building immunity

New Chalkbeat database spotlights wide gulfs in Colorado schools’ vaccination rates

PHOTO: Lindsay Pierce/Denver Post
Nyah Ojeda, 6, offers her hand to her four-year-old brother, Elija Ojeda, while nurses prepare him for a round of vaccinations in 2012.

A newly updated immunization database created by Chalkbeat reveals that Boulder remains a hotspot for the anti-vaccination movement, students in districts with racial and income diversity are more likely to get their shots and nearly half of schools in the database did a better job this year tracking students’ immunization records.

The database, which includes more than 1,200 schools in Colorado’s 30 largest districts, is the largest collection of school-by-school immunization data available in the state.

New rules that take effect Friday will make it harder for parents to opt their children out of shots and lay the groundwork for a more comprehensive state-run database expected to go live next spring. That database, available to the public, will include immunization and exemption rates for not just Colorado schools but also licensed child care providers.

The new rules come about two years after the passage of a state law that required schools to release immunization and exemption rates upon request and instructed the State Board of Health to determine how often parents should submit exemption forms.

Public health advocates say giving parents access to immunization data helps them gauge the risk of communicable disease outbreaks and make informed choices about where to send their children for school or child care. Colorado has one of the lowest immunization rates in the country, partly because it’s relatively easy to opt children out of shots.

There’s a huge push to make Colorado healthier and embed health and wellness into schools, said Stephanie Wasserman, executive director of the Colorado Children’s Immunization Coalition.

“Immunization is kind of foundational to all that,” she said.

Boulder County mom Lindsey Diamond, a vaccine advocate living in a community where many parents do not give their kids shots, agrees.

When considering where to send her 2-year-old son next fall, she asked every provider for their immunization rates. Diamond settled on a preschool where just one child was exempt from shots for medical reasons.

Elementary school is still a few years away, but she and her husband are keeping an eye on the rates at nearby schools in the St. Vrain Valley district—where immunization levels are all over the map.

“It’s been on our radar,” she said.

Data highlights

This is the second year Chalkbeat has built a database of immunization rates. A review of the new data reveals that many of last year’s findings persist. (See this story for charts illustrating the trends.)

Vaccination policy timeline

May 21, 2014 — House Bill 12-1288 is signed into law. It requires schools to release immunization rates upon request and directs the State Board of Health to consider how often exemption forms should be submitted.

April 15, 2015 — State Board of Health votes to increase the frequency with which parents submit personal belief and religious exemption forms and allow the creation of a database of school-by-school immunization rates.

April 25, 2015 — A bill that would have required parents to submit immunization exemption forms centrally to the state health department instead of their child’s schools dies in the State House.

July 1, 2016 — New State Board of Health rules on exemption frequency and the immunization database take effect.

Dec. 1, 2016 — Schools and child care centers must submit immunization rates to the state health department for inclusion in the new database.

Among the highlights:

  • Three-quarters of Boulder Valley’s 65 schools have exemption rates of 10 percent or higher and 13 schools have exemption rates of 25 percent or higher.
  • Outside of Boulder County, most districts have relatively few schools where large numbers of parents exempt their children from shots.
  • In many Colorado districts, exemption rates tend to be higher in some charter schools or schools with alternative philosophies such as Montessori or Waldorf.
  • Just over half of schools in Chalkbeat’s database have immunization rates of 90 percent or higher. (Immunization rates of 90-95 percent within a group help protect that group from disease, especially people who can’t be vaccinated because they are too young or have a medical condition.)
  • Districts where a large majority of schools have high immunization rates run the gamut, suggesting that socioeconomic status is not the only factor at work. The top district is Cherry Creek — which is often portrayed as wealthy but is increasingly diverse. Meanwhile, most schools in poorer districts such as Pueblo, Mapleton and Westminster also have high immunization rates.
  • In Denver, about 56 percent of more than 200 schools have immunization rates of 90 percent or better, and only six schools have exemption rates higher than 10 percent.
  • In neighboring Aurora, nearly two-thirds of more than 50 schools have immunization rates of 90 percent or better, and only one has an exemption rate higher than 10 percent.
  • Compliance rates—an indicator of how hard schools are working to make sure they have students’ immunization or exemption paperwork—improved at about 45 percent of schools in 2015-16.
  • Compliance rates worsened at just over 40 percent of schools—many of them high schools.

State health officials say the lower compliance rates at many high schools likely resulted from a rule change that took effect last school year requiring all high-schoolers to have a second dose of the chickenpox vaccine. As a result, some students who would have been considered fully immunized in previous years were out of compliance in 2015-16. Eventually, as more parents learn about the two-dose requirement, health officials expect the problem to resolve.

Asking for the data doesn’t mean you’ll get it

Although Colorado law requires the the release of immunization rates to the public, they can still be hard to get.

Disease prevention

    Colorado law requires children attending school to have immunizations against these diseases or a signed parent exemption.
    • Hepatitis B
    • Pertussis (Whooping Cough)
    • Tetanus
    • Diphtheria
    • Haemophilus Influenza Type B (HIB)
    • Pneumococcal disease
    • Polio
    • Measles
    • Mumps
    • Rubella
    • Varicella (Chickenpox)

This year, Chalkbeat requested immunization and exemption rates in January. Several districts, however, declined to release them until March or April because district officials said they were waiting on fixes to a commonly used student data system where immunization information is housed.

