Healthy Schools

Students stand, balance and bounce to learn

boys at standing table
Fifth-graders working at a café table in Lisa Puckett’s classroom at Black Forest Hills Elementary School in the Cherry Creek school district.

Visitors to teacher Lisa Puckett’s classroom at Black Forest Hills Elementary School in Aurora sometimes tell her, “It’s like a jungle gym in here.”

They’ll see her fifth-graders leaning against chest-high café tables, sitting on bean bag chairs, or balancing on yoga balls, peg-leg stools or wider-based “hokki” stools. In fact, there is so much unconventional seating in her room, one of her students is assigned the job of “equipment manager” to make sure everyone has a fair shot at using the most sought-after items.

Puckett is part of a small but enthusiastic group of educators who believe that kids, especially the restless, high-energy kind, shouldn’t have to spend their school days sitting still with their knees tucked under desks. Instead, these teachers and administrators feel student should be allowed, and even encouraged to stand, bounce, shift, twist and wiggle.

“They’re constantly in motion …and we try to make them sit still,” said Puckett. “It’s like putting a cork in a bottle of soda you just shook up.”

For some kids, the inevitable explosion manifests as increasingly off-task behavior, from fidgeting and arm-flapping to falling out of chairs. Kelley King, a master trainer for the Gurian Institute, which provides training on brain-based differences between boys and girls, said she always suggests standing desks and other alternative seating when she conducts professional development sessions for schools.

“If it helps kids be more productive, it makes the teacher’s job easier,” she said.

While Puckett, who is fortunate to have the space of two adjoining classrooms, offers her 27 students more than a dozen unconventional work stations and seating options, many teachers typically offer just a few. Sometimes space constraints play into the decision and sometimes there are fewer students who seem to need alternatives.

And while some schools have invested in relatively pricey standing desks, other teachers are implementing alternative seating arrangements using tools they already have in their classrooms, like podiums, laptop stands or counter space.

A look at the research

While there isn’t a large body of research on the effects of alternative seating in classrooms, there are some studies on the positive effects of standing desks and, more generally, the benefits of moving around while completing challenging tasks.

A 2011 study in the American Journal of Public Health found that first-graders with standing desks chose to stand about two-thirds of the time and burned 17 percent more calories than classmates in traditional seated classrooms. Overweight and obese students burned 32 percent more calories while using standing desks than seated students. In addition, teachers surveyed in the study noted that students using the standing desks were more alert and attentive and demonstrated less disruptive behavior.

King, who has conducted Gurian Institute training in Colorado districts including St. Vrain Valley, Garfield and Cherry Creek, said the potential for reducing obesity is a plus, but her real focus is on closing gender gaps and ensuring quality learning.

A 2009 study published in the Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology demonstrated that children, especially those with attention deficit-hyperactivity disorder, tend to move around more when they are using working memory to solve problems. The upshot is that fidgety behavior in children may look like distraction but can actually facilitate the learning process by helping them maintain focus.

Girls standing in Lisa Puckett's classroom in the Cherry Creek school district.
Girls standing to work in Lisa Puckett’s classroom.

Changing norms

Since most current teachers, principals and parents grew up with traditional four-legged school desks and chairs, accepting alternative furnishings — not to mention new ideas about acceptable classroom behavior — can be difficult.

Suzie Johnston, Director of Elementary Special Education and Behavior Development Programs for Cherry Creek Schools, embraced a variety of alternative seating when she was principal of Buffalo Trails Elementary School and went through Gurian Institute training with the rest of her staff. Soon, students were using one-legged stools, counter-height tables, or sitting on the floor with clipboards.

But she’s heard teachers say, “Oh, I’m afraid to do that because I’ll have chaos.”

The key, Johnston said, is establishing rules and putting forth a sustained effort, “because at first kids will be silly with it.”

Teachers who have made the switch are typically passionate about the positive changes they have seen in their students, especially boys. They talk about longer attention spans, less disruptive behavior and higher quality work, particularly in subjects like writing.

Puckett describes her experience using unconventional seating as “wildly successful.”

“I will always continue to do it,” she said.

It’s so much a part of her classroom culture, she said, that a number of parents have purchased peg leg stools for their kids to use at school. Others have sent in yoga balls or “trampoline chairs.”

