Healthy Schools

Planting school gardens…everywhere

Under cloudy skies on a recent Friday morning, 13-year-old B’Azsae Gale concentrated on burying a feisty irrigation hose in the soil of a white modular planter that is part of a new “learning garden” on Denver’s West Campus.

Students at Denver Public Schools' West Campus pour dirt in the new learning garden.
Students at Denver Public Schools’ West Campus pour dirt in the new learning garden.

As Gale pushed the hose down, calling for more soil from wheelbarrow-toting classmates, he mused about the vegetables he hopes to plant.

“Let’s plant some carrots,” he told Tighe Hutchins, community outreach manager for The Kitchen Community, the Boulder non-profit that created the sleek, modern-looking learning gardens.

“Carrots! Yum. What about broccoli?” asked Hutchins.

“Yeah, broccoli, and some bell peppers,” said Gale, who attends West Generation Academy.

The West Campus learning garden will give 1,200 students at four schools access to fresh produce and hands-on lessons in science, math and health. But it’s just one small part of The Kitchen Community’s ambitious plan to create 180 learning gardens in Colorado, Chicago, Los Angeles and other communities in 2013.

This pledge, which has been recognized by the Clinton Health Matters Initiative, will more than quadruple the 55 learning gardens installed by The Kitchen Community in 2011 and 2012. The Kitchen Community’s goal is to connect kids to real food and combat childhood obesity, which now affects 14.2 percent of Colorado children and 17 percent of American children.

Encouraging healthy living

In addition to facilitating academic lessons, the learning gardens, a series of curved white planting beds made of durable food-grade plastic and interspersed with boulders and benches, are designed to encourage spontaneous play and casual observation of the growing process.

“We want them to be right beside the playground, never hidden behind a fence,” said Dominic Thompson, who leads Colorado region business development at The Kitchen Community.

School garden resources

Colorado

National

At Lafayette’s Ryan Elementary, which got a 4-bed learning garden a year ago, Principal Tobey Basoff likens the garden to an experiential learning field trip in which students never have to leave school grounds.

“Some kids don’t have access to any gardening whatsoever…They get very, very, very excited,” said Basoff. “In our garden, they’re very much encouraged to touch and play and smell.”

Getting kids to eat (and enjoy) veggies is also part of the plan, and research shows school gardens help get the job done. For example, a 2007 study in what is now called the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics found that sixth-graders who participated in garden-based nutrition programs increased their servings of fruits and vegetables more than students who didn’t participate.

A 2002 study published in the same journal found that a garden-based nutrition program increased fourth-graders’ preferences for certain vegetables that had been planted in their school garden, plus zucchini, which wasn’t present in their garden.

Farm to table then garden to school

The Kitchen Community was founded in 2011 as the philanthropic arm of The Kitchen, a farm-to-table restaurant that opened in Boulder in 2004 and added a Denver location in 2012. The  restaurant was founded by former Silicon Valley entrepreneur Kimbal Musk, his wife Jen Lewin, who designed the learning garden planters, and Chef Hugo Matheson.

The non-profit, with its emphasis on simple, scalable design and rapid growth, has the air of the high-tech start-up. But instead of making millions, its mission has more to do with raising millions then giving it away in the form of garden infrastructure and implementation.

With the help of corporate sponsorships, grants and other funding secured by The Kitchen Community or its partners, most of the 180 new learning gardens will be installed for free at schools with 60 percent or more low-income students. The city of Chicago has earmarked $1 million of unspent NATO Summit money for learning gardens at 60 district schools in 2013. On average, a learning garden costs about $15,000.

The organization’s extensive application process, which requires the formation of a garden team and letters of support from the school’s principal and the district’s grounds supervisor, is meant to guarantee each school’s commitment to the project.

Schools that have fewer than 60 percent low-income students are also eligible for the gardens, but typically have to raise some of the money themselves. The Kitchen Community gives them discounts equal to the percentage of low-income students attending the school, up to 50 percent.

Making sure gardens grow

The Kitchen Community’s main focus is providing schools with the hardware for their gardens, including the planters, benches, art poles, boulders and shade structures. Typically, tying the garden to curriculum and making sure it’s well-used is the school’s responsibility, often in partnership with a local gardening organization.

Students at Denver's West Campus work to construct the new learning garden.
Students at Denver’s West Campus work to construct the new learning garden.

