Health and Happiness

Reading, writing and aerobics: How a popular Indy school uses movement to help kids learn

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Indianapolis Public Schools SUPER School 19 has a focus on fitness.

The ceiling of Principal Aleicha Ostler’s office in School 19 often vibrates, as small feet clamor and stomp above her head.

Ostler’s office isn’t below the gym or a busy hallway, but the classroom above her is seldom quiet. That’s because nearly every class at School 19 has physical activity built into the day, with students walking, dancing and stomping as they study English, math and history.

An elementary and middle school southeast of downtown, School 19 — known in Indianapolis as the SUPER school — is among the most popular magnet schools in the city. Then again, it’s a rare breed: a magnet program focused on health and physical activity at a time when some schools prohibit students from moving during class.

“Here it’s encouraged,” Ostler said. “When they are sitting on a yoga ball, they can rock, they can bounce. They are not told to stop.”

In addition to yoga balls in every classroom, the school has standing desks and exercise equipment students can use during class — such as pedals under desks, stools that spin and child-size ellipticals.

Indianapolis Public Schools SUPER School 19.
PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Indianapolis Public Schools SUPER School 19.

On a Monday afternoon, the students in one classroom chanted and stomped their feet to music as they counted by seven. Down the hall, seventh graders walked to each side of their social studies class for a debate about whether it’s a “big deal” when football players don’t stand for the national anthem.

In a kindergarten classroom, the teacher led his students in physical movements as they spelled out words, touching his hands to his head, waist and feet for each letter.

“They are just very simple strategies,” said Ostler, who has been principal of School 19 for eight years.

It’s an approach that has proven popular with families. The magnet program is open to children from across the district, and it commonly attracts more students than it can serve — particularly for middle school, which sometimes has more than 100 students on the waitlist, Ostler said.

Yet the little known program ignited controversy last month, when the IPS administration revealed a proposal to convert School 43 to a SUPER school without consulting community leaders. After receiving a rebuke from board member Kelly Bentley, the district retracted the plan. The future of School 43 is still undecided, however, and the school could still convert to a magnet with a health and physical activity focus.

If that happens, School 43’s leaders will be able to use the lessons that School 19 learned as it ramped up its fitness focus. The school added fitness courses on a trial basis after a district official suggested that strategy for combatting obesity, and the pilot was so successful that it expanded to the whole school about five years ago.

In addition to adding movement throughout the day, the school added two extra physical education teachers. Just as academic teachers integrate movement into their classes, physical education teachers also work with students on academic skills. For example, an action-based learning class, teacher Kim Ward, will have students bounce on the trampoline while they practice reading words by sight, she said.

Indianapolis Public Schools SUPER School 19.
PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Indianapolis Public Schools SUPER School 19.

The school has cooking classes to help students learn to eat healthfully and the school doesn’t allow pizza parties or sweet snacks like birthday cupcakes. Instead, students are encouraged to bring in treats like fruit.

When students are more physically active, research suggests they are better at complex cognition — such as problem solving and remembering what they learn — and do better in school, said Amanda Szabo-Reed, a researcher at the University of Kansas Medical Center who recently summarized existing studies on activity and learning. There’s also evidence that students are better at focusing on tasks after moving, she said.

But research is not clear on whether there are benefits to combining movement and school work — something that Ostler and others at the school said is crucial to the school’s vision.

“There isn’t definitive research out there to say ‘it’s better to do your times tables while doing jumping jacks than to just do jumping jacks,’ ” Szabo-Reed said.

The practical benefits to combining movement and academics are real: Students at School 19 spend a lot more time being physically active than students at schools where the only opportunity for exercise is during a brief recess or gym class.

Comparing test scores over time doesn’t answer the question of whether the fitness program is boosting academic performance, Ostