The Other 60 Percent

Tackling food allergies at school

For parents of children with food allergies, school can sometimes seem like a minefield, with danger lurking everywhere.

Some students at Aurora's Park Lane Elementary eat lunch. The cafeteria pizza - unlike most pizzas - is made with whole wheat and lowfat cheese, so it's a "Slow" food. The lowfat milk is a "go" food.
PHOTO: Hayleigh Colombo
Students at Aurora’s Park Lane Elementary eat lunch.

It’s not just the peanut butter and jelly sandwiches that pop out of lunchboxes in the cafeteria. It’s the constant stream of food in the classroom, for snacks, parties, rewards, and even crafts like paper maché planets or peanut butter bird feeders.

Colorado Springs parent Katie Prichard knows the feeling. Her kindergarten daughter is allergic to peanuts, eggs, soy, sesame, green peas and apples, and while Pritchard is very pleased with the precautions in place at her charter school, Rocky Mountain Classical Academy, she said there are always worries. Sometimes about safety and sometimes about her daughter’s inevitable sense of being different.

“At school you should get to be like your friends…to have equal access to your classroom,” she said. “It’s kind of a barrage for a young kid in kindergarten.”

Pritchard, who leads Colorado Springs Mosaic, a group for parents of children with severe food allergies, said despite the challenges, she believes schools are moving in the right direction when it comes to accommodating food allergies.

“I’ve heard so many struggles other parents had before I came along,” she said “I definitely feel like things have improved.”

Kathleen Patrick, assistant director of student health services at the Colorado Department of Education, agreed, saying state laws and policies have enabled several key measures, such as allowing students to self-carry epinephrine auto-injectors, ensuring school districts have allergy policies and educating school staff about allergies.

Today, about 8 percent of children have food allergies, an average of two per classroom.

Patrick said when she was a school nurse years ago, she sometimes heard stories about school staff not taking a student’s food allergy seriously.

Today, she said, “We’re on the right road in terms of the education and getting the information out there…I think food allergy awareness is very high.”

Precautions vary

Nicole Smith, co- founder of the AllergicChild website and mother of a teenage son with food allergies, said the landscape for Colorado students with food allergies can vary depending on their school and district.

“Even within a school district you can have different levels of awareness,” she noted.

Patrick said sometimes the successful dissemination of food allergy information can hinge on how school nurses are deployed in a district. Compared to schools with a full-time nurse, there may be less overall awareness about allergy precautions, not to mention fewer trained staff members to administer epinephrine injections in an emergency, in schools where nurses work part time because they cover multiple buildings.

Another factor in how schools and districts measure up, she said, can be the presence of a parent, nurse or other staff member who serves as a champion for food allergy awareness and preparation.

Despite the differences between schools and districts, state policies and resources have created some uniformities in the last several years. Under a state law Smith helped pass in 2009, school districts are required to have policies to accommodate students with food allergies.

In Academy School District 20, which has a Food Allergy Task Force and is widely considered a leader on food allergy issues, the district’s five-page policy weighs in on food allergy issues large and small, from training staff to choosing field trip chaperones. (It’s recommended that parents of students with food allergies get preference.)

“Academy School District 20 is amazing, just plain and simple,” said Smith, whose son attends high school there. “They have long looked at the safety of every child.”

Often, food allergy measures depend on the number of students with food allergies at a school, the severity of their reactions, what precautions are requested by parents and what is deemed feasible by administrators.

For example, at some schools cafeteria tables are set aside for students with food allergies and there are strict rules about sanitation procedures as well as hand-washing guidelines for students.  This is the case at Ralston Elementary in Golden, where peanut and tree nut products are banned in all classrooms, but are permitted at designated cafeteria tables.

Even when schools have comprehensive plans in place and staff are attentive, allergens sometimes slip through the cracks. Patrick started tracking the number of students who experienced anaphylaxis and needed epinephrine at Colorado schools in the 2011-12 school year.

There were about 30 cases reported that year, and so far this school year, there have been 24. The causes include students sharing food, which is prohibited at most schools, but can be hard to enforce. In one case, a parent brought in cupcakes containing peanut products after signing up to bring something else. In another, a student with a latex allergy touched a balloon while she was helping decorate a friend’s locker.

“You can be as careful as possible and something may still happen,” Patrick said.

