The Other 60 Percent

Denver school farms help stock cafeterias

Half a dozen workers crouched in the field mounding hay around organic bell pepper and zucchini plants as the morning sun beat down on a recent summer day.

Vitto Moscoso, who is going into 11th grade, works at the farm at Bradley International School.
Vitto Moscoso, who is going into 11th grade, works at the farm at Bradley International School.

With their work boots, gloves and brimmed hats, they looked a lot like farmers anywhere else in the Colorado’s rural expanse. The difference is these workers were toiling away on a one-acre plot at Bradley International School in southwest Denver, their shovels and wheelbarrows a hundred feet away from the school’s bright yellow swing set.

The farm, one of three on Denver Public Schools grounds, is part of the district’s pilot farm-to-school program, which converts unused school land into working farms that produce tens of thousands of pounds of produce for school cafeterias. In addition to the farm at Bradley, which was established in 2012, there are farms at Schmitt Elementary and Denver Green School. There’s also a farm at McGlone Elementary School, but it’s on hiatus this summer while construction occurs there.

“This is the beginning,” Anne Wilson, the district’s farm-to-school coordinator, said of the district’s recent plunge into urban agriculture. “Certainly, we hope to look at doing more sites in the future.”

School farms rare

The DPS school farm project appears to be one of the first of its kind, at least in Colorado. Jeremy West, nutrition service director for Weld County District 6 and chairman of the Colorado Farm to School Task Force, said he’s not aware of other districts that have similar programs.

The farm at Bradley is not far from the school playground.
PHOTO: Stephanie Snyder
The farm at Bradley is not far from the school playground.

“I would say they’re pretty unique,” said West. “I think they’re…on the forefront of having urban farming on their property.”

While over 60 Colorado schools or districts have some type of farm-to-school initiative, he said, it often takes the form of buying fruits and vegetables from local growers, not raising hundreds of tons of produce at the schools themselves.

While not quite on the scale of Denver’s farm program, Colorado Springs District 11 does grow about 1,500 pounds of produce a year, including lettuce, carrots, tomatoes, squash, spinach and herbs in a greenhouse and five raised beds at Galileo School of Math and Science. The produce is used at Galileo as well as cafeterias throughout the district.

In DPS, the school farms are not to be confused with school gardens, which exist at many Denver schools, including Bradley. While the smaller-scale gardens may contribute some produce to school salad bars, they are typically more of an educational tool with school and community volunteers responsible for their upkeep.

The farms, by contrast, are focused on production with contractors in charge of their operation and extensive protocols for food safety.

Produce Denver, an urban agriculture company, is the contractor at Bradley and Schmitt, as well as three non-school sites in Denver, including the Colorado Convention Center. This year, the two school farms are expected to yield about 1,000 pounds of tomatoes and bell peppers a week, 600 pounds of cucumbers and 400 pounds of zucchini a week from late August to late October. The zucchini and bell pepper crop will completely satisfy the district’s weekly needs during that period. The tomatoes will satisfy only about one-third of the district’s weekly needs and the cucumbers only one-fifth.

Denver Green School, which partners with Sprout City Farms to run its one-acre vegetable and herb farm, doesn’t contribute its 11,000-pound annual produce yield for districtwide cafeteria use. However, about half of that is used to cover most of the school’s vegetable needs during the fall. The other half is sold at the school’s farm stand, used in its community-supported agriculture program or donated to emergency food programs.

Gardens gave birth to farms

Many Denver elementary schools built gardens on their campuses through the Learning Landscape Initiative, funded with private and bond money over the past 13 years. At schools like Bradley, Schmitt and McGlone, there was enough unused space to consider bigger plots as well. At Bradley, for example, the school garden adjacent to the playground was green and thriving, but the northeast corner of the school’s property was empty save for a layer of pea gravel and an unused backstop.

“It was a prison yard,” said Alethea McClure, a health paraprofessional at the school and regular garden volunteer. “It was horrible,”

The school garden at Bradley is next to the school's farm.
The school garden at Bradley is next to the school’s farm.

Wilson said, “What started us on working with the farms and bringing the food into cafeterias was school gardens. We had these beautiful school gardens producing all this fabulous produce…We sat down and came up with a protocol that would address the food safety concerns.”

