Unleaded

Fixes underway to remedy high lead levels in Denver, Jeffco and Cherry Creek school water

PHOTO: Flickr

A small proportion of sinks and water fountains in Denver, Jeffco and Cherry Creek schools have been taken out of service because of high lead levels found after school district testing in the summer and fall.

So far, results are back for one-third of Denver schools, mostly elementaries. They show that about 4 percent of samples came back high. Some schools have no sinks or fountains with elevated lead levels, while others — such as Greenlee Elementary and Denver Montessori Junior/Senior High School — have four or five.

“We haven’t really found anything alarming,” said Joni Rix, environmental services manager for DPS. “Certainly we’ve found lead, but it’s not widespread.”

Fixes, which are expected to cost around $500,000, will happen at every school with elevated lead levels, she said.

That’s not the case in Jeffco, where testing revealed that about 80 percent of schools have at least one sink or water fountain with high lead levels.

While smaller fixes have been or will be made, district officials say voters’ rejection of the district’s $535 million bond issue earlier this month will make extensive plumbing repairs impossible.

“If it’s any kind of big fix it’s probably not going to happen,” said district spokeswoman Diana Wilson. “It’s probably going to be easier to shut some sinks down.”

In Cherry Creek, where testing was conducted this fall, some schools had elevated levels. In most cases, fixes have already been made, though more systemic problems surfaced at the 1980s-era Creekside Elementary. Water samples from 10 locations in the school had elevated lead levels and samples from most other locations also showed some lead, though not above the federal limit.

District spokeswoman Tustin Amole said via email that students there are drinking bottled water until repairs can be completed — probably over winter break.

The risk of lead poisoning from school water is relatively low, according to experts in Colorado. Still, they say school officials are right to be aware of it given that high lead levels can severely impair children’s physical and mental development.

School districts aren’t required to test their water for lead unless they’re considered public water systems. (That’s the case in some rural districts and on a limited basis in Jeffco, which provides water to six mountain schools.)

Still, in the wake of the lead-poisoning crisis in Flint, Mich., last year, Colorado’s five largest school districts all decided to test their water.

Douglas County School District launched its effort last spring at 19 older schools, and had no samples above the federal 15-parts-per-billion threshold, according to district records provided to Chalkbeat last summer.

Jeffco began districtwide lead-testing in June and Denver followed in August. In Jeffco, testing is now complete save for a small number of re-tests in locations where fixes have been made.

Aurora Public Schools began testing school water in October, and so far results are available for two early childhood centers, according to the district’s lead-testing web page. Neither have elevated lead levels.

Results for the remaining two-thirds of Denver’s schools will be back by the end of January. Rix said she expects a similar proportion of those samples — 4 to 5 percent — to have elevated levels. All told, district staff collected more than 4,000 water samples this fall.

Starting this Saturday, DPS will also test some schools’ service lines — the pipes that run from buildings to the city’s water mains under the street — to determine whether they are made of lead. That testing, which involves drilling into the ground to reach the service lines, will start at Newlon, Cowell, Goldrick, Schmitt and Knapp elementary schools.

The five, all built in the 1950s, are among 69 district schools that may have their service lines tested this year. The $572 million bond Denver voters passed earlier this month will provide $800,000 to replace lead service lines.

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that Cory Elementary in Denver was among schools with four to five sinks or water fountains showing high lead levels. It had only one water fountain with elevated lead levels. 

Get moving

All work and no play: Colorado kids losing out on P.E., report finds

Many Colorado educators say funding constraints and the relentless pressure to focus on academics means physical education gets short shrift in schools.

As a result, few kids get the minimum amount of physical education recommended by experts. The problem is compounded by the fact that Colorado is one of the few states that doesn’t require physical education in schools.

These are among the findings of new report published by PE For All Colorado, a statewide coalition of health and advocacy groups.

Colorado collects no detailed statewide data on the quantity or quality of physical education offered, so getting a clear picture is impossible. However, the report’s authors point to multiple pieces of evidence that kids aren’t getting enough P.E., including the coalition’s research, state health survey data and national statistics showing around half of schools cut P.E. after the passage of the No Child Left Behind law in 2001.

The report argues that the dearth of P.E. is particularly detrimental for low-income students, who are more likely to be overweight and obese, and less likely to get adequate exercise throughout the day.

Drawing on interviews with teachers, administrators and school board members, the report found that many respondents believed personally in the importance of physical education, but said that school districts needed more evidence before making it a top priority.

One respondent said, “If you could show that [requiring a minimum number of P.E. hours] will increase academic achievement, then we would be remiss in not looking at it. To just do it ‘because it’s good for kids’, then no…”

The report highlights research that shows a correlation between physical fitness and better performance on standardized tests. It also cites research showing physical activity improves students’ focus and concentration and reduces behavior problems among young children.

A 2011 state law requires  schools to provide elementary students an average of 30 minutes a day of physical activity — either physical education, recess, brain breaks or something else.

But the law has no teeth and is not enforced. About 15 percent of school districts didn’t meet the requirements of the law, according to 2014-15 data from the state education department.

Only 13 percent of school districts reported having policies requiring or encouraging a certain amount of P.E. time, according to a 2014 health department study of 41 Colorado districts.

The report includes a number of recommendations. Among them:

  • Elementary students should get 30 minutes a day and secondary students should get 45 minutes a day of physical education.
  • Recess and physical activity breaks should not be substituted for P.E.
  • Students should not be withheld from P.E. as a punishment.
  • Students should not be removed from P.E. for academic reasons, such as special education or English language acquisition.
  • The state should adequately fund school districts so quality P.E. programs are attainable in all districts.
  • Policy-makers should offer incentives to schools that meet or exceed Colorado’s physical education standards.

PE gap

Denver schools with large numbers of English learners get less physical education

PHOTO: Ann Schimke

Students in Denver elementary and K-8 schools where half or more students are English language learners get less physical education time than students at other district schools.

While most students get 72-75 minutes of physical education a week, students at schools with high proportions of English language learners got 50 minutes a week on average, according to results from a recent district survey.

District officials say they plan to investigate the cause of the disparity this year and suspect it could be because more time is dedicated to special programming to help students learn English at those schools.

Capucine Chapman, the district’s arts and physical education director, said while all students deserve access to high quality physical education, we’re “sensitive and aware that it’s a balancing act. Schools have their own demographics, their own needs.”

Not all schools with sizable English language learner populations had fewer physical education minutes. Those with 34 to 47 percent English learners had almost exactly the same physical education time as schools with few such students.

The discrepancy only appeared for schools with 48 percent or more English language learners.

The finding about physical education time was part of a larger presentation on physical education given to the Denver school board this month.

The presentation also spotlighted a pilot program focused on gleaning more detailed information about physical education programming from five schools this year. One of schools — McGlone — is an elementary school where 55 percent of students are English Language Learners. Two others are secondary schools with even higher proportions of English Language Learners — Bruce Randolph School and Respect Academy at Lincoln High School.

The data survey and the pilot program are both part of the district’s five-year physical education plan, PE 2020. Chapman said the district is working on the plan with input from the PE For All Colorado coalition, which includes a host of health and advocacy groups such as Padres & Jovenes Unidos, LiveWell Colorado and the Colorado Children’s Campaign.