But by late spring, even as most districts were reporting that the glitches had been fixed, there was still some pushback. For example, officials in the Lewis-Palmer district near Colorado Springs said they could offer only inaccurate data for their schools.

Later, they provided some updated information, but said it was only accurate for three of nine schools where a nurse had carefully tallied the rates and not relied on the student data system.

Next year, not only will the state health department compile immunization rates for the new statewide database, there will be a Dec. 1 due date for districts to submit the information.

“We’re already geared up for that,” said Julie Stephens, Lewis-Palmer’s public information officer.

While some school health leaders say they like the idea of sharing school immunization rates with the public, it can be a lot of extra work for school nurses.

Jean Lyons, nursing supervisor for Denver Public Schools, said she’s torn.

“I think we have to look at it as an opportunity to make our community healthy,” she said.

At the same time, she called the reporting requirements an unfunded mandate, saying, “I really empathize with the small districts that have fewer resources internally.”

Stricter requirements for opting out

In addition to the new state database, new immunization rules taking effect Friday will require parents who excuse their children from shots for personal or religious reasons to do so more often.

Starting in the 2016-17 school year, parents of K-12 children will be required to submit the exemption forms annually and parents of younger children will need to submit the forms up to five times prior to kindergarten. (There will be no change to the process for claiming a medical exemption from shots.)

Previously, parents often had to submit the forms only once during their child’s educational career.

Public health experts say the more stringent requirements will help reduce exemptions claimed out of convenience rather than conviction and help push down Colorado’s higher-than-average exemption rates. Parents opposed to the change have argued that they think carefully about their vaccine decisions and shouldn’t have to jump extra bureaucratic hurdles.

Other efforts to change the exemption process in Colorado have failed in recent months, highlighting the state’s vocal anti-vaccine constituency. Last spring, a bill that would have required parents to submit exemption forms centrally to the state health department instead of their child’s school drew emotional testimony and was eventually killed in the State House.

student discipline

Frustrated with high suspension rates, Memphis schools shift to restorative justice

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Shelby County educators list their reactions to students who act out as part of a discipline training on using restorative justice techniques in the classroom.

Taking a cue from Nashville, Memphis school leaders are working to change the way their educators discipline students in an effort to reduce the high rate of suspensions in Shelby County Schools.

This month, about a hundred educators participated in a day-long training session to learn about restorative justice techniques already used in Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools. The Nashville district, which like Memphis serves mostly minority and low-income students, has seen its suspension rate drop since incorporating the disciplinary approach more broadly in 2014.

“Our goal is to help teachers and administrators see all of the steps they could take before suspension or expulsion. Keeping a student out of the classroom should be a last resort,” said Eric Johnson, the lead trainer and head of youth development for STARS, a Nashville-based nonprofit organization.

The training, conducted in partnership with the Tennessee Department of Education, is part of the culture shift that’s been building for more than a year as Shelby County Schools seeks to move away from exclusionary practices such as suspensions and expulsions, said Randy McPherson, who oversees school culture and climate for Tennessee’s largest district.

It’s also a far cry from corporal punishment, which the district did away with almost 15 years ago.

“There’s this idea that punishment should be immediate. You act out of line, you get suspended. That’s not what our students need,” McPherson said.

Restorative justice is relational and seeks to foster an environment of caring and respect. In order to get at the root cause behind misbehavior, it begins with educators taking into account the backgrounds and experiences that students bring to school, sometimes including hunger, domestic violence or homelessness.

Memphis is working to catch up with cities like Nashville, Chicago, New York and Los Angeles that already are bringing together students to talk out conflict. Suspensions there are on the decline, although there’s little research to show whether embracing such techniques reduces school violence and benefits students in the long run.


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District leaders acknowledge that changes are needed in Shelby County, where suspension rates are some of the highest in the state and disproportionately skew high for boys of color. During community meetings last fall about how to build better schools, parents also made it clear that the district should prioritize school climate, which includes how students are disciplined.

About two-thirds of district schools have sent some educators to either an in-house session about restorative practices or one co-presented with Facing History and Ourselves, a nonprofit organization that works with teachers and students in Memphis. McPherson is hopeful to get that number up to 100 percent during summer trainings.

Then comes the even harder part: Getting the schools to buy in to using restorative justice practices every day.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Randy McPherson (middle) oversees school culture and climate for Shelby County Schools.

“The culture-changing process requires investment, energy and professional development,” McPherson said. “I really believe this approach to discipline works if the whole school is buying into it. If you only pay lip service to the idea, it can actually do more harm than good.”

For now, McPherson is overseeing the shift in discipline that previously was shepherded by Heidi Ramirez, who resigned in February as chief of academics. Her replacement has not yet been named.

“We will continue to focus on key strategies for improving school climate, reducing disruptive behaviors that impact academic progress and prepare students for making good choices,” McPherson said.

At this month’s restorative justice training, educators said they liked the direction that Shelby County Schools is heading — but that more trainings will be essential to lowering the district’s suspension rates.

“We can’t keep doing the same thing and expect different results,” said Brian Clark, a family engagement specialist at Grandview Middle School. “… We’re realizing we can’t handle every child the same way. We have to hear their stories and struggles and respond.”

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.”