House Bill 13-1171

In case something does happen, many in the food allergy community are hoping that a bill currently under consideration in the legislature will lead to additional potential safeguards for children with allergies. Bill 1171, also called the stock epinephrine bill, would allow schools to keep epinephrine auto-injectors on hand for trained staff to use on students experiencing anaphylaxis even if they don’t have their own prescription.

The idea is to allow teachers or other school staff to immediately curb a life-threatening reaction during the crucial minutes before paramedics arrive. In part, the measure would protect students who have undiagnosed allergies that are triggered at school.

“Twenty-five percent of first-time [allergic] reactions occur in the school setting,” said Jennifer Jobrack, director of major gifts and regional advocacy for Food Allergy Research and Education, a national advocacy group.

Christianna Fogler, principal at Rocky Mountain Classical Academy, knows firsthand how that scenario plays out. Last fall, a first-grader at the school’s elementary campus came in from the playground and began experiencing anaphylaxis. The girl had no known allergies but her throat was closing and her breathing was labored, said Fogler, who will testify before the state Senate in favor of Bill 1171 this week.

After school staff called 911, paramedics arrived in just a couple minutes because they happened to be at a building down the street. They treated the girl, who may have reacted to a bug bite, and she recovered.

Fogler, who worries about what would have happened if the paramedics had taken 10 or 15 minutes to arrive, said the bill would empower school staff to do the right thing without worrying about liability or other legal issues. The school already trains all teachers, substitute teachers and lunchroom monitors how to recognize anaphylaxis and administer and EpiPen.

Currently, 17 states have laws covering stock epinephrine in schools, though the language and requirements range widely. Only Nebraska, Virginia and Maryland require schools to stock epinephrine auto-injectors. In most states, as would be the case in Colorado, the practice is voluntary.

Among the objections to the law are the expense of the auto-injectors, which typically cost $180 for a two-pack, and the extensive training needed to ensure school staff besides the nurse know what anaphylaxis looks like and how to use the auto-injectors.

Jobrack noted that Mylan Speciality, the distributor of EpiPens, has a program providing free and discounted EpiPens to schools, and that her organization has training resources available.

Trends toward protection and prevention

As a result of the Americans With Disabilities Act Amendments Act of 2008, students with severe food allergies are also increasingly getting 504 plans, which provide children with disabilities accommodations to fully participate in school.

Holly Camp, administrator for food service operations for JeffCo Public Schools and a registered dietician, said she helped execute the first food allergy-related 504 plan in 2009. Today, about 50 students in the 85,000-student district have such plans, usually because of allergies or intolerances to gluten, dyes or casein, a protein found in milk.

As part of the plans, the students’ parents, physician and often the school nurse make a list of accommodations, which may range from using extra sanitizer at the student’s lunch spot to allowing them to be first through the cafeteria line to ensure their food is prepared and wrapped first.

Patrick believes the increasing use of 504 plans for food allergies is a good development. In addition to helping individual students who have the plans, it can raise awareness overall, she said.

“What they are doing for one, they will very often understand that it’s important for another student with a recognized food allergy,” she said.

Smith, of AllergicChild, said another encouraging trend she’s noticed is that school wellness initiatives aimed at reducing obesity are being coupled with efforts to reduce allergy risks. Thus, many schools are getting away from using food as rewards or as the focal point of class parties.

For example, a few elementary schools in the Thompson School District in Loveland  adopted regulations this year eliminating edible treats for student birthdays and sometimes communal snacks where every child gets a portion from a large box of crackers or cookies. Wellness coordinator Kathy Schlepp said the changes came because school staff were trying to respond to food allergy concerns and also “the extra calorie piece.”

The district’s wellness plan, which is currently being revised, will also include some version of these restrictions next year.

“It will definitely be trying to cut down on unhealthy classroom snacks or treats,” she said.

school support

When students miss school, they fall behind. Here’s how one group is curbing absenteeism.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Two of Agape's staff members work with students on reading at Whitney Achievement Elementary School. The staff members, though employed by the Memphis nonprofit, are integrated into school life.

When Crystal Bullard moved to Memphis from the Bahamas last year, she was looking for a new life and a better education for her three young children.

What she found was an overwhelming school system that was hard to navigate, and an environment where her children felt like outsiders.

Her children, ages 4, 7 and 9, were initially bullied at Whitney Achievement Elementary School, the North Memphis school she chose because it was closest to her home. The bullying meant her kids didn’t want to go to school. For Bullard, missing a day or two was a common problem at the beginning of last school year.

