down with bake sales?

New rules may force schools to look at fundraising through a healthier lens

PHOTO: Michelle Bushel
Kindergarten students participate in the fun run at Lowry Elementary School in Denver last year.

When Allison Howe’s son started preschool in the Morgan County School District two years ago, her stomach churned when she learned about the school’s chief fundraising tool: frozen pie.

For Howe, a mother of three and healthy living blogger, it presented an ethical dilemma. She felt the pies were unhealthy and overpriced and she knew her northeastern Colorado region had the highest rate of child obesity in the state. At the same time, she knew that kids who sold the most earned prizes and special recognition. Plus, the fund-raiser consistently brought in $10,000 a year for the district-run Sherman Early Childhood Center.

“It felt icky,” she said.

Fast forward to this fall. With the help of a supportive principal, Sherman’s pie fund-raiser is gone in favor of catalog sales and an online donation platform. That said, Howe is not exactly waving a victory flag. She’s still frustrated by the resistance from some parents and staff to what she calls “overtly healthy” fundraisers like jogathons. She also believes the district lacks a cohesive approach to remaking the fund-raising landscape around healthier options.

But for Howe and other wellness advocates across Colorado, things may get a bit easier this year with the implementation of new federal rules that put stricter limits on some school fund-raisers. While the “Smart Snacks in Schools” rules won’t ban the sale of cookie dough, frozen pizza or pie, which are generally meant for consumption outside of school, they could curtail in-school bake sales and candy sales, and eliminate products like chips and Gatorade from school stores.

Nutrient standards for snack items under Smart Snacks in Schools

    • Maximum calories: Up to 200
    • Maximum sodium: Up to 230 mg
    • Total fat: Up to 35% of calories
    • Saturated fat: Less than 10 percent of calories
    • Trans fat: 0 grams
    • Maximum sugar: Up to 35% of weight from total sugars
*Foods exempt from the rules include fresh fruit and vegetables, certain canned fruits and vegetables, low-fat cheese, nuts, seeds, nut and seed butters, dried fruit with no added sweeteners, and sugar-free chewing gum.

The Smart Snacks rules, which took effect July 1, establish limits on calories, sodium, fat and sugar in “competitive” foods sold at schools. In addition to food-based fundraisers that occur on campus during school hours, the rules apply to vending machine products and a la carte items sold in the cafeteria line.

Perhaps more important than the nutritional nitty gritty of the new rules, is the overarching message that school-sanctioned junk food–even if it’s lucrative for student council or PTA- is wearing out its welcome. Emily Jacobs, wellness coordinator for the Adams 50 school district, said she hopes the new rules will help build awareness about healthy fundraising options.

“I think that it’s something that’s been off the radar and is slowly creeping up and getting more attention,” she said. “Each year, as we get one or two people on board…the needle will move a little more in that direction.

Ch- ch- changes

At many schools, the concept of  non-food fund-raisers is nothing new. Some schools have been sponsoring walkathons, fun runs, plant sales, coupon book sales, car washes and auctions for years. But food fundraisers remain popular, and the desire for tried-and-true revenue streams can make them hard to shake. That’s part of what made the pies so appealing in Fort Morgan, said Howe.

“It’s not that teachers care about the actual product, it’s more the consistent funding every year,” she said.

Jacobs found the same thing when she worked in the Adams 14 school district several years ago and questioned the wisdom of annual candy bar sales.

“I was told right off the bat, ‘Don’t touch our fund-raisers,’” she said. “One principal said, ‘We make $20,000 off these chocolate bars…That funds our books. We literally need these.’”

Some school leaders believe the trick is a gradual weaning so that other kinds of fund-raisers have time to prove their worth. At Putnam Elementary School in Fort Collins, a candy bar fund-raiser has routinely brought in $4,000-$5,000 a year, said Melissa Rivera, the school’s child nutrition manager and wellness leader. But last year, Rivera and the Parent-Teacher Organization decided to add a jogathon during the school’s annual field day

It didn’t raise a lot of money—a modest $1,144, but it was a fun community-building event that organizers plan to continue. Meanwhile, chocolate bars will be phased out of the school’s fund-raising mix.

Over the next three years, Rivera said, “That’s the one we’re trying to kick out.”

Exceptions to the rule

Even with the new Smart Snack rules, Colorado schools will still have some leeway to sponsor occasional in-school candy sales or bake sales. That’s because every state is allowed to set the number of “exempt” fund-raisers that each school building can have annually. In Colorado, that number is three, though the maximum duration of those fund-raisers isn’t specified.

