learning on the move

Fresh air, exercise and a dose of learning

Fifth-graders at Kenton Elementary school participate listen to a 16-minute podcast on trickster characters in literature.

There wasn’t a whisper of conversation among Kari Burkett’s fifth-graders as they walked a mile around the grounds of Aurora’s Kenton Elementary School on a recent sunny morning. Just the sound of footfalls and the caw of birds flying overhead.

The students, all equipped with small black listening devices and earphones, were absorbed in a recording about trickster characters like Br’er Rabbit. The walk-and-listen routine happens once or twice a week in Burkett’s classroom.

Laura Fenn, executive director of The Walking Classroom Institute, came up with the idea when she was a fifth-grade teacher. She bought a class set of MP3 players using grant funds and recorded her own lessons or downloaded content from the Internet.
Laura Fenn, executive director of The Walking Classroom Institute, came up with the idea when she was a fifth-grade teacher. At first, she bought a class set of MP3 players using grant funds and recorded her own lessons or downloaded Internet content.

It’s part of The Walking Classroom, a four-year-old program based in Chapel Hill, NC, that allows students to get exercise while they listen to standards-aligned podcasts on language arts, history and science. In an era when many teachers feel overwhelmed by the push for better test scores and health advocates regularly sound the alarm on childhood obesity, The Walking Classroom attempts to address both problems.

All told, more than 30 fourth- and fifth-grade classrooms in 20 Colorado schools, from the Denver area up to Loveland, participate in the program. Many of the schools have large populations of low-income students or English-language learners.

Normally, a classroom set of Walking Classroom materials, including listening devices called WalkKits, costs $3,000, but sponsors like Kaiser Permanente Colorado allow many schools to participate for free. Burkett said the audio lesson, which correlate particularly well with her writing lessons, give students new ways to learn and reinforce academic content.

“I have a variety of learners, a variety of different language-learners…it’s an opportunity to do something different instead of just listening to me,” she said. “[They’re] able to connect a little bit more to what we’re learning in class.”

Program co-founder Laura Fenn, who visited Kenton and other participating Colorado schools last week, emphasized the link between exercise and attention.

The Walking Classroom

  • Launched: 2011
  • Used in: 46 states, including in more than 30 Colorado classrooms in 20 schools
  • Not to be used during: Physical education class or recess
  • 2014-15 Kaiser Permanente Colorado sponsorship: $95,000 for 21 classroom sets
  • More information: thewalkingclassroom.org

“We hear over and over again that the kids come back [from Walking Classroom sessions] and they’re more focused, they’re more productive and they’ve gotten some exercise,” she said.

The positive effect of exercise on the brain is something Carla Witt, a Kaiser Permanente doctor who also visited Kenton last week, said is clearly visible in magnetoencephalagrams, or pictures of the brain.

“When you have someone who’s been sitting…they’re recruiting just a fraction of their brain,” she said. “When you have them walk like this and now you take a picture of their brain…they’re recruiting substantially more.”

Jonathan Rodriguez shows off his WalkKit before heading outside. The devices come pre-loaded with 85-90 podcasts that are aligned to fourth- and fifth-grade Common Core standards.
Jonathan Rodriguez shows off his WalkKit before heading outside. The devices come pre-loaded with 85-90 podcasts that are aligned to fourth- and fifth-grade Common Core standards.

In their own way, students also seem to notice a difference.

Ten-year-old Katherine Sanchez said she likes The Walking Classroom “because I get to exercise and when I come to learn I get the questions that the teacher asks right.”

Burkett and another teacher at Kenton adopted The Walking Classroom last year after the school got two classroom sets of the WalkKits through a Kaiser sponsorship. At first, she wasn’t sure how the program would work.

“There’s so many assessments and we have a pretty rigorous schedule.”

Nevertheless, she set aside 15-20 minutes for The Walking Classroom every Friday, and sometimes other days of the week. She assigned a leader and a caboose and students soon got used to strolling around the playground while listening to lessons on everything from similes to famous poems.

“If we don’t get to do it every week they get pretty disappointed,” said Burkett.

Local funding

Aurora board to consider placing school tax hike on November ballot

A kindergarten teacher at Kenton Elementary in Aurora, Colorado helps a student practice saying and writing numbers on a Thursday afternoon in February 2017. (Photo by Yesenia Robles, Chalkbeat)

Seeking to boost student health and safety and raise teacher pay, Aurora school officials will consider asking voters to approve a $35 million tax plan in November.

The school board will hear its staff’s proposal for the proposed ballot measure Tuesday. The board may discuss the merits of the plan but likely would not decide whether to place it on the ballot until at least the following week.

Aurora voters in 2016 approved a bond request which allowed the district to take on $300 million in debt for facilities, including the replacement building for Mrachek Middle School, and building a new campus for a charter school from the DSST network.

But this year’s proposed tax request is for a mill levy override, which is ongoing local money that is collected from property taxes and has less limitations for its use.

Aurora officials are proposing to use the money, estimated to be $35 million in 2019, to expand staff and training for students’ mental health services, expanding after-school programs for elementary students, adding seat belts to school buses, and boosting pay “to recruit and retain high quality teachers.”

