Close your eyes

How Colorado schools are helping kids calm down — and learn — through mindfulness

First-graders at Denver's Munroe Elementary do a mindfulness exercise led by school psychologist Amy Schirm.

On a recent Thursday afternoon, school psychologist Amy Schirm stood before two-dozen fifth-graders in a classroom at Denver’s Munroe Elementary School. Piano music played softly in the background and a string of white holiday lights twinkled on the wall behind her.

“Close your eyes,” Schirm said. “I’m going to ring the bell three times. Just focus all your attention on the sound.” She struck a small metal bowl with a mallet.

“Let your body kind of feel heavy, like you’re sinking down into your chair,” she said. “Just take a minute to check in with yourself. How are you doing in this moment?”

The students were practicing mindfulness — concentrating on their present thoughts, emotions and environment. The concept is catching on in schools in Colorado and nationwide as a way to help students better focus their attention, process their emotions and develop compassion.

Advocates say mindfulness can be especially valuable in high-poverty schools such as Munroe, where many students face difficult home lives and need strong social and emotional skills.

Nearly all the students Schirm was addressing that afternoon followed her instructions intently, some with eyes serenely closed and others with hoods pulled low over their faces. `

“We’re constantly telling kids to pay attention, but we never teach them how, or what that means,”  said Schirm, who spearheaded the school’s foray into mindfulness last year.

PHOTO: Ann Schimke
A fifth-grader in Fallon Newman’s class practices mindfulness at Munroe Elementary School in Denver.

Mindfulness fills that gap, helping kids tune in to instruction and their own emotional lives.

At least 40 Denver schools are weaving mindfulness into the school day, district officials say. Last year, DPS began offering staff trainings on the topic and purchased two mindfulness curriculums: MindUP for elementary students and Learning to Breathe for secondary students.

“We’re definitely moving in a direction where we’re realizing and acknowledging that social emotional learning is essential to academic success,” said Meredith Furtney, supervisor of the district’s department of social work and psychological services.

Munroe teacher Fallon Newman said she’s seen a big difference in her students since introducing mindfulness, both through “mindful minutes” each morning and during Schirm’s Thursday afternoon visits.

They’re more articulate about how they’re feeling and better able to cope with stress. That means more time for learning instead of hours given over to pent-up emotion, Newman said.

She’s also noticed a greater sense of empathy among students. A glimpse of that came during Schirm’s recent lesson when she had students pair up and gaze intently at their partners.

There were giggles and some students said they felt silly, but there were also moments of connection.

PHOTO: Ann Schimke
Two boys at Munroe Elementary in Denver practice “mindful seeing.”

“I felt like I know the things she knows,” said one girl, as the class debriefed.

Newman said some of her students have also become more attuned to her. She experienced it on a recent day when she temporarily took on seven fifth-graders from another class in addition to her own 26.

One of her students asked a surprising question: Was she feeling anxious about supervising the extra kids?

Newman admitted that she was a little apprehensive about the bigger group.

The boy responded, “OK, I’ll be on my best behavior.”

It was a heart-warming sign that mindfulness is paying off.

“It’s powerful stuff,” Newman said.

For some Munroe students, the practice instills a sense of calm that is often lacking in their lives. Take Chris, a fifth-grader with an impish smile who joined Schirm as she headed to a first-grade class to lead a brief mindfulness lesson last week.

For a long time, he’d been disruptive and noisy during such lessons in his own classroom. When Schirm finally asked why it was so hard for him, he told her he wasn’t used to the quiet.

Chris has an easier time of it now. In the first grade classroom, he stood tall in front of his smaller schoolmates, opening and closing a big expandable ball in time with their slow breaths.

At the 135-student charter school Carbondale Community School, the nudge toward mindfulness came last year from the school’s wellness committee. A teacher who was studying the practice as part of her graduate program led the charge.

Principal Tom Penzel said students and staff circle up in the commons area at the beginning of each week for a 15-minute “Mindful Monday” session. There’s a few minutes of guided meditation and then maybe a discussion about real-life scenarios where mindfulness could come in handy.

Examples include how to react when the least athletic kid wants to join the game or what to do when you feel a flash of anger toward a classmate. Penzel said it was students who asked that more time to be devoted to such scenarios.

“I’ve been amazed over time how much the kids are bought into it,” he said.

Extra sleep

Two Colorado districts shift to later high school start times — for very different reasons

PHOTO: planetchopstick/Creative Commons

The 22,000-student Greeley-Evans school district in northern Colorado will join the 55,000-student Cherry Creek district in suburban Denver in adopting later high school start times this fall.

But unlike in wealthier Cherry Creek, the change in Greeley was not the result of a lengthy process to review research and solicit community feedback. Instead, the move came out of a very different conversation: How could the cash-strapped district tighten its belt?

After Greeley voters rejected a district tax measure last November, a chronic bus driver shortage loomed larger than ever. With no additional money to beef up driver salaries and more than a dozen driver vacancies, district officials needed to reduce the number of routes. They decided to discontinue busing for most high school students — part of a package of cuts that will save the district $667,000 a year.