Wilson said Slow Food Denver, a non-profit that promotes local and sustainable foods, helped develop that protocol and has been a key partner in the farm project.

Students now get to experience the growing process first hand in the school’s garden, and see the larger-scale farm operation unfold a stone’s throw away. To Wilson and McClure, the garden and farm are natural companions.

McClure, who has two daughters attending Bradley, said it’s important “for our kids to see that…food comes from somewhere. It doesn’t come from a truck.”

She added, “They’re so proud because in our salad bar…they know there’s a chance it was grown here.”

Grade-schoolers aren’t the only ones who see the farm-to-school process for themselves. Several Denver area teens are paid to work at the Bradley and Schmitt farms through an organization that partners with Produce Denver. It’s called Groundworks Denver and focuses on making urban environmental improvements.

Vitto Moscoso, who is going into 11th grade at Career Education Center Middle College of Denver, took a break from his work in a row of zucchini plants to talk about his farm job.

“I like working outdoors,” he said. It’s also nice “knowing it’s going to the schools.”

Future DPS farms

District leaders already know there’s room for more school farms in Denver. Wilson said a study funded by the Colorado Health Foundation a couple years found that there were about 18 acres of farmable land in the district at the time.

The farm at Bradley sits on an acre in the back corner of the campus.
PHOTO: Stephanie Snyder
The farm at Bradley sits on an acre in the back corner of the campus.

“There’s acres and acres of land that isn’t needed, that’s maybe either pea gravel or turf that isn’t being used by the kids and isn’t being used for athletics,” said Wilson.

Still, vacant land and the demand for produce in the 84,000-student district aren’t the only variables in the equation. There’s also the cost of setting up new irrigation systems, buying seeds and paying for labor.

“There is an upfront cost and that’s why we’re not doing 18 acres tomorrow,” said Wilson.

She said it’s too early in the farm project to determine if harvesting produce from campus farms save the district money.

“We’ll be better able to answer that question in a few years,” she said. “Certainly, we want to make sure it’s financially sustainable over the long haul.”

Future school building expansion is another factor that may affect the long-term trajectory of the farm project, potentially eating into the acreage identified in the Colorado Health Foundation study.

A nearly $100,000 grant recently awarded to the district by the U.S. Department of Agriculture will help the district map out its farming future. In addition to helping create a strategic plan, the grant will fund additional food safety initiatives, consultations about future farm sites as well as menu-planning and recipe-testing efforts.

Wilson said until the district creates more farmland, the food service department will have to supplement district-grown crops like tomatoes and cucumbers with produce from vendors.

Even so, she said, “It’s exciting because it still will reach all the schools we service.”

raising the curtain

Aurora high school students started rehearsing a musical about an earlier time — and discovered ‘harsh truths’ about today

Ebony Nash, left, sings during a rehearsal of Ragtime at Hinkley High School. (Photo by Yesenia Robles, Chalkbeat)

Nine weeks ago, more than 50 theater and choir students at Aurora’s Hinkley High School came together to begin work on a musical set in turn-of-the-20th-century New York.

At first, the kids did what high school students often do — cluster into familiar cliques, or self-segregate by race. Then the students started immersing themselves in the material.

The musical, “Ragtime,” intertwines the stories of a white family, a Jewish immigrant family and an African-American couple to spotlight differences and commonalities in the American experience.

At the urging of their teachers and directors, the Hinkley students began to use the plot and characters to examine their own actions, prejudice and biases. About 92 percent of Hinkley’s more than 2,100 students are students of color, the vast majority of them Latino.

The cliques and segregation slipped away. The production began taking shape.

“Ragtime” gets its Hinkley High School debut on Thursday and will be performed again on Friday and Saturday.

Chalkbeat sat down with a group of students involved in the production as they were in final preparations to learn about what their experience had taught them. The following is a portion of that conversation, slightly condensed and rearranged for clarity:

Janelle Douglas, a 17-year-old senior who portrays a friend of one of the story’s main characters, said the first time she saw and read through Ragtime, “it was intense.” She often cries as she rehearses her solo, sung during a funeral.

DOUGLAS: “I thought, this is powerful. This is overwhelming. This is amazing.”