About 30 states chose to give schools no exemptions, while a few grant so many or give so much flexibility it seems the rules hardly apply. For example, Georgia and Tennessee allow 30 exemptions per building and Wisconsin allows two exemptions per student organization per year.

Amanda Mercer, a program specialist with the Office of School Nutrition at the Colorado Department of Education, said when districts in the state were surveyed about the number of exemptions to offer, most landed in the zero to five range. Some expressed concerns about having to decide which school groups would get to sponsor an exempt fundraiser.

The issue could be particularly tricky at the high school level where between sports teams, student clubs and parent-teacher groups, there might be scores of fundraisers each year. Take Weld County District 6, for example. Last year, 64 groups at the district’s three high schools ran 132 fundraisers, with per-school numbers ranging from 39 to 53.

Not surprisingly, the process for monitoring fundraisers and ensuring compliance with Smart Snacks rules will vary by district. In Weld 6, the Nutrition Services Department will begin assisting the Office of Academic Achievement with the process this year, flagging fundraisers that don’t comply with the federal nutrition requirements. The mechanism for deciding who will get to run exempt fundraisers is still unclear because the issue hasn’t arisen yet, said Jeremy West, the district’s nutrition service director.

CDE officials plan to solicit feedback from district officials later in the school year about the new rules.

“We plan to…assess how this has impacted schools to see if we’re going to continue with the three exemptions next year or revise that,” said Mercer.

Moving the needle

While talk of Smart Snacks rules has been moving through school food service circles for months, many educators and parents are just beginning to hear about them. West said when he covered the topic with district principals this summer, they were apprehensive. To some, it felt like the sky was falling.

“It’s going to make our sponsors of our clubs a little more creative,” he said.

It may also require persistence and finesse. Some advocates of healthy fundraisers have discovered reluctance to try family-inclusive events like jogathons because of concerns that it puts extra stress on struggling parents working multiple jobs. Similarly, there’s a sense that  families who are contributing in any way might stop if organizers rock the fund-raising boat.

“Let’s not give our parents more barriers,” is the message Jacobs sometimes hears.

For her part, Howe plans to continue pushing for healthy fund-raisers though she knows it will take time.

“It’s all about managing transitions,” she said. “It’s a lot of PR work.”

A training being developed by the non-profit RMC Health may help. Focused around healthy fundraisers, celebrations and rewards in schools, the training is set launch in early 2015 with 23 districts that have been part of the “Healthy Schools, Successful Students” grant program.

Baseball players at Greeley West High School shucked corn on a recent afternoon as part of the team's fundraising effort.
Baseball players from Greeley West High School shucked corn on a recent afternoon as part of the team’s fundraising effort.

Even with the new rules, some school groups won’t have to change much about their fundraising repertoire. Take the baseball team at Greeley West High School. On a recent afternoon, more than a dozen coaches, players and parents shucked 1,800 ears of corn in the district’s central production kitchen as part of an annual fundraising effort that nets $400 over two days. It will help pay for the team’s annual spring break trip to California.

Shucking the corn that will end up in school lunches during the fall is an opportunity West began offering to various teams and clubs five years ago when he realized it would be cheaper to do the work in-house than pay the local farmer to do it.

In addition to corn-shucking, Coach Brian Holmes said his team will sell Qdoba cards, run the concession stand at a high school football game, and work with a local Buick dealership to get people to test drive cars. In the past, the team cleaned out ditches in a local subdivision.

“I like kids to do fundraisers that involve them working for their money. I think they appreciate it more,” he said.

Some schools, like Lowry Elementary in Denver, have recently turned toward active fundraisers, but it wasn’t because of Smart Snacks rules. Instead, parent organizers decided to switch from catalog and magazine-type sales to a fun run last fall with the hopes that it would be enjoyable, healthy and allow every child to participate.

As for fundraising side of things, parent April Archer, co-chair of the school wellness team, said the idea was, “Let’s ask people to contribute to our school–not in exchange for anything–and see what happens.”

What happened was an event with almost no overhead and a $16,000 return.

“It wasn’t like we had elaborate tents and banners and decorations…It was all about getting kids running, dancing, skipping and jumping,… getting people involved and having a lot of fun,” she said.

Mission accomplished.