Desha Bierbaum, principal of Wamsley Elementary in Rifle, said some parents worry that their child will feel singled out if they stand at a desk, or use another fidget-channeling outlet like chewing on a straw or kneading Sticky Tack in their hand. When those fears arise, she invites parents in so they can see how common such interventions are throughout the building and how they impact children.

Students using hokki stools in Lisa Puckett's classroom.
Students using hokki stools in Lisa Puckett’s classroom.

One dad started out adamantly opposed to any alternatives, but Bierbaum said, “Seeing his child able to focus, he was like, ‘Oh my gosh!’”

Students themselves have similar revelations, she said.

“Once they realize, ‘I can get my work done and I won’t get in trouble’…then they will definitely ask to go to that standing desk.”

Like other educators who have added standing options, Bierbaum said Wamsley started out using what was readily available and free: counter space and regular desks that had been raised to their highest level.

In 2009, Bierbaum purchased actual standing desks using special education funds as well as general school funds. The desks were around $300 each.

“You kind of have to have this paradigm shift,” Bierbaum said. “It’s OK for them to stand. If they’re learning what does it matter?”

Detroit Journalism Cooperative

Restrictions on teacher pay in Detroit schools can scare away applicants — and make it hard to fill 260 classroom positions

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
Kindergarten teacher Stefanie Kovaleski of Bethune Elementary-Middle School is one of many teachers who could take a major pay cut when her school returns next year to Detroit Public Schools Community District if she doesn't get credit for her years of experience.

This story is published in partnership with Bridge Magazine, part of the Detroit Journalism Cooperative.  

In Detroit, as many as 260 classroom teacher positions are unfilled in the state’s largest district, prompting a shortage so severe that substitutes last year were the full-time solution in more than 100 classrooms.

And with fewer new teachers are graduating from college every year, pressure is mounting to find qualified teachers. The situation has left teachers working harder in overcrowded classrooms for underwhelming pay –  they’ve seen their pay frozen and cut repeatedly in a district that’s beset with problems both financial and academic.

Yet in the face of a supply and demand problem, the Detroit teachers, like their peers in numerous Michigan school districts, have bargained for contracts that severely restrict the pay of the folks who could help alleviate the shortage.

In Detroit, Dearborn and Roseville, new teachers can only get credit for two years’ experience they accrued working in other school districts. In Grand Rapids it’s five years, in Lansing it’s eight.

It’s difficult to gauge whether the restrictions affect teacher recruitment because they may scare away potential applicants. But for those who are considering a move, the impact is huge.

Say you’re a teacher with 10 years’ experience at Utica schools, which had layoffs last year. To work in Detroit, you’d have to accept nearly $36,000 less, going from more than $78,500 to just under $43,000 because eight years’ of experience wouldn’t count.

Detroit already pays less, with teachers topping out at $65,265 after 10 years, compared with well over $78,000 in most districts. But the restriction put in place by the teachers –  and agreed upon by the administration –  makes that cut even more steep.

Union rules

In a number of Michigan school districts, teachers have negotiated to limit the pay of new hires, ensuring they cannot get full credit for prior teaching experience. In other districts, those decisions are left to the administration. In most cases “max pay” refers to salaries of teachers with master’s degree plus 30 additional hours of graduate education who have the maximum number of years of experience. Below are the 25 largest districts in the state. The restrictions were more common among the 21 districts that surround Detroit, with more than half calling for limits on credit for teaching experience.

District Maximum years of credit Years to top of scale Max pay
Detroit 2* 10 $65,965
Utica full 11 $89,563
Dearborn 2* 18 $82,006
Plymouth-Canton 5* 14 $81,049
Ann Arbor full 11 $80,769
Chippewa Valley full 12 $89,443
Grand Rapids 5* 12 $68,042
Rochester full 20 $86,420
Warren Consolidated full 12 $94,700
Walled Lake full 15 $90,362
Livonia 7 12 $84,595
Troy full 14 $92,400
Kalamazoo full 25 $76,881
Wayne-Westland 3* 14 $76,839
Lansing 8 22 $76,850
L’Anse Creuse full 16 $84,386
Farmington 4* 11 $86,830
Forest Hills full 28 $84,590
Traverse City full 20 $74,819
Waterford 8 15 $78,351
Huron Valley 5* 17 $75,915
Port Huron full 13 $69,831
Kentwood full 26 $80,403
Portage full 30 $88,808
Grand Blanc full 12 $73,588

*In some cases, the union contracts allow districts to acknowledge additional years of experience.

