Healthy Schools

AFT prez sees best, worst in DPS, Dougco

Randi Weingarten, president of the 1.5 million-member American Federation of Teachers, viewed her visit to Colorado on Wednesday as a kind of tale of two cities, with lots of Dickensian overtones.

AFT president Randi Weingarten and members of the Denver Federation for Paraprofessionals and Nutrition Service Employees, who helped design an incentive plan with the help of a union grant.

On the one hand, there was her lunchtime visit to Denver’s Cole Arts & Science Academy, where she met with members of the Denver Federation for Paraprofessionals and Nutrition Service Employees. The Denver union received an AFT Innovation Fund grant last year to create a model employee incentive pay program called “The Good Food! Incentive Project” to reinforce the district’s nutrition and wellness efforts to combat obesity among schoolchildren.

The pay-for-performance system was jointly designed by labor and management, and rewards school lunchroom workers for making meals so enticing and nutritious that more youngsters will eat them. The program is being piloted in DPS this year and, if successful, may be replicated by other districts nationwide.

It was all lovey-dovey and harmonious as Weingarten joined representatives from both labor and management around a Cole lunchroom table as they dined on the same menu items students were having – meatloaf, mashed potatoes, fruit, salad, a whole-grain roll and low-fat milk. This was after Weingarten, a lawyer-turned-teacher-turned-union activist, took a turn serving students on the lunch line.

‘Political and malevolent’ school board draws her wrath

But then the subject of Douglas County came up, and Weingarten turned into the street fighter she’s noted for being. She had harsh words for Douglas County district leadership.

Strong words
  • Weingarten’s visit prompted a letter from state Sen. Ted Harvey, R-Highlands Ranch, a staunch supporter of Dougco’s school board: “On the issue of school reform, Ms. Weingarten and her union are decidedly on the wrong side of history.” Read the full letter.

“This is what’s infuriating to me,” said Weingarten. “Here we have Denver, which took the germ of an idea and it has blossomed into this amazing thing with workers and management re-envisioning the school kitchen.

“And across the border is Douglas County, where the school board is only interested in its own power. Douglas County schools used to be on the cutting edge in Colorado. But rather than respect the staff, for political and malevolent reasons the board has undermined the public education system that once was known as the jewel of Colorado.”

Since the 2009 elections brought a conservative majority to the school board, relations between the board and the Douglas County Federation of Teachers – which has represented the district’s teachers for more than 40 years – have dramatically deteriorated.

Dougco’s 3,300 teachers are now working without a union contract after public negotiations stalled and the 2011-12 contract expired July 1. That makes Douglas County the largest district in the state in which teachers are working without a collective bargaining agreement.

There have been disputes over issues such as whether the district would continue to pay half the costs of the union’s staff salaries and about deducting union dues from teachers paychecks. Both practices have now stopped.

Last month, board members backed off a plan to put three measures on the November ballot that would have severed all district-union ties, if approved. But they did make changes in policy that have similar effects.

“They took something that was collaborative for 20 years and destroyed it,” said DCFT president Brenda Smith, who accompanied Weingarten on her visit. “They have an absolute political agenda.”

Dougco official says Weingarten visit shows union agenda

Douglas County school board President John Carson said Weingarten’s visit and her comments about the district “demonstrate what we’ve been arguing for the last year.”

“The Douglas County Federation of Teachers is really more interested in national politics and is not interested in the educational interests of kids in Douglas County.”
– John Carson, Dougco board

“The Douglas County Federation of Teachers really has its strings pulled by the national union in Washington, D.C., and that’s demonstrated by the fact that that’s where they send the majority of their union dues, to the national union for politics,” Carson said. “The Douglas County Federation of Teachers is really more interested in national politics and is not interested in the educational interests of kids in Douglas County.”

Weingarten was to meet with Gov. John Hickenlooper after leaving Cole, then spend the late afternoon at an AFL-CIO union phone bank, meeting with workers and local activists and making calls to discuss with voters what’s at stake for them in the November election.

Dougco union leaders have asked the state to intervene in the district-union issues, and both Dougco district and union officials have previously met with Hickenlooper to discuss the matter.

“We feel that the important thing here is that the voters of Douglas County and the elected representatives of Douglas County make the ultimate decisions concerning the school district and the education of Douglas County kids,” Carson said.

That said, “we’re interested in working with Gov. Hickenlooper on education reform and we feel we agree on many things,” Carson added. “We particularly agree on the need to increase the performance of our schools and to reward great teachers, so we look forward to working with him on areas where we agree.”

Weingarten promised, “The AFT is in this for the long haul.

“This is not my first trip to Colorado, and it won’t be my last,” she said. “I’m here to say to Douglas County, ‘What the heck are you doing? And why are you doing this?’ They are attempting to destroy the public education system. It is absolute political machination.”

But she had nothing but praise for the Denver pay-for-performance experiment.

“To see this kind of engagement is incredible,” she said. “When I taught full-time, my administrative duty was being in the lunchroom. The difference between my lunchroom and this, well, it’s amazing. This really shows tremendous respect.”