How I Help

Why this high school counselor asks students, ‘What do you wish your parents knew?’

Today, we launch a new series called “How I Help,” which features school counselors, social workers and psychologists across Colorado. It is a companion to our popular “How I Teach” and “How I Lead” series.

Through “How I Help,” we hope to give readers a glimpse into the professional lives of school staff members who often work behind the scenes but nevertheless have a big impact on the day-to-day lives of students.

Our first “How I Help” features Cassie Poncelow, a counselor at Poudre High School in Fort Collins. She was the 2016 Colorado School Counselor of the Year and is one of six finalists for the 2018 National School Counselor of the Year award.

Poncelow talked to Chalkbeat about how she creates a legacy of caring, what teens want their parents to know and why peer-to-peer mentoring is better than a social-emotional curriculum taught by adults.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.

Why did you become a school counselor?
I was incredibly fortunate to have many powerful educators shape my life in my time as a student, but none did more so than my school counselors. My counselor from high school remains a dear friend and mentor. I knew that I wanted to be a part of what is happening in education and loved the diversity of the school counselor job. They get to collaborate with so many different stakeholders, get to know students in really cool ways and be involved with so many aspects of making change.

Cassie Poncelow

Tell us about an effort or initiative you spearheaded at your school that you’re particularly proud of.
Three years ago, we noticed that students were dropping out continuously because they were short on graduation credits and tired of taking the same classes over and over again. I worked with a team to create Opportunities Unlimited, which is a dropout recovery program for students ages 17-21 that is focused on GED completion and concurrent enrollment opportunities. A fifth cohort started this fall and the program has graduated 26 students in two years.

Is there a tool, curriculum or program you couldn’t live without in your job?
Our Ambassadors program is in many ways the backbone of our climate and culture at Poudre High School. This program trains 50 upperclassmen to mentor freshmen through a year-long curriculum that includes topics like stress management, suicide prevention and sexual assault. This mentoring model means that every freshman has an ambassador that is connecting with them for almost three hours each month. The ambassadors deliver comprehensive, peer-to-peer education that is far beyond and better than any social-emotional learning curriculum that counselors could facilitate. As the co-leader for this program, I also couldn’t live without the hope that this crew gives me. They are the best part of my job.

What’s the biggest misconception you’ve encountered about your role in the school(s) where you work?
I am grateful to work in a place and with people who see the vital role of school counselors and are eager to partner with them. In my time at Poudre High School we have added two new school counseling positions, further demonstrating our school’s belief in the work we do. I have worked at schools in the past that created a lot of systemic barriers to accessing school counselors and I think this was based on a misconception that we were a more frivolous part of services for students.

You spend lots of time with students. Knowing what you know, what advice would you give to parents?
I often ask my students, “What do you wish your parents knew?” What I hear consistently is a plea for them to remember what it was like to be 16: How painful and awkward it was, how boys were all the rage and not getting invited somewhere really was the actual worst.

So, I advise parents to remember that. And remember that a lot of what they dealt with at 16 is even more complicated by the world our kids are experiencing. Social media wasn’t a reality when they were kids and our current students have never known a world where mass shootings haven’t happened often. I know it’s no, “I walked uphill both ways without shoes in the snow,” but this is a scary time to be student — different, but equally hard. Our kids need us to hear them in that. And believe that they can change it.

Tell us about a time when you managed to connect with a challenging student or a student facing a difficult situation. How did you do it?
At my core, I think we all thrive on authentic relationships and I do whatever I can to create these with my students. I want each of my students to feel like I am truly in their corner and a champion not only of what they do but more so of who they are. I hope to not only live this, but to model it for my students in ways that inspire them to do the same.

This semester I have a freshman boy who was consistently skipping class (who knew gas station tacos were such a draw?) and failing multiple classes. His “consequence” is that he has to spend a period working on missing work in my office. I also have a slew of seniors who have made my office their home during this fifth hour, many who are excellent students and are just looking for a place to study. They have taken this freshman under their wing and are committed to his success far beyond what I could ever be. They are constantly asking about his upcoming exams, what he needs help with and celebrating his rising grades with him. I think I have built really authentic relationships with these upperclassmen who then remember what it means to feel connected and cared for and are passionate about showing this student just that. I often stress “legacy” to my students and this seems like a clear picture of that.