At Ryan Elementary, which raised $11,000 for its learning garden, the Longmont-based Growe Foundation has been that partner. Executive director Bryce Brown said the organization helps train teachers on how to integrate school gardens into the curriculum and engage parents and students in school garden activities.

Basoff said in addition to planting and harvesting vegetables,  students have used the garden as a destination for sketching, a starting point for graphing exercises and to learn about marketing. Some students are currently planning to create books about the garden using an iPad application. Plus, there’s a service learning component because extra produce is donated to the local food bank at Sister Carmen Community Center.

On Denver’s West Campus, the recent garden prep session was a fitting extension of eighth-grader B’Azsae Gale’s “Tinkering Technology” class, which examines how humans interact with tools and technology.

“Right now we’re learning how to use tools and stuff, so this really helps because we’re using drills and shovels and maybe hammers,” said Gale.

Brown said school gardens, whether The Kitchen Community’s learning gardens or some other kind, are a great educational tool, but added, “There really does need to be the support for parents and teachers to keep them going long term.”

Rebuilding in Alamosa

After three Alamosa elementary schools were consolidated into two new buildings on one campus in 2011, local garden advocates had to start a school garden from scratch. There was plenty of space- 14,000 square feet- but the soil was salty, the land was drab and there were drainage problems.

The learning garden at Alamosa Elementary School.
The learning garden at Alamosa Elementary School.

As part of the garden redevelopment effort, Alamosa Elementary got a 4-bed learning garden from The Kitchen Community last fall.

The 1,000-student school, where 84 percent of students are eligible for free and reduced lunch, may be exactly the kind of place where The Kitchen Community hopes to have an impact.

Victoria Bruner, director of Alamosa Community Gardens, which helps run the school garden program, said although agricultural crops, including potatoes, barley, quinoa, lettuce, spinach and carrots, are a major industry in the San Luis Valley, the eating habits of residents often don’t reflect it.

“There’s definitely obesity issues here as well,” she said.

One day, Bruner hopes the school garden, which includes the learning garden beds plus some raised wood and ground-level beds, will  provide at least some of the lettuce for the cafeteria salad bars.

So far, the learning gardens have yielded the most robust crops because of their healthier soil. In addition, they have helped create an attractive visual focus in the developing school garden.

“If you take the beds out it would be this boring piece of flat land,” she said. “The teachers aren’t going to use it if it’s not inviting.”

 

 

Funding fight

Colorado poised to slash funding for controversial student health survey

Two years after a controversial student health survey sparked protracted debate at the State Board of Education, questions about the survey’s value have moved to the state legislature — and could mean a loss of $745,000 in state funding for the biennial data collection effort.

Funding for the Healthy Kids Colorado Survey, which comes primarily from the state’s Marijuana Tax Cash Funds, was not included in the proposed state budget earlier this spring and may not return despite requests by the state health department to restore the money.

The health survey is given to a sample of Colorado middle school and high school students in scores of districts every other year. It asks about topics ranging from nutrition to risky behavior, and proponents say it’s crucial for tracking trends and crafting interventions when trouble spots arise.

In addition to $745,000 in state dollars, the survey is funded with $89,000 in federal money. State health department officials said determining whether the survey could continue in a slimmed-down form if state money is stripped away depends on the federal budget.

“The Healthy Kids Colorado Survey is the only comprehensive survey on the health and well-being of Colorado youth,” Dr. Larry Wolk, executive director and chief medical officer of the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, said in a statement. “Without funding, we won’t be able to provide the kind of credible health information schools, community groups and local public health agencies need to improve the health of the young people they serve.”

The state Senate is expected this week to debate the state’s budget. The House will debate the budget after the Senate completes its review.

The health survey became the focus of a debate by the State Board of Education and dueling opinions from the state attorney general’s office in 2015 after some parents raised concerns about the explicit nature of questions on sexual behavior, drugs and suicide.

In addition, critics argued that parents should have to give advance written permission — called active consent — in order for their children to take the survey. Over the survey’s 26-year history, most districts have chosen passive consent, which means students are asked to take the survey unless parents sign a form opting them out.

Ultimately, neither the state board nor State Attorney General Cynthia Coffman mandated substantive changes to the survey or consent rules. State officials emphasized throughout the controversy that the survey is anonymous and voluntary. After the state board uproar over the survey, most districts continued to participate.