Lunchroom workers say they’re more engaged

Tracy Young, lunchroom manager at Denver’s Morey Middle School, served on the team that designed the incentive program.

Weingarten, a former classroom teacher, took a turn serving students on the lunch line at Cole Arts & Science Academy in Denver.

“We thought it would be easy when we started, but oh my goodness … ” she said. She said the team met every week for an entire year to craft the program, which provides financial bonuses to lunchroom workers based on individual performance, school performance and district performance in meeting certain targets.

“The amount of the bonus all depends on us,” said Sandi Torres, food service worker at Schmitt Elementary, who was also on the design team. “We’re working now as a team more. We understand our responsibilities more in-depth. In the past, someone might have said, ‘Oh, that’s a manager’s job.’ But now everyone is pitching in. And we’re working more in marketing to get the kids involved.”

Denver has been a leader among Colorado school districts in the move to scratch cooking, salad bars and school gardens. The district has also embraced breakfast-in-the-classroom, which it plans to eventually roll out to all Denver schools. Some of the schools participate in a federally-funded program to deliver a piece of fresh fruit or vegetable to every student, every day in their classroom.

“It’s a lot of work, but often, we’re the first person a child sees in the morning,” said Torres. “And sometimes, what they say makes me cry. I’ve heard them say ‘This is the first food I’ve had since Friday,’ or ‘I just had popcorn for dinner.’”

Young said the number of breakfasts she serves every morning at Morey has jumped from 160 to 200 when breakfast was served in the cafeteria to 600 now that it is served in the classroom.

DPS lunch workers: No pushback to healthier foods now

Recent national media reports have depicted students pushing back against the healthier school food requirements mandated by Congress this fall.

But Denver lunchroom workers say the pushback against the new school nutrition guidelines isn’t much of an issue in DPS.

“We got a jump on that. We started this a long time ago,” said Sandi Torres, food service worker at Schmitt Elementary. “We’re training our students early now. A salad bar is great because they get to decide what to take, and they eat what they take. They begin to realize at a young age what foods have more nutrition.

“I think it’s becoming more stylish for students to eat a salad now. Our salad bars are so colorful, with all those different mixtures of lettuce, and our wonderful selection of fresh fruits.”

Added Tracy Young, lunchroom manager at Morey Middle School: “And those seventh- and eighth-grade girls who are thinking of becoming anorexic, they can still eat a nutritious salad. And the boys who are always starving can go back again and again to the salad bar. And they do.”

En pointe

How ballet is energizing one Memphis school — and helped save it from closing

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Briana Brown, an instructor with New Ballet Ensemble, prepares her first-grade dance students for a performance at Dunbar Elementary School in Memphis.

Instructor Briana Brown counts aloud as first-graders in pink leotards skip across a classroom floor to practice their leaps and twirls — a weekly highlight for students at Dunbar Elementary School.

In the South Memphis neighborhood, ballet lessons offered through the nonprofit New Ballet Ensemble introduce students to the art of dance at a school with few resources for extracurricular activities.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Ten-year-old Briana Davis is among 40 students receiving dance instruction at Dunbar Elementary School.

Ten-year-old Briana Davis is among the beneficiaries.

Before joining New Ballet’s class, she danced throughout her mom’s house, just a short walk from Dunbar in the city’s historic African-American community of Orange Mound. Now, Briana is among about 40 Dunbar students who jeté and pirouette in a makeshift classroom studio at Dunbar, or after school in a studio at the group’s headquarters in midtown Memphis.

“I want to keep dancing and to be a dance teacher when I grow up,” Briana said. “I think this is really special. If I hadn’t done ballet at school, I don’t know if I ever would have danced for real and not just at home.”

For eight years, New Ballet Ensemble has been teaching classes at Dunbar and offering scholarships to a talented few to continue their dance education outside of school time. Here under the tutelage of teaching artists who are fluent in classical ballet and other styles of dance, they learn to follow instructions, practice new positions, strengthen young muscles and develop discipline, all while expressing themselves creatively and learning about a world beyond Orange Mound.

But the Memphis dance company’s work has gone far beyond teaching students how to plié and fondu. Thanks to grants that New Ballet helped secure, Dunbar now has a community garden and parent resource center.

And when Dunbar was on the chopping block to be closed this year by Shelby County Schools, New Ballet dancers, instructors and supporters showed up en force at school board meetings. The district later reversed its decision and opted to keep Dunbar open. Superintendent Dorsey Hopson cited community support as a reason for his change of heart.

Katie Smythe founded New Ballet Ensemble in 2001 to teach dance, but quickly discovered how her organization’s work was being limited by a dearth of community resources available to public schools in Memphis.

“We came here to find talented kids for dance, but we found that our access to community partnerships and the school board to be the real opportunity point for us,” said Smythe, who also serves as the group’s artistic director. “The school board and administration learned while trying to close this school how valuable community partnerships can be, I think.”

