survey says

How healthy are Colorado schools? New survey provides some answers.

PHOTO: Ann Schimke
Pam Sturgeon, an early childhood mental health consultant, works with a boy at TLC Learning Center in Longmont.

How many minutes do Colorado elementary students get for lunch? How many elementary schools take away recess when students misbehave? Are there nurses at every school?

The answers are 19 minutes, more than half and no. These and many other statistics are the latest results from a school health survey that’s been piloted across the state for the last two years.

The survey, called Colorado Healthy Schools Smart Source, is a collaboration between the Colorado Education Initiative, the state health and education departments, and Kaiser Permanente, which provided $3 million for the project in 2013.

It’s meant to help school leaders gauge how well they’re doing incorporating health and wellness into their buildings. Last school year, 451 schools filled out the voluntary online survey. Project leaders hope to eventually increase that number to more than 1,000 — about three-quarters of all Colorado schools.

Since it’s meant to be an every-other-year survey, the next big push for participation will take place in 2017-18, said Andrea Pulskamp, senior manager for health and wellness at Colorado Education Initiative. That said, the survey is still open to interested schools that want to fill it out this year.

The survey results for individual school aren’t public, but aggregate statewide results as well as those broken out by region and school district size are publicly available.

Project leaders initially talked about making the survey data available through the state education department’s website. But Pulskamp said they’ve since learned the state only includes data mandated for collection by state law.

Such a requirement would make the survey feel like a punitive accountability measure, something it’s not intended to be, she said.

Although there are no penalties for schools that don’t demonstrate strong health and wellness practices on the survey, there are potential rewards for those that do. The results, along with other pieces of evidence, can help schools win cash awards in the annual Healthy School Champions competition administered by the Colorado Education Initiative.

Here are some highlights and lowlights from the most recent results:

  • About 30 percent of elementary and secondary schools have school gardens.
  • On average, elementary school students get 82 minutes of physical education a week, well below the 150-minute recommendation.
  • Eighty-eight percent of secondary schools include Internet and social media literacy in their health courses.
  • Forty-four percent of elementary schools have a school nurse at the building for 10 or fewer hours per week.
  • Fifteen percent of secondary schools lack school psychologists and 36 percent lack school social workers.
  • Eighteen percent of elementary schools and nearly a quarter of secondary schools conduct universal mental health screenings.

Correction: An earlier version of this story cited several statistics without clarifying they were for K-8 schools and those that include kindergarten through 12th grade. The story has been changed to show statistics broken out by school level — either elementary or secondary.

catching some zzzzs

One Colorado district moving toward later high school start times — maybe — while another shelves the idea

PHOTO: Chellseyy, Creative Commons

Of the two large Colorado school districts that were actively exploring later high school start times for the 2017-18 school year, one is moving ahead and one has dropped the idea for now.

The 55,000-student Cherry Creek district — the state’s fourth largest — continues to consider proposed start- and end-time changes at all school levels. While the district is still collecting community feedback, the current proposal would set elementary school start times at 7:55 a.m., middle school start times at 8:50 a.m. and high school start times at 8:15 a.m.

Currently, Cherry Creek elementary schools start about 9 a.m., middle schools start about 8 a.m. and high schools start about 7 am. A recommendation will go before the Cherry Creek school board this spring.

Meanwhile, the 31,000-student Boulder Valley school district won’t change school start times next year because of the complexity of managing school bus schedules and the prospect of higher transportation costs, district spokesman Briggs Gamblin wrote via email.

Changes are still possible for the 2018-19 school year if the district can find a way to keep transportation costs at their current levels, he wrote.

The push for later high school start times has gained steam nationally with increasing evidence that when school schedules match with teen sleep rhythms, students are healthier, more focused, attend school more regularly and do better academically. In the last two years, both the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have come out in favor of start times of 8:30 a.m. or after.

In districts that have considered changing high school start times or actually changed them, the logistics of bus schedules and after-school sports are typically the biggest hurdles.

In Colorado, some smaller districts, including the Montezuma-Cortez district in southwest Colorado and the Harrison district in Colorado Springs, have pushed start times to 8:30 a.m. or after for some or all secondary schools.

But large districts have been slower to join the club. Denver Public Schools, the state’s largest school district, briefly explored later start times for some high schools a couple years ago, but the effort did not lead to any changes.

In the Boulder Valley district, a task force spent the 2015-16 school year researching later high school start times, with one of the group’s leaders saying last August she hoped the district could move forward with changes in 2017-18.

In Cherry Creek, where changes to school start and end times have also been under consideration over the last year, a November survey on the topic drew 25,000 responses.

Seventy-three percent of respondents said they wanted high school start times to align more closely to the American Academy of Pediatrics recommendation. When respondents were asked to pick between six high school schedule scenarios, the 8 a.m.-3:30 p.m. scenario was most popular — garnering more than 7,000 votes.

No thanks

Diet Nope: Colorado’s large districts still keeping diet soda out of high schools

After a state rule change last fall that allowed Colorado high schools to sell diet soda after a seven-year ban, many of the state’s big school districts have decided to stay soda-free.

Officials in six of Colorado’s 10 largest districts — Denver, Douglas County, Cherry Creek, Boulder Valley, Poudre and Colorado Springs 11 — say there are no plans to allow diet soda sales.

In some cases, such as Boulder, the district’s existing wellness policy already bans the soft drinks. In others, such as Poudre, the superintendent’s cabinet made the decision in the fall. In Denver, the district’s Health Advisory Council has recommended a continued prohibition of diet soda, but the school board hasn’t voted on the recommendation yet.

“We really commend the districts that are strengthening their own policies to continue to disallow diet soda,” said Sarah Kurz, vice president of policy and communications for the advocacy group LiveWell Colorado.

Three of the 10 largest districts — Aurora, Jeffco and Adams 12 — haven’t decided yet whether to bring back diet soda. Adams 12 officials say they’re gathering feedback from the district’s health advisory committee, 42 school wellness committees and all building principals. When that process is complete, any proposed changes will go through a policy-making process that ends with a recommendation to the superintendent.

Jeffco administrators say they’ll also collect data and public input before deciding whether to update the district’s wellness policy to ban diet soda. Aurora officials said there’s no timeline for a decision.

The St. Vrain district was the only one that declined to provide information about its diet soda plans.

“At this time, St. Vrain Valley Schools has no comment regarding this topic,” spokesman Matthew Wiggins wrote via email.

The diet soda issue popped up last summer shortly after new federal rules came out governing certain types of school food. Under those rules, diet soda can be sold to high-schoolers from vending machines and school stores. Colorado’s stricter rules — in place since 2009 — ban all types of soda in schools.

But officials at the state education department who brought the proposed rule change to the State Board of Education said the change would better align state and federal rules and reduce schools’ regulatory burden. Regular soda is still banned in schools because it exceeds maximum calorie limits under both sets of rules.

In August, and again in September, the State Board of Education voted 4-3 along party lines to change Colorado’s “Healthy Beverage Policy” and allow diet soda in high schools. Republican members in favor of the rule change said the seven-year ban hadn’t cut obesity and that it’s the job of parents not schools to ensure kids make healthy choices.

A coalition of health groups, including LiveWell Colorado, lamented the decision, arguing that diet soda has no nutritional value, harms teeth and diverts students from drinking healthier beverages like water.

Kurz said with the recent change in the state board’s composition — Democrats now hold a majority — it’s possible a vote now would go in favor of a diet soda ban. Still, with lots of big education issues looming, she doesn’t expect the board to take up the issue again.