On Monday, Rep. Bob Rankin, a Carbondale Republican who helped write the state’s budget, said of the survey, “I think enough of us felt that it was just intrusive. I just don’t think it collects good data.”

Not all on the budget committee agreed.

“I support the survey,” said Rep. Millie Hamner, a Frisco Democrat. “Our school districts rely on that information for other grant programs. It is possible in the budget process we’re able to restore that.”

Chalkbeat Colorado’s deputy bureau chief Nic Garcia contributed to this report. 

red zone

Traffic pollution: an invisible health risk for dozens of Denver schools

PHOTO: Google Maps - Street View
Interstate 70 is clearly visible from the playground outside Swansea Elementary School in Denver.

Just a few hundred feet from the front doors of Highline Academy Charter School’s southeast Denver campus is Interstate 25, where more than 200,000 vehicles rush by each day.

At Swansea Elementary School in north Denver, kids frolic near the busy Interstate 70 overpass that abuts the playground. Three miles west, at a charter school called STRIVE Prep – Sunnyside, the same highway looms just past a chain link fence next to the school.

The three schools are among 29 in Denver Public Schools — 10 of them charters — that sit near high-traffic roads and the invisible air pollution those routes generate daily. Experts say such pollution can stunt lung development, aggravate asthma and contribute to heart disease, but there’s little public awareness about the problem and mitigation efforts are sparse.

A new online mapping tool, part of a joint investigative project by two nonprofit news organizations, the Center for Public Integrity and Reveal, puts the issue in stark relief. Residents across Colorado and the nation can easily check which schools fall into red zones where traffic volume, and the accompanying air pollution, is worst, and orange zones where traffic volume is lower, but still potentially problematic for kids and staff who may spend long hours at their schools.

PHOTO: Center for Public Integrity and Reveal
This screen shot of the mapping tool shows Highline Academy’s proximity to Interstate 25 with a blue pin.

The Center for Public Integrity provided Chalkbeat with raw data for schools with Denver addresses. While most were DPS schools, a couple dozen were schools in neighboring districts, including Cherry Creek, Aurora, Westminster, Mapleton, Sheridan and Jefferson County.

Eleven DPS schools — educating more than 8,000 students — fell into the red zone, which means they sit within 500 feet of roads carrying more than 30,000 vehicles a day on average. Those include charters such as Highline and Strive Prep – Sunnyside, and traditional public schools such as Swansea and Steele elementaries and George Washington, Lincoln and East high schools.

Another 18 district schools, plus one in the Cherry Creek district and one in the Adams 12 district, fall into the orange zone, which includes schools that are within 500 feet of roads carrying more than 10,000 vehicles and more than 500 trucks daily. The 18 DPS schools include two additional STRIVE – Prep locations, two schools inside the downtown administration building and the district’s magnet school for students designated as highly gifted: Polaris at Ebert Elementary.

DPS officials say air pollution resulting from schools’ proximity to busy roadways hasn’t been discussed previously and that mitigation measures — such as high-grade air filters — aren’t in place at most affected schools.

“We haven’t had this conversation before,” said district spokeswoman Alex Renteria.

Sometimes schools end up near busy roadways because that’s where districts can buy cheap land. But population growth, development trends and major transportation projects can also dramatically change the fabric of a school neighborhood. Swansea Elementary, for example, was built in 1957, before I-70 sliced through north Denver in the 1960s.

The problem of traffic-related air pollution near schools is not exclusive to big cities like Denver. It can be found in suburban and rural areas around the state and the rest of the country. Many school districts across Colorado — from Montrose to Steamboat Springs to Greeley — have at least one school within 500 feet of high-traffic routes.

Charters harder hit

The investigation by the Center for Public Integrity and Reveal, which looked at trends nationwide, found that charter schools are more likely than traditional public schools to be located close to busy roads.
That’s true in Denver, where 22 percent of the district’s charter schools were located near a busy road during the 2014-15 school year, compared to 13 percent of other district schools. Nationwide, about 9 percent of schools are near busy roads, according to the analysis.

Officials at the most impacted Denver charter schools had little to say about the issue of traffic pollution.

Christine Ferris, executive director of Highline Academy, wrote in an email: “We can’t really do much about our location and although it would be obvious to anyone who visits us, having the information highlighted on Chalkbeat isn’t my favorite idea.”