New Ballet became one of the first outside-of-school organizations to have a stake in the Dunbar school community, said Principal Anniece Gentry.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Youngsters giggle as they watch their instructor demonstrate a dance move.

“When students see community partners are invested in their school, they want to achieve more,” Gentry said. “Our relationship with New Ballet is one I will always treasure. They work to do more than anyone else I’ve seen.”

The parent resource center is one of the most valuable additions. Stocked with computers, coffee and books, the room was created for parents with help from a $25,000 grant from ArtsMemphis, a local advocacy and funding group.

“There are computers for parents to use if they don’t have internet at home,” Smythe said. “I’ve seen parents drop their children off, walk to the room and apply for jobs while grabbing a cup of coffee. (For some parents), there was no positive reason for parents to come to school before this, only if their students were sick or in trouble.”

Building parent relationships have become key to New Ballet’s mission at Dunbar, and Smythe wants to take the group’s learnings to other Memphis schools. It’s already helping with arts education in classrooms at Bartlett and Sherwood elementary schools, and Smythe wants to bring Dunbar-style ballet programs to secondary schools that now teach former Dunbar students at Treadwell and Sherwood middle and Melrose and Douglass high.

But that takes money.

New Ballet is dependent on the National Endowment for the Arts, a federal agency that could experience huge cuts under President Donald Trump’s administration. In addition to $15,000 in NEA funding, the group gets money for its school programs through the Tennessee Arts Commission, which also comes from NEA.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
New Ballet founder Katie Smythe brought ballet to Dunbar Elementary in 2009.

To remind those who hold the pursestrings about educational ballet programs like Dunbar’s, Smythe recently joined other arts advocates to speak with lawmakers in Washington, D.C. Their message: The arts are more than just concert halls, expensive tickets and paintings that people don’t understand. It’s also about helping students to grow mentally, physically and academically.

For students like Briana, support for New Ballet would mean another year of free ballet lessons and after-school programming.

“I really look forward to performing,” Briana said. “Learning to dance is really fun. But being able to show off how much I’ve learned to my mom? That’s the best.”

Emerging partnership

Memphis schools have space. Boys & Girls Clubs have programming. Now they just need money to put clubs in three schools.

PHOTO: Boys & Girls Club
Memphis students show off "cancer awareness" posters they created as part of a Boys & Girls Club program at Promise Academy, a charter school in Raleigh. Three more clubs could open in Memphis schools by 2018.

Grappling with numerous under-enrolled schools and significant neighborhood needs, Memphis school leaders are seeking to fill some empty space by partnering with the Boys & Girls Club.

Shelby County Schools is working with the organization’s Memphis chapter to open clubs by 2018 inside three schools: Dunbar Elementary, Riverview School and Craigmont High.

But first they have to secure about $1 million to pay for the clubs’ first year of operations.

Both entities view the emerging partnership as a way to connect space and programming to strengthen schools and their neighborhoods. The Boys & Girls Club of Greater Memphis also wants to expand beyond its current seven sites.

“It doesn’t make sense to build a $4 or $5 million facility somewhere only to have the population shift due to school closure or neighborhood changes,” said executive director Keith Blanchard. “Suddenly, you have this super nice club and no kids. This way, we can go to where the kids are.”

The partnership would step up the effort of Shelby County Schools to join a national trend in developing community schools, which put facilities to use beyond the traditional school day and emphasize a holistic approach for addressing poverty, health and behavior. The arrangement also would tap into a growth and missional model for the Boys & Girls Club, which has been successful in working with schools in cities such as Orlando.

Blanchard hopes the new Memphis clubs would provide students with an after-school option in schools where extracurriculars are slim, as well as a place to go during summer breaks. Each site could serve up to 240 students.

While the district can provide space and utilities, each site would cost an estimated $330,000 to operate — an expense that district leaders plan to ask the County Commission to cover initially. The long-term goal is to get corporate and donor support.

“The last thing we want to do is open these clubs and have to close in two years,” Blanchard said.

PHOTO: Boys & Girls Club
The Boys & Girls Club operates seven clubs in Memphis.

Under-enrolled school buildings are plentiful in Shelby County Schools, where leaders have closed more than 20 schools since 2012, partially due to low enrollment. At the same time, Memphis school leaders are seeking more resources to serve a disproportionately high number of poor, black and disabled students.

“We are always looking for ways to expose our students to programs/activities that foster good citizenship, character building, and healthy lifestyles that contribute to student success,” a district spokeswoman said in an email this month.

The Boys & Girls Club of Greater Memphis already has one school-based club at Promise Academy, a state-run charter school in Raleigh, where about 60 students attend.

Blanchard said the three newest school sites were chosen because the organization doesn’t have a strong presence in those neighborhoods.

Dunbar Elementary Principal Anniece Gentry said the Orange Mound community would welcome the additional resource.

“There’s not a YMCA or Boys & Girls Club in this area,” Gentry said. “This would be a place not just for students, but for the entire neighborhood, as a way to bring families together. For the students, having structured resources in the afternoon is going to help them to grow even better during the academic school day.”