders, but this year, HKC is piloting a comprehensive K-5 program at one school, B.F. Kitchen Elementary in Loveland.
  • Healthy Kids News,” a monthly health-focused newsletter distributed to 28,000 students to take home and share with their parents.
  • Classroom resources including “Kids on the Move” activity decks and “Minds in Motion” fit sticks and activity cards that offer suggestions for quick exercises that can be done right in the classroom. So far, the decks and sticks are in use in nearly 1,000 classrooms.
  • Weekly after-school programs for children in two low-income neighborhoods in Fort Collins and Loveland.

Relationship with schools is key

“I think we’re pretty unique,” said Anne Genson, Healthy Kids Club education coordinator.

“I don’t know of another health system who has any kind of program like this. Others may have pieces, but we have a comprehensive approach to working with schools. And since we’ve been working with them so long now, that relationship is really key.”

Teachers praise Healthy Kids Club, saying it’s a pretty painless way to up the level of physical activity for students.

“Every P.E. teacher I come across, I tell them this is a no-brainer,” said Mike Pappas, physical education teacher at Letford Elementary in Johnstown. “The resources are free.”

At Letford, teachers have added more and more HKC programs each year. The past two years, they’ve participated in the Schools on the Move challenge, which provides t-shirts and prizes to students and schools for keeping activity and nutrition logs, and for encouraging their parents and siblings to join them in exercise.

“It’s a great awareness program to get the kids to exercise outside of school,” Pappas said. “Any day you come to school, you’ll see kids wearing their Schools on the Move t-shirts. It’s just a real positive.”

Nancy West, a P.E. teacher at three small schools in rural Larimer County, spends only half a day each week at the schools. Since more frequent P.E. isn’t possible for those schools, she’s provided classroom teachers with a number of HKC materials to promote in-classroom activity.

“Teachers may start a lesson off with an activity break. It gets the kids out of their chairs and ready to learn, especially if they’re starting to get a little antsy,” West said.

“The breaks only take two or three minutes. The kids might use their desks to do push-ups. Or walk around everyone’s desk in the classroom. The activities are geared for use right in the classroom and don’t require any special equipment or space. And the kids seem to be more motivated when they know an activity break is coming up.”

Cutting edge neuropsychology

Chris Hunt, P.E. teacher at Traut Elementary in Fort Collins, has taken his Healthy Kids Club resources to a whole new level.

Learn more

  • Read the new state law mandating a minimum of 150 minutes of physical activity per week.
  • Watch a video of the Academics in Action RTI program.

Funded by a grant from CanDo, the Coalition for Activity and Nutrition to Defeat Obesity, a communitywide task force that is largely funded by Poudre Valley Health System, Hunt has built a whole movement-based academic intervention program for kids struggling with reading or math.

Called Academics in Action RTI – building on the popular Response to Intervention academic intervention program – Hunt’s program targets youngsters who are having trouble mastering certain basic skills and gives them some special time in the gym to work on those skills while engaged in fun movement.

“This is really the cutting edge of neuropsychology, the role of movement in helping kids retain information,” said Hunt, a family therapist and a sixth-grade teacher before shifting to P.E. two years ago.

He has devised ways to help children learn reading skills while riding scooters, jumping on mini-tramps, climbing walls and ladders, playing ball, crawling through tunnels and tumbling on mats. It looks like kids playing, he said, but pre- and post-tests have demonstrated growth.

“This is something I’m adamant about,” Hunt said. “This is a wonderful way to meet the needs of kids who have a hard time sitting still or, on the other end, the kids who are very lethargic in class. Movement is a way to meet both groups’ needs.”

In addition to creating active ways to help kids learn, Hunt has taken the activities suggested in the HKC Minds in Motion cards and coded them to match the 2010 Colorado academic standards. For example, having kids use their bodies to form letters is one physically active way to help teach phonemic awareness.

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.

First Person

I’m a Houston geography teacher. This is my plan for our first day back — as soon as it arrives

PHOTO: Creative Commons / Texas Military Department
Texas National Guard soldiers arrive in Houston, Texas to aid citizens in heavily flooded areas from the storms of Hurricane Harvey.

Hurricane Harvey has upended so many things here in Houston, where I am starting my third year as a teacher. One of them is the lesson I am planning for the first day of school — as soon as it arrives.

This upheaval is nothing compared to what people across the city have faced, including my students, who have been sending me photos of evacuation boats going past their houses.

But it is fundamental to the task of being a teacher at a time of crisis. As an A.P. Human Geography teacher, my job is to help students make connections between the geography concepts we are learning in class and their real lives: Does Houston look like the models of urban development we study? Does their family history include a migration?

Before the storm, my thinking went like this: I am white and was born in England and most of my students are Hispanic, many with parents who were born in other countries. I was excited for us to share and compare our different stories. My students last year were shocked and fascinated when they discovered that my white, middle-aged father who is a university professor was applying for a green card, just as many of their family members were.

Now, Hurricane Harvey has underlined for me the importance of those real-world connections. As I looked at the photos from my students, I was struck by how geography concepts can affect us in very real — even life-threatening — ways.

I had planned to teach a lesson at the end of the year about how urbanization affects the environment. The lesson looks at how urbanization can exacerbate flooding: for example, how paving over grassy areas can increase the speed with which rain reaches the bayous, causing the water levels to rise faster. I would then have students evaluate different policies cities can adopt to mitigate that risk, such as encouraging the building on brownfield rather than greenfield sites and passing laws to protect farmland — options that have significant benefits but also significant costs.

I have decided to move this lesson up in the curriculum and teach it when we have school again. School is scheduled to start again on Tuesday, though at this stage everything is provisional, as each hour we find out about more families that have had their homes destroyed by the rising waters. It is still unclear how all our staff, let alone students, will get to school.

I am worried that the lesson could re-traumatize students who have experienced so much trauma in the past few days. I know I will need to make an active effort to make students feel comfortable stepping into the hall if they are feeling overwhelmed. However, my experiences with the recent presidential election make me think that this lesson is exactly what some students might need.

After the election, many students were genuinely confused about what had happened. One question in particular was on their minds: How you can you win the popular vote but not the election? We talked through the Electoral College together, and having clarity about what had happened and why it happened seemed to give them a firmer foundation to build on as they processed their emotions. I am hopeful that teaching about flooding will help ground them in a similar way.

This lesson about flooding was once simply another lesson in the curriculum, but now it has taken on a new urgency. In moments of disaster, it is easy to feel powerless; I certainly could not help the people I saw posting on Facebook that they were been on hold with 911 for hours while standing on their roofs.

Yet teachers have a unique power — the power to shape the minds of future generations to solve the problems that we face. Houston’s location means that it will always be susceptible to flooding. But by teaching about the flood I hope I can play a small role in helping our city avoid repeating some of the tragic scenes I witnessed this week.

Alex McNaughton teaches history and geography at YES Prep Southeast in Houston.

Looking to help? YES Prep is collecting donations to support its students and their families. Houston ISD and KIPP Houston are also soliciting donations for their students.