She canceled a subsequent interview with Chalkbeat.

Chyrise Harris, senior director of communications and marketing for the STRIVE Prep charter group, said via email, “STRIVE Prep operates all of its schools in district facilities and works collaboratively with the district to ensure that all students, regardless of where they live, have access to a safe, high quality school near them.”

Jessica Johnson, general counsel and director of policy for the Colorado League of Charter Schools, said in growing cities like Denver there’s limited inventory when it comes to school sites. Charter schools may end up along high-traffic routes because that’s where the chartering district has vacant space and also because such roads provide needed proximity to bus or train stops.

Of the 10 Denver charter schools near busy roads, seven are in district-owned buildings. The three that aren’t are Highline, Cesar Chavez Academy and Justice High School.

While Johnson said being close to busy roads is a fact of life for urban charter schools, she noted the impact of traffic-related air pollution is an important health and wellness issue — one that hasn’t been on the charter community’s radar.

“This isn’t an issue that we’ve seen a lot of research into locally or a lot of conversation on,” she said.

Mitigation measures

Vehicle exhaust contains a variety of harmful components, including small particles, carbon monoxide and carcinogenic compounds. While outdoor areas like school playgrounds and sports fields pose an obvious risk, the air inside buildings can suffer, too, because particles, vapors and gases often seep inside.
High-grade air filters — those rated MERV 16 — can make a big difference. According to the Center for Public Integrity and Reveal investigation, MERV 16 filters installed in California schools caught about 90 percent of fine and ultrafine particles, which are key contributors to traffic-related health problems.

Denver schools use lower-grade filters, those rated either MERV 8 or MERV 10, according to district officials.

Air-conditioning can also help somewhat, allowing schools to keep some pollution at bay by shutting doors and windows in hot weather. Of the 29 DPS schools most impacted by roadway pollution, only four don’t have at least partial air-conditioning. Those are Valverde and Steele elementaries, Polaris at Ebert Elementary and STRIVE Prep – Sunnyside. While a handful of the 29 schools will get additional air-conditioning with funds from Denver’s recent voter-approved bond, those four are not on the list.

Swansea Elementary, the second most impacted Denver school after the southeast Highline Academy location, will be getting short-term and likely longer-term relief from traffic pollution.

Renteria said as part of a project underway now, the school is getting a new heating, ventilation and air-conditioning system that will include MERV 16 filters. It will also get new doors and windows.

Additionally, a planned highway widening project will convert the current overpass next to Swansea to a covered below-grade route. Research from the Environmental Protection Agency suggests vehicle emissions are lower near below-grade roads with steep walls. The same is true for routes with certain kinds of sound barriers or roadside vegetation.

The city will monitor air quality on Swansea’s grounds during and after construction.

Here is the list of schools classified as “red” or “orange:”

Red Zone Schools

SCHOOL DISTRICT CHARTER STATUS
Highline Academy (southeast) Denver charter
Swansea Elementary School Denver
STRIVE PREP – Sunnyside Denver charter
Compassion Road Academy Denver
Steele Elementary School Denver
George Washington High School Denver
Respect Academy at Lincoln Denver
Abraham Lincoln High School Denver
College View Elementary School Denver
Valverde Elementary School Denver
East High School Denver

These “red zone” schools are within 500 feet of roads carrying more than 30,000 vehicles a day on average.

Orange Zone Schools

SCHOOL DISTRICT CHARTER STATUS
STRIVE Prep – Federal Denver charter
Columbian Elementary School Denver
Denver Center for International Studies Denver
Colfax Elementary School Denver
Cheltenham Elementary School Denver
The Odyssey School Denver charter
Contemporary Learning Academy Denver
STRIVE Prep – Ruby Hill Denver charter
Cesar Chavez Academy Denver charter
Girls Athletic Leadership School Denver charter
Bruce Randolph School Denver
Downtown Denver Expeditionary School Denver charter
Emily Griffith Technical College Denver
Dora Moore ECE-8 School Denver
Justice High School Denver charter
Polaris at Ebert Elementary School Denver
Bromwell Elementary School Denver
Rocky Mountain School of Expeditionary Learning Denver charter
Challenge School Cherry Creek
North Star Elementary School Adams 12

These “orange zone” schools are within 500 feet of roads carrying more than 10,000 vehicles a day and more than 500 trucks on average.