Pamela Arzate, 17, plays the role of Evelyn Nesbit, a real model and actress who is incorporated into the fictional story and accused of being shallow.

ARZATE: “It’s very eye-opening because you look at it and it’s just a simple musical, but if you take a step back and go to the real world, it’s the exact same thing that’s going on today.”

Hodaly Sotelo, 17, plays the role of Mother, a woman whose attitudes toward her identity as a wife and woman evolve throughout the story.

SOTELO: “It reminds me of when I was younger and I was like, ‘Oh yeah, we’re over all that racism.’ But now, I look back and I think, what the heck? This stuff is still going on and we thought it was way over.”

Brianna Mauricio-Perez, 17, is one of two student directors.

MAURICIO-PEREZ: “It talks about all of the harsh truths that no one wants to talk about.”

DOUGLAS: “I think it’s safe to say it shows the true colors of our history.”

MAURICIO-PEREZ: “Even within our cast we did have to have a talk about how we were so separated because we were at the very beginning. Everyone was in their little groups and with their friends. You just want to keep to yourself.”

DOUGLAS: “It was literally ‘Ragtime.’”

MAURICIO-PEREZ: “We had a big talk with everybody. Things have gotten so much better. By the end of Act Two, we were all mixed up.”

Brenda Castellanos, 17, plays the role of Emma Goldman, drawn from a real-life political activist and anarchist.

CASTELLANOS: “Now that we’re closer, now that we’re all comfortable, we put in more effort.”

After nearly every rehearsal, teachers and directors give students a talk, urging them to immerse themselves in the feelings of their characters, relating to them if necessary through their parents, grandparents or ancestors who were immigrants, or through current events.

“What if you saw someone beaten, and bloodied and killed in front of you?” one director asked.

They also remind students of why the play should be impactful. “You have to figure out how for two-and-a-half hours you can give hope to that audience,” Marie Hayden, Hinkley’s choir director told students last week.

CASTELLANOS: “I think it it helps us. Every day, we get more into it and more into it until we actually believe it. You actually feel it — like how Janelle feels when she’s singing and she starts crying and makes everybody cry. We all feel connected.”

Students say they have different scenes that impact them the most, but they don’t hesitate to find how the scenes relate to their life despite the story being set in the first decade of the 1900s. Hayden’s class and the practice for the musical are safe places where they can discuss those parallels, they said.

Shavaun Mar, 16, is a junior who plays the main character of Coalhouse Walker Jr., a ragtime piano player who is the target of racial attacks and struggles with revenge and forgiveness.

MAR: “I feel like that is crucial that we give people those opportunities to talk because a lot of people have very valid things to say but they just don’t have a way to get it out.”

CASTELLANOS: “The shootings.”

ARZATE: “The racism. They help us discuss it because there’s so many things that are going on. Pretty much everyday there’s a tragedy going on. And so, in a way, we can use that sentiment, that emotion that we feel with the real world and convey it when we’re doing this show. We use those feelings and we try to think about it in that way. To display that emotion. To display it to everyone else. And not directly represent what’s going on today but just to give them that ‘aha’ moment, like ‘wow.’”

Ebony Nash, 17, plays the character of Sarah, an innocent girl who wants to help her boyfriend settle his problems.

NASH: “It just makes us want justice in real life because these things are still going on even though it’s not out there. It just makes us want justice for our community. This musical showed me that I need to become better within myself because I’m not perfect.”

SOTELO: “It opened my eyes a lot more for sure. This kind of just makes me realize the problems I have. It makes me realize yea, I’m having immigration issues with my father right now, but that also my friends, you know, they’re going through the same thing too. This DACA stuff or this coming out stuff. I became more accepting of what other people might be going through and how I can help.”

MAR: “The past few years, I have been in a bit of a shell. So putting myself in this situation and pushing myself to be this other person has really shown me what I’m capable of and it’s helping me break out of that shell and realize who I am as a person.”

NASH: “Basically, this is our getaway from real life because we get to come on stage and be somebody else. It also makes us want to put the story out right so people can understand. So people can feel what we want them to feel.”

CASTELLANOS: “That there’s hope after all this corruption that’s going on.”