Source: Collective bargaining agreements

There’s little wiggle room because the collectively bargained contracts set salaries exclusively by experience and education. Critics say the restrictions put teachers’ interests ahead of students.

“School districts that want to attract the best teachers… for their students would not want these kinds of policies,” said Ben DeGrow, director of education policy at the Mackinac Center, a free-market think tank based in Midland. It has been frequent critics of teachers’ unions.

Ivy Bailey, president of the Detroit Federation of Teachers, said the language has been in the contract for years and acknowledges those teachers who’ve suffered through years of pay cuts and freezes.

“You have teachers who stayed here and endured it all,” she said. “They care about the children and they’ve stuck it out.”

Bailey said the contract allows the district more latitude when trying to hire teachers in critical areas such as special education. Those specialty areas can salary credit for up to eight years’ experience.

But if it’s not in a critical area, no dice. And that’s been a problem for principals wanting to fill vacancies such as Jeffrey Robinson, principal at Paul Robeson Malcolm X Academy on Detroit’s west side.

“On three separate occasions, we got people who got past the onboarding process, right to the point where they were ready to sign the contract. Then they took a better offer because the salaries are just not competitive,” Robinson told Detroit Journalism Cooperative reporting partner Chalkbeat Detroit recently.

Despite the obstacles in pay and a push by officials some to consider uncertified teachers, district spokeswoman Chrystal Wilson said the district “is committed to hiring certified teachers.”

Detroit is not the only district with restrictions. They are found in union contracts at districts large and small, wealthy and poor, urban and suburban and are the result of the anger stemming from pay cuts and freezes that have taken a huge chunk out of the earning power of teachers who have worked for years in troubled districts.

Not found everywhere

Bailey said it’s common for teachers who change districts to get less than full credit for their experience.

“We can’t do it when we go to another district, either,” she said. “Nobody’s going to give you all of your time.”

But a survey of teacher contracts from more than 40 districts around the state show that many allow district administrators to grant full credit.

In  Ann Arbor, Kalamazoo, Ferndale, Warren Fitzgerald, Warren Van Dyke, South Redford, Utica and others, a teacher could jump to the top of the scale without the teachers union contract prohibiting it.

In the Grosse Pointe schools, which pays among the best in the state, new teachers can be hired at the 13th of a 14-step salary schedule.

Yet in other places, teachers have put the brakes on salaries. Those that have are communities suburban and urban, wealthy and poor. In Oak Park, just north of Detroit, the teachers’ contract has a provision that says all new hires should be hired at beginners’ wages.

Hiring at higher levels “puts financial pressure on the district and creates an environment which disenfranchises staff currently restricted by contractual step freezes,” according to the contract.

The Walled Lake schools in Oakland County, the 10th largest district in the state, had restrictions in prior contracts. But the union agreed to take them out a few years ago even though they continue to encourage the district to hire teachers at as low a step as possible.

Still, the union recognized the need to give the district more flexibility.

“It makes it really hard to have one blanket policy for every opening,” said Daryl Szmanski, president of the teachers’ union in Walled Lake. “As a teacher shortage looms, it’s going to be harder and harder to get good candidates.”

To be sure, restrictions on teacher pay for outsiders is hardly the only factor in teacher shortages in parts of the state. It’s difficult to say if it’s even a major factor. Stagnant state funding for education, a steep drop in enrollment in teacher preparation programs, and sometimes harsh public and political rhetoric directed toward public education almost certainly also play a role in the shortage. So too, there are far fewer substitute teachers available to fill in when permanent teachers are absent.

But for unions, the teacher shortage presents two bad choices: Be unhappy about crowded classrooms or be unhappy that new teachers make more money.

For the Mackinac Center’s DeGrow, the decision should be easy: Door No. 2.

“This kind of policy is just an obstacle for getting the best talent in the classroom,” DeGrow said. “The kids (in Detroit) are already as a disadvantage. Why would we want to make it harder to bring qualified teachers in?”

Need ‘best teachers’

Brad Banasik, director of labor relations for the Michigan Association of School Boards, said he’s not heard complaints about the contracts, but noted that he thinks “administrators would like the ability to hire some on the higher step (pay level).”

Some unions agree. Doug Hill is a veteran teacher who’s now president of the Rochester teachers’ union in Oakland County and he said he’s aware of the painful cuts at other districts.