The estimated cost for homeowners would be $98.64 per year, or $8.22 per month, for each $100,000 of home value.

Based on previous discussions, current board members appear likely to support the recommendation.

During budget talks earlier this year, several board members said they were interested in prioritizing funding for increased mental health services. The district did allocate some money from the 2018-19 budget to expand services, described as the “most urgent,” and mostly for students with special needs, but officials had said that new dollars could be needed to do more.

The teacher pay component was written into the contract approved earlier this year between the district and the teachers union. If Aurora voters approved the tax measure, then the union and school district would reopen negotiations to redesign the way teachers are paid.

In crafting the recommendation, school district staff will explain findings from focus groups and polling. Based on polls conducted of 500 likely voters by Frederick Polls, 61 percent said in July they would favor a school tax hike.

The district’s presentation for the board will also note that outreach and polling indicate community support for teacher pay raises, student services and other items that a tax hike would fund.



Language barriers

Aurora school district expands translation and interpretation in response to parent demands

Patricia Shaw, an interpreter for Aurora Public Schools, left, shows Indonesia Maye how to use the transmitters during a back-to-school event at Aurora West College Preparatory Academy on August 6. Maye was hired by the district to interpret to Somali students and their families at the event. (Photo by RJ Sangosti/The Denver Post)

Hsa Mlu, a mother of four children, recently started receiving communications from her sons’ Aurora schools in her native Southeast Asian language, Karen.

“I am so excited,” Mlu, who has two sons in Aurora schools, said through an interpreter. “I am sure it’s going to be better for parents.”

In the past Mlu said that when she received communications in English from her children’s schools, she would rush it over to a friend’s house — even in the rain or snow — to ask for help.

“I didn’t understand what I had to do or what it was for,” Mlu said.

Mlu is one of the parent leaders who has been working with the nonprofit organization RISE Colorado for more than a year to ask Aurora Public Schools to improve language services. Parents, like Mlu, have shared stories with the district and the school board, about how their language barriers have prevented them from being more involved in their children’s education. Teachers also said it was a problem for them.

Top 10 languages in APS by number of parents who have listed it as a preference for communication

  • English, 26,617
  • Spanish, 11,316
  • Amharic, 386
  • Nepali, 268
  • Somali, 241
  • Burmese, 205
  • Vietnamese, 174
  • Arabic, 171
  • Karen, 157
  • French, 119

Source: Aurora Public Schools

In response, the district last year started working on translating some documents, and training secretaries and school staff to use the district’s system to send out automated calls in various languages. Board members responded by passing a resolution to prohibit educators from relying on children to translate official or formal discussions with parents. And this summer, the district included $200,000 in its 2018-19 budget to centralize language services under the communications office.

“Our families are feeling really excited that their voices were heard,” said RISE Colorado’s co-founder and CEO Veronica Crespin-Palmer.

Now Aurora educators, such as principals and teachers, can use a simplified, common form online to ask the district for help with translations or interpretations for their students’ families.

It’s a change from years past when language help was scattered among various district departments with each department available for only particular purposes. It was a process educators and families said wasn’t easy to understand.

Having all of the district’s expertise in one office now should help in coordinating and filling language requests, said Patti Moon, the district’s chief communication officer.

District officials expect that the simplified process will increase demand for translation or interpretation services this school year, and so the district is preparing to expand its abilities with the allocated money.

In part, that means adding services in more languages. Right now, Aurora has in-house language services for Spanish, but in a district where families have listed 143 different languages as their preferred language, there’s a need for more.

In one step to make more interpreters available, the district has been certifying its own bilingual staff in translation, so they can be available after work to pick up assignments translating or interpreting for school or district events. Currently, district officials say there are more than 120 district-approved interpreters, and officials want to recruit more. District interpreters and other staff can provide interpretation in 14 languages.

The district also has a partnership with interpreters-in-training from the Community College of Aurora.

Aurora also plans to use some of the money to improve quality by providing professional training to language services staff.

But the parents’ work will continue, said the mother, Mlu. Parents requested to continue monthly meetings with the district’s language staff to provide feedback about how the schools are rolling out the changes. The district agreed to continue the collaboration.

In addition to streamlining its internal communications, the district is providing one service designed for parents and the community: the introduction of language identification cards.

RISE parents designed the business-size cards that the district printed in the top 10 languages, with a blank space for people to fill in their name to show school attendants what language they speak. Accompanying one-sheet forms include translations of common requests such as excusing a child from school, requesting a meeting with a teacher, or asking for an interpreter. (See a copy of both below)

The cards will be made available in schools for parents to use and have an easier time communicating simple requests, or asking for an interpreter.

Crespin-Palmer said she hopes the cards, the process, and the changes the district is making can be a model for other districts.

Mlu said she appreciates the significant changes she’s seen so far. But, she said, she’s still wants the district to know she’s watching.

“We are parent leaders, and we keep watching the for the interpretation and translation to improve,” she said. “We’re working toward it too.”