DOUGLAS: “That even in your bad times you can still laugh, cry, dance.”

NASH: “What I want people to get from this is change. To learn how to change and learn how to forgive and learn how to come together as a community and just, like their worth.”

SOTELO: “And to be strong. To stand up for what’s right.”

ARZATE: “And it might sound weird, but I feel like they should feel a certain level of uncomfort because that means that they’re going to look at themselves while seeing the musical. Maybe they’ll go ‘I’m uncomfortable because I do that’ or ‘I have that prejudice’ or ‘I feel that certain way,’ so if they come out and they feel uncomfortable and then at the end they’re like, ‘Wow. There’s that hope for change.’ Hopefully that like…”

DOUGLAS: “… It inspires them to do better.”

ARZATE: “Like, you can do it.”

SOTELO: “It’s kind of like a water droplet. One small move can domino-effect to something bigger.”


Taking attendance

Want to make middle school admissions more fair? Stop looking at this measure, parents say

PHOTO: Monica Disare
Middle school students write their names down at a high school fair in Brooklyn.

Parents across New York City have pushed for changes in the way selective middle schools pick their students, saying the process is unfair.

Now, a group of Manhattan parents has come up with a novel solution: Stop looking at students’ attendance records.

The parent council in District 2 — where about 70 percent of middle schools admit students based on their academic records — points to research showing that students from low-income families are far more likely to miss school. Those children are at a distinct disadvantage in the competition for the district’s top middle school seats, the council argues, even though factors beyond the control of any fourth-grader — especially family homelessness — often account for poor attendance and tardiness.

“This outsized focus on attendance disproportionately impacts students who don’t have secure housing and may not have secure healthcare, and that is troubling to me,” said Eric Goldberg, a member of the community education council in District 2, which includes stretches of Lower Manhattan and the Upper East Side. “There are many factors that should not impact a student’s educational opportunities — and the way the system is set up, it does.”

Eighteen of the district’s 24 middle schools are “screened,” meaning they rank applicants based on factors including test scores, grades, and interviews. Of those, all but one school also considers how often students were late or absent in fourth grade, according to the parent council.

Most of the schools assign points to each factor they consider. Some give absences 10 times more weight than science or social studies grades, the council found, while others penalize students for even a single absence or instance of tardiness.

Disadvantaged students are especially likely to miss school.

A recent report by the city’s Independent Budget Office found that homeless students are more likely than other students to be chronically absent — typically defined as missing about 10 percent of the school year.

Schools with the highest chronic absenteeism are in communities in “deep poverty,” which have the highest rates of unemployment and family involvement with the child-welfare system, according to a 2014 report by the New School at the Center for New York City Affairs.

“We can use chronic absenteeism as a good guess of all the other things kids are dealing with,” said Nicole Mader, a senior research fellow at the New School and a co-author of the report. “If these middle schools are using absenteeism to weed kids out, that means they’re going to automatically weed out those kids who have the most barriers to academic success already.”

The attendance requirement can put pressure on any family, regardless of their financial status or housing situation.

Banghee Chi, a parent of two children in District 2, said she sometimes sent her younger daughter to school with a fever when she was in fourth grade rather than have her marked absent.

Her daughter would show up to class only to be sent to the school’s health clinic — which would call Chi to pick her up. Chi was thinking ahead to middle school, when a missed day of class could hurt her chances of getting into the most sought-after schools.

“It was something I was really conscious and aware of during my child’s fourth-grade year,” she said. “I think it’s unfair.”

The education council’s resolution, which will be put to vote in December, is nonbinding because middle schools set their own admissions criteria. But a show of support from parents could lead to action from the education department, which has been prodded by integration advocates to make other changes in high school and middle school admissions.

This summer, the department announced it would end the practice of “revealed rankings,” which allowed middle schools to select only those students who listed them first or second on their applications. The city is also appointing a committee of parents, educators, and community leaders in Brooklyn’s District 15 to come up with a proposal for making that district’s middle school applications process more fair.

“We’re collaborating with communities across the city to make school admissions more equitable and inclusive, including in District 2,” said department spokesman Will Mantell in an email. The department looks forward “to further conversations about this resolution and other efforts to improve middle school admissions in District 2.”