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’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. 

First Person

With roots in Cuba and Spain, Newark student came to America to ‘shine bright’

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Layla Gonzalez

This is my story of how we came to America and why.

I am from Mallorca, Spain. I am also from Cuba, because of my dad. My dad is from Cuba and my grandmother, grandfather, uncle, aunt, and so on. That is what makes our family special — we are different.

We came to America when my sister and I were little girls. My sister was three and I was one.

The first reason why we came here to America was for a better life. My parents wanted to raise us in a better place. We also came for better jobs and better pay so we can keep this family together.

We also came here to have more opportunities — they do call this country the “Land Of Opportunities.” We came to make our dreams come true.

In addition, my family and I came to America for adventure. We came to discover new things, to be ourselves, and to be free.

Moreover, we also came here to learn new things like English. When we came here we didn’t know any English at all. It was really hard to learn a language that we didn’t know, but we learned.

Thank God that my sister and I learned quickly so we can go to school. I had a lot of fun learning and throughout the years we do learn something new each day. My sister and I got smarter and smarter and we made our family proud.

When my sister Amira and I first walked into Hawkins Street School I had the feeling that we were going to be well taught.

We have always been taught by the best even when we don’t realize. Like in the times when we think we are in trouble because our parents are mad. Well we are not in trouble, they are just trying to teach us something so that we don’t make the same mistake.

And that is why we are here to learn something new each day.

Sometimes I feel like I belong here and that I will be alright. Because this is the land where you can feel free to trust your first instinct and to be who you want to be and smile bright and look up and say, “Thank you.”

As you can see, this is why we came to America and why we can shine bright.

Layla Gonzalez is a fourth-grader at Hawkins Street School. This essay is adapted from “The Hispanic American Dreams of Hawkins Street School,” a self-published book by the school’s students and staff that was compiled by teacher Ana Couto.