What is the hardest part of your job?
Kid stuff is hard. I hurt for kids a lot, as I think all educators do. They live lives far beyond our walls and far beyond what we could imagine and ever control. That’s the hardest. Close second would be trying to operate in a system that seems to be driven by folks who aren’t doing the work. I recognize that there are so many moving pieces and would love to have some of the actual “decision-makers” come spend the day in our role and better understand the work we do.

Tell us about a memorable time — good or bad — when contact with a student’s family changed your perspective or approach.
A year ago, I had a student who was really struggling with some significant mental health issues. I knew that we needed to bring in a parent but the girl was very anxious about this idea, to the point where she had literally crumpled up on my office floor. After calling her mom to meet with us, I joined her on the floor of my office to talk more. Her mom walked in shortly after, assessed the scene and sat right down on the floor with us, despite the chair-filled room. This move shifted everything and I was so grateful for her wisdom to be where her kid was at. It was a good reminder to me to do that always: be where kids are at.

You spend your days trying to help students and staff with any number of things. How do you wind down after a stressful day?
A lot of my unwinding still includes my students as I announce volleyball games or attend other sporting events or performances. I love these opportunities because they let me see my kids in a different light and remind me how awesome they are. I also spend as much time outside as possible, whether it’s going for a quick hike with my pup or a bike ride. Beyond traveling and reading, I cheer hard for the CSU Rams! Go State!

Big money

Millions in grant dollars will bring more counselors to Indiana’s underserved students

KIPP Indy was one of several schools in the county to receive a counseling grant.

Scores of Indiana schools were awarded private grants that will allow them to bolster counseling services for students, many of whom are lacking help for an increasing portfolio of problems, including fallout from the state’s drug epidemic and basic needs like advice on college applications.

The $26.4 million in grants, decided last month, include six for Marion County districts and charter schools. They were awarded by Lilly Endowment, a prominent Indianapolis-based philanthropy founded by key players in the pharmaceutical giant Eli Lilly.

The grants went to 52 school districts and five charter schools, covering about a third of the state’s counties. Based on enrollment, they ranged from about $68,000 to almost $3 million.

Lilly began its push to help schools build better counseling programs last year.

“The response from school corporations and charter schools far exceeded the Endowment’s expectations,” said Sara B. Cobb, the Endowment’s vice president for education. “We believe that this response demonstrates a growing awareness that enhanced and expanded counseling programs are urgently needed to address the academic, college, career, and social and emotional counseling needs of Indiana’s K-12 students.”

As Chalkbeat previously reported, school counselors have been stretched exceedingly thin in recent years, both in Indiana and across the country. On average, each Hoosier counselor is responsible for 630 students, making Indiana 45th out of 50 states and the District of Columbia for counselor-to-student ratios. The American School Counselor Association recommends a ratio of no higher than one counselor for every 250 students.

So far, state-led efforts to expand counseling have fallen short; a bill proposed in 2015 to require a counselor in every school was withdrawn for further study, and the issue hasn’t resurfaced significantly in the legislature since. At the time, cost was the sticking point.

Schools and districts had to apply for the grants and show how they would use the money. Lilly reported that mental health and business partnerships, mentoring programs, improving curriculum and adding in more training for staff were all strategies that grant-winners have proposed.

Initially, 254 districts and charter schools applied, many pointing out how Indiana’s recent opioid crisis has increased social and emotional challenges for students. Counselors have to juggle those serious needs with college and career advising and, increasingly, responsibilities that have nothing to do with counseling, such as overseeing standardized tests.

Because of the level of interest, Lilly is planning a second round of grants, which would total up to $10 million.

“Because the implementation grant process was so competitive, the Endowment had to decline several proposals that had many promising features,” Cobb said. “We believe that with a few enhancements, many of these proposals will be very competitive in the second round of the Counseling Initiative.”

These are the districts and schools in Marion County that received counseling grants. (Find the full list here.)

  • Indianapolis Public Schools: $2,871,400
  • KIPP Indianapolis: $100,000
  • Lawrence Township: $1,527,400
  • Pike Township: $1,114,700
  • Neighborhood Charter Network: $68,312
  • Southeast Neighborhood School of Excellence: $99,870

IPS said in a news release that it planned to use the grant money to build counseling centers in each of the district’s high schools, which would begin operating in 2018 after IPS transitions to four high schools. Superintendent Lewis Ferebee said counselors are “critical” for students as they prepare to graduate high school and pursue higher education and careers.

“We’re thrilled that the students and families we serve will benefit from this gift,” Ferebee said.