“When I came here, I didn’t know nothing. I had nothing,” Bullard said. “I came to this school because it was the first I found. But it was so hard to get the kids up and here every day. We struggled with that for many weeks.”

Bullard is not alone in her daily battle to get the kids to school. Almost a fifth of Memphis students are considered chronically absent, which means they missed at least 18 days during the school year. Research has shown chronic absenteeism is linked to negative outcomes for students, including lower test scores, higher dropout rates, and even a greater risk of entering the criminal justice system.

Absenteeism has such a large impact on learning, districts are under pressure from new national legislation to include chronic absenteeism data in how they evaluate schools.

In Memphis, a local nonprofit is working to improve attendance numbers. Agape Child & Family Services places its employees in schools throughout Memphis to help with attendance, behavior, and academic issues.

Bullard said her life began to change when her family joined the Agape program. The three full-time Agape workers at Whitney walked Bullard through why it was crucial for her kids to come to school every day. They provided her with school supplies and uniforms, and tutored her children. Agape also provided counseling for Bullard and her children through another part of its organization.

“My kids have too many friends now,” Bullard said. “They aren’t afraid, they’re excited to come to school. My kids are 100 percent better now than when we came. We still have issues to work out, but we feel welcome.”

For schools like Whitney Elementary, days of missed instruction can quickly put students behind academically. Whitney was taken over in 2012 by the state’s Achievement School District, which is trying to turn around Tennessee’s worst-performing schools. Every day of instruction matters in their efforts to boost student achievement, Whitney principal LaSandra Young said.

“Our attendance is low at the start of the year because students have transferred or moved,” said Young. The school currently enrolls 263 kids — Agape helps the school track students down.

Agape, Whitney Elementary, Memphis
PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Crystal Bullard’s children started preschool and elementary school at Whitney last year.

“Sometimes it’s as simple as they don’t have school supplies yet or are struggling with transportation,” Young said. “The extra support they provide is crucial because every day of attendance really does matter.”

Charity Ellis, one of Agape’s staff members at Whitney, said her job can look very different day-to-day, but working closely with students is consistent. Some days Agape pulls students out of class to work intensely on reading or math skills. Or if students are struggling with behavior in class, Agape staff members will pull the students into the hallway to speak with them and calm them down.

Agape staff also try to stay in constant communication with parents, especially if their kids are missing school, Ellis said.

If parents are running late, they might decide to keep their student at home rather than bring them for a half day, Ellis said. “But when we communicate with them how important every hour of learning is, they get that. Sometimes all it takes is one conversation and how deeply we care about their kids.”

Agape worked with 82 kids at Whitney Elementary last year, who were chosen by the school, including Bullard’s three children. About 90 percent of those students are now attending at least 90 percent of the school year, said David Jordan, CEO of Agape.

The program has grown every year from when it began in 2013 with 113 students. Now, more than 550 students are a part of Agape programs in 16 schools throughout the Frayser, Raleigh, Hickory Hill, and Whitehaven neighborhoods — and they are all now at school for at least 85 percent of the school year. This is just shy of their goal for Agape students to attend more than 90 percent of the year.

For comparison, 57 percent of all students in Shelby County Schools and the Achievement School District attend school for more than 90 percent of the year, Jordan said.

Jordan emphasized that keeping kids in school goes beyond daily attendance — the program also helps students with academics and behavior, so they don’t miss school because of suspensions. Agape helps out parents, too.

Agape, Whitney Elementary, Memphis
PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Whitney Principal LaSandra Young (right) hugs a student who is pulled out of class to work with Agape.

“A lot of our parents are underemployed and dealing with trauma,” Jordan said. “We provide family therapy, but also job coaching and help. We see this as a two-generation approach, the parents and their children are in this together.”

Bullard said the family counseling provided by Agape at Whitney has made a huge difference in her family’s mental health. When they first moved in 2017, Sergio, her oldest child, struggled with his behavior at school and he was sometimes pulled out of class.

“We’ve been through a lot,” Bullard said. “When Sergio first came here, he had a mean spirit in him. A don’t-care attitude. But at our sessions, he opened up and up. He’s still fighting with his sister, but it isn’t the rage it used to be. He’s calmed down a lot.”

Sergio also had a habit of hiding his school work from her, Bullard said. That’s changed, too, and he enjoys showing off what he’s learning to his mom.

“Now he likes to say big words that he knows I don’t know,” Bullard said. “But it’s great. We’ve never had this kind of support before.”