Hill’s union decided in a recent negotiation to remove a restriction on pay for counselors who held teaching certificates. The district had seen positions go unfilled but now can hire teachers in at whatever level experience they want.

“I can see both sides of this,” Hill said, but added “we’re trying to get the best teachers to put in front of students.”

Union officials say they asked for –  and got –  the restrictions because they say without it their veteran teachers would be demoralized by having new hires, who had not endured the same pay cuts and freezes, make more money doing the same work.

It would be hard to determine how often these provisions have hurt districts like Detroit and Dearborn. If  teachers know they’d have to take a $20,000 or $30,000 pay cut, would they even apply? And they’d likely know: All Michigan districts are required to post their teacher contracts online; Bridge did its survey using this easily-to-access information.

“I think they’re very aware of what’s out there,” Rochester’s Hill said.

For Detroit and other districts, that may be a problem.

This story originally ran in Bridge Magazine on June 15, 2017.

To focus on community life and the city’s future after bankruptcy, five nonprofit media outlets have formed the Detroit Journalism Cooperative (DJC).

The Center for Michigan’s Bridge Magazine is the convening partner for the group, which includes Detroit Public Television (DPTV), Michigan Radio, WDET, Chalkbeat, and New Michigan Media, a partnership of ethnic and minority newspapers.

Funded by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and the Ford Foundation, the DJC partners are reporting about and creating community engagement opportunities relevant to the city’s bankruptcy, recovery and restructuring.

First Person

I had an anxiety attack in school, and a social worker saved me. What about the students without one?

My first anxiety attack was in a school hallway. Nestled between a doorway and a red bulletin board of exemplary student work, I collapsed. My sight became hazy. My breath became nonexistent. My limbs became numb. Tears stained my cheeks. My heart beat like a broken machine.

I raised my head up to see a teacher closing the door and pulling the blinds, isolating me from the eyes of curious students. I felt like I was merely a nuisance interrupting her lesson.

“Zubaida! Zubaida!” I turned my head to see the school social worker, Ms. McNeil, running down the hall. She sat next to me, held my hand, and slowed my breathing down. I had never talked to the social worker before. However, after my first anxiety attack, she became an important part of my life.

Sadly, I am not the only student of color who suffers from anxiety or other related mental issues. According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, around 41 percent of college students struggle with anxiety. Furthermore, 25 percent of adolescents will struggle with some form of anxiety and 12.5 percent struggle with depression, according to the National Institute of Mental Health.

We also know that not everyone has the courage to reveal their mental issues. Who knows how many students struggle with mental issues and aren’t able to seek help?

The most distressing part is the response to students of color with emotional issues. It is no secret that communities of color can have a certain stigma towards mental illnesses. Sometimes, parents actively refuse to seek help or ignore the signs of mental illness.

national survey in 2015 revealed that Hispanic and black students who have felt overwhelmed are more likely than white students to keep their concerns to themselves. White students were more likely to feel academically and emotionally prepared for college. White students were also twice as likely to get treated for emotional distress. Why?

Meanwhile, many New York City students don’t have access to a social worker or counselor. In fact, there were only 2,902 guidance counselors and 1,275 social workers in New York City this school year. That’s a ratio of one counselor or social worker for every 241 students.

Without professional help, many students turn to substance abuse to cope with their mental illness. Other students continue to accumulate stress from academics and family issues. If parents and teachers want to help their minority students to succeed, they need to invest in mental support.

This isn’t to say we’ve been neglected completely. Counselors in the Bronx have worked on initiatives this past year to help students reach their potential, prepping them for life after high school, and school-based health centers have opened to provide mental health support. Like all things, however, there is always more work to be done.

The stigma surrounding mental illness and mental illness patients in communities of color is certainly unfair and detrimental to our health. However, the fact that this stigma is affecting the success of students of color is even more enraging. We deserve better. Administrators, politicians, and educators must realize the importance of having even more social workers and guidance counselors.

Right now, somewhere in the Bronx, there is a young girl like me, having her first anxiety attack. Her fingers are numb. Her sight is hazy. Her heart is beating like a drum as she watches somebody close the door in her face. She can’t move, a mere witness to her breakdown. But there is no Ms. McNeil who can save her.

Zubaida Bello is a junior at Uncommon Preparatory Charter High School in Brooklyn. She has performed original poetry at the Apollo and New York Live Arts and has been honored by the Black Lives Matter club at her school. In her free time, she enjoys reading and skateboarding.