That decision divorced the start time debate from the common concern that pushing high school bell times later requires more bus routes and more money.

“We were only able to move the high school start time by seriously limiting — in fact, almost eliminating — bus transportation for our high school students,” district spokeswoman Theresa Myers said.

She noted that all district students are eligible for free transportation on city buses. About two-thirds of district students qualify for free or reduced-price meals, a proxy for poverty.

Later middle and high school start times have gained traction in Colorado and nationally in recent years with mounting evidence that teens are hardwired to go to bed later and wake up later. When school schedules align with sleep patterns, research shows students are healthier, attend school more regularly and do better academically.

Nationally, Seattle Public Schools is one of the largest districts to embrace later start times — pushing high school and most middle school start times to 8:45 a.m. last year, with plans to shift to 9 a.m. this year. Also, in what could be the first statewide start-time mandate in the country, California lawmakers are currently considering legislation that would prohibit the state’s middle and high schools from starting before 8:30 a.m.

In Colorado, the move to later start times has been relatively slow. Until March, when both the Cherry Creek and Greeley-Evans school boards voted on the schedule changes, only a few smaller districts had made the switch. They include Montezuma-Cortez in southwest Colorado and Harrison in Colorado Springs.

Both Denver Public Schools and Boulder Valley considered later high school start times in the last couple years, but ultimately shelved the idea. Boulder Valley officials said the prospect of increased transportation costs was one of the reasons they didn’t move forward.

In Denver, which currently doesn’t provide district busing to most high school students, administrators expressed concern about complicated transportation logistics, after-school sports schedules and conflicts for students with after-school jobs.

Cherry Creek officials say the change in start times this coming year won’t cost the district more money.

In both Cherry Creek, the state’s fourth-largest district, and Greeley-Evans, the 13th largest, high school start times will shift 45 minutes to an hour later this year. In Cherry Creek, high schools will start at 8:20 a.m. and middle schools will start at 8:50 a.m., and in Greeley-Evans, high schools will start at 8 a.m. and middle schools will start at 8:30 a.m.

Other changes in Greeley-Evans include greater walk distances for students at all levels. That means high-schoolers won’t qualify for busing unless they live more than three miles from school, middle-schoolers won’t qualify unless they live more than two miles from school, and elementary kids won’t qualify unless they live more than 1.5 miles from school.

Myers said the new start times haven’t caused much consternation among parents.

“It’s more the transportation issue (that’s) causing some angst for some of our families,” she said. “We’re really going to watch and see how this impacts attendance and tardiness at our schools.”

shot down

Boys & Girls Clubs unlikely to open soon in Memphis schools as SCS funding plan collapses

PHOTO: Boys & Girls Club
The Boys & Girls Club provides after-school programs for children and teens.

If there’s a downside to the improved financial condition of Shelby County Schools, it’s the challenge of getting additional funding for a new initiative, even if everyone agrees it’s a good idea.

That scenario played out this week as some county commissioners balked at a request for an extra $1.6 million to open Boys & Girls Clubs inside of three Memphis schools.

The decision was close, just one vote shy of approval, demonstrating the tension among commissioners wrestling over how to invest in a community with big needs, limited resources and a desire to keep property taxes in check.

In many ways, the proposal to open school-based clubs felt like a slam-dunk. Boys & Girls Clubs have programming. The district has empty space. Neighborhoods near schools have young people in need of enriching afterschool activities.

“We talk everyday about crime, and this is a safe haven,” Chairman Melvin Burgess told his fellow commissioners on Monday in arguing for the investment. “What people don’t know is that an afterschool program is a place for kids to go instead of an empty home.”

But even as the district’s $985 million spending plan sailed through the board, several commissioners questioned the need for anything extra.

“I really support Shelby County Schools spending their own money to do it,” said Commissioner David Reaves. “They have $80 million sitting in a savings account, and we gave them a huge bump last year. Here’s the reality: I was on the school board and I know how it works. They need to spend their own money.”

The decision kicks the proposal back to district leaders, who have been in talks for months with Boys & Girls Club of Greater Memphis.

A district spokeswoman said Wednesday that Shelby County Schools has no plans to fund the initiative at this time.

Keith Blanchard, the president and CEO of the Boys & Girls Clubs, agreed that it’s now unlikely for new clubs to open inside of Dunbar Elementary, Riverview School and Craigmont High by 2018.

“This process has drug out so long, we don’t know what next steps will be yet,” he said. “If we can secure funding at this point, maybe we start in just one school in the fall. Maybe we try again next year. We’re not giving up.”

Shelby County Schools began its 2017-18 budget season without a shortfall for the first time in years, allowing the district next year to provide teacher raises, hire new guidance counselors and behavior specialists, and make new investments in struggling schools.

But Superintendent Dorsey Hopson says the school system still doesn’t have enough money to propel students to academic success in a community challenged by high poverty and mobility.

Such concerns are among the reasons that school-based investments in Boys & Girls Clubs made all the more sense, according to the idea’s backers.

“(The commission vote) was really disappointing,” said Blanchard. “We thought we had the votes going in. I think it was most disappointing for the students who were there, and for them to have to listen to the reasons why this didn’t pass.”