Jordan said that stories like Bullard’s are encouraging but acknowledges there’s still a lot of work to be done. He said he’s hopeful Agape will be able to add more and more students to the program every year.

“We know that keeping kids in school consistently is one of the things that works,” Jordan said. “We also know that students in under-resourced neighborhoods in our city need more support. The schools need more people who can help. We can provide that.”

Here’s the full list of schools Agape is in, broken down by neighborhood:

out of pocket

Pencils, shelving, wiggly chairs: What Colorado teachers bought for their classrooms — and why

PHOTO: Laura Henry
Aurora kindergarten teacher Laura Henry provided the pencil totes, floor dots, balls and wiggle seats, and everything you see on the shelves out of her own pocket.

The rugs and bean bag chairs, the workboxes full of hands-on learning games, the file folders that help her track student progress — all came out of special education teacher Laura Keathley’s own pocket.

Robyn Premo, a high school science teacher, buys styrofoam and cans, glass rods and balloons, patches of fur and s’mores ingredients — just about all the materials except beakers that her students need to do hands-on experiments.

Marcea Copeland-Rodden, a middle school social studies teacher, bought an air-conditioning unit for her classroom because it was so hot students were getting bloody noses.

And everyone buys loads and loads of pencils.

“I don’t think that not having a pencil is a reason a kid should not learn today,” Premo said.

There’s nothing new about teachers spending money on their classrooms, but as rising housing prices and stagnant wages put more pressure on working families and as academic expectations rise even in kindergarten, teachers have to dig deep to meet their students’ basic needs and outfit their school rooms.

A national survey by the U.S. Department of Education found that 94 percent of teachers spend their own money for their students, with the average teacher spending $479 in the 2015-16 school year, the most recent data available.

When the Colorado Education Association surveyed more than 2,000 members in 2017, they reported spending an average of $656 out of their own pocket on classroom supplies.

The usual caveat applies: These numbers are self-reported.

To better understand what this looks like in Colorado classrooms, Chalkbeat reached out to teachers around the state to ask how much they spent out of pocket, what they bought, and why.

The teachers who responded to Chalkbeat’s survey work in districts large and small, urban and rural, and spent anywhere from $75 to $2,000. Most respondents spent several hundred dollars, and the majority said they do not get a stipend for school supplies.

Their spending covers the most basic of classroom supplies — pens, pencils, glue sticks, crayons, paper, folders, notebooks — but also the things that make classrooms feel inviting, that make learning engaging, that help a kid get through the day. Teachers bought snacks and spare clothes, earbuds for students to listen to audio books as part of reading lessons, wiggly chairs and yoga balls for fidgety learners, classroom decorations, tissues and wipes, prizes for good work and good behavior, fish for the fish tank, storage bins and shelving and fabric for makeshift blinds.

Premo teaches chemistry and physics at Westminster High School. Her department gets a $3,000 supply budget for the high school’s 2,400 kids. She emphasizes that she thinks her school is doing everything it can, but if she didn’t reach into her own pocket, her students would mostly experience science in online simulations.

“That is not, in my opinion, sufficient for rigorous, authentic science instruction, so I make the personal contributions to give my kids those learning opportunities,” she said.

Premo spent $2,000 getting ready for the school year, the most of any teacher who responded to Chalkbeat’s survey. She said she’s able to contribute more than many teachers, so she does.

“There are some fantastic online simulations, but kids learn better when they get to put their hands on things,” she said.

Fur patches help demonstrate static electricity, and s’mores help illustrate principles of chemical reactions. All these materials add up, and many of them are consumed in the process of lab work.

If Premo didn’t spend her own money, “we would run out of pencils very quickly. And we would run out of lab materials, and they would not be able to do anything hands-on. And we would lose our ability to be creative. We would work very bare-bones. It would be a lot of listening, a lot of videos.”

Laura Henry teaches kindergarten in Aurora Public Schools. It’s her 29th year in the classroom, and as kindergarten has moved away from play and more toward academics, she’s spent more and more of her own money on curriculum supplies.

Her school provides $500 a semester to each grade level, which has to be shared among three teachers, and the money goes fast. Teachers also get $10 a month for copying, which she burns through quickly, so she bought her own printer just for school use.

Because most of the students come from low-income families, the school tries to keep the school supply list modest, closer to $25, but only about three-quarters of the students bring in supplies.

PHOTO: Laura Henry
Aurora kindergarten teacher Laura Henry’s classroom after it has been cleaned during the summer. With the exception of the red shelf, a few alternative seating items, and the pencil coat rack, these items are school purchased.

She spent about $500 of her own money getting ready for the school year, on everything from folders to hold student poems to snacks and wipes to materials for dramatic play, building toys, puppet theater, books, and more.

“Kindergarten is supply-heavy because we use construction paper and glue like there is no tomorrow,” she said.

Many of our survey respondents said they don’t use online fundraisers like Donors Choose because the only people who donate are friends and family, and teachers feel bad hitting them up over and over again. Henry encounters the same dilemma, but she did turn to it this year for $550 in science and engineering supplies: gears, a light table, animal X-rays, a microscope and more.

Another advantage of Donors Choose: The money she puts into it herself is tax deductible, unlike the rest of what she spends on her classroom.

PHOTO: Laura Henry
Kindergarten teacher Laura Henry purchased the housekeeping table and chairs, everything on the wall and shelves, the books in the bin, tool bench, and playground buckets for her Aurora classroom.

Henry said she used to sometimes feel resentful about spending her own money, when her friends get reimbursed for their work expenses, but now she “rolls with it” as part of the teaching profession.

But she sees the lack of supplies as one more stumbling block for young teachers.

“I see these new teachers come in, and they’re so ready and eager to make a difference, and they don’t know how they get supplies or how they get copies,” she said. “I don’t know that our school board is even fully aware of how much we’re lacking at the classroom level. I don’t need 8,000 consultants to help me. I need my classroom funded.”

Keathley runs a multi-needs special education room with two paraprofessionals at Avery-Parsons Elementary in the Buena Vista district in the Arkansas Valley. She spent $485 getting the classroom ready this year. A lot of that money went to filing systems that help the teachers keep track of each student’s needs and progress. It also went to bulletin board supplies. These boards serve as the “411 wall” with everything kids need to know for the day, from what their classroom job is to what outside appointments they have.

PHOTO: Laura Keathley
The bulletin board in Laura Keathley’s Buena Vista classroom serves as a 411 wall for her students. She purchases all the supplies for the board herself.

Keathley and her team used their own money to outfit the “crash corner,” where students go when they need to decompress with fidget toys in a giant bean bag chair, and to make workboxes with activities that students can work on independently throughout the day.

Keathley said she hardly asks her parents for any school supplies.

“We know that a lot of times parents of kids with disabilities, we know their money goes other places and they spend so much on special things for their kids, we don’t want to ask them,” she said.

Without her own investment in the classroom, it would be a very different place.

“I could go with what the school provided me and stay within my budget, but my classroom would not be the place I would like it to be,” she said. “We wouldn’t have rugs. We wouldn’t have nearly the supplies to give snacks or do cooking in the classroom. Our desks would be much more utilitarian, and we wouldn’t have much on the walls.”

Copeland-Rodden teaches seventh grade social studies at Pueblo Academy of the Arts in southern Colorado.

She spent $500 this year, more than most, because she dropped $350 on the air conditioning unit. It might seem like an extravagance, but after years of buying more and more fans, for minimal relief, it felt like a necessity.

“It’s just really hot in the classroom,” she said. “We have kids get bloody noses, that’s how bad it is. By sixth and seventh period, everybody is done. They don’t do their work. They fall asleep. They get cranky and angry at each other. It makes it tough on everyone.”

She also bought materials for Civil War shadow puppets and other projects that will make history come alive, but most of her classroom spending is on basic supplies. She doesn’t feel like she can ask parents, most of whom are low-income, to pay for supplies when she only has their child for one period a day. Out of 130 students, one brought in a box of tissues at the start of the school year.

“I spend so much on pencils,” she said. “It’s not just once. I go through a big 50-pack of pencils every month. Every class there’s at least one kid who has lost a pencil. I’ve given up trying to get back the pencils.”

She used to ask kids for something in exchange for the pencil to prompt them to return it, but too many kids had nothing to give.

“One boy said, ‘Here’s a shoe,’ and I said, ‘I don’t want your shoe,’” she said. “I have kids walking from class to class with nothing.”

Teaching has been this way for a long time, and the teachers who talked to Chalkbeat don’t see it changing anytime soon.

“If we all collectively agreed we weren’t going to pay for school supplies, maybe eventually someone would do something,” Premo said. “But I don’t want to risk this year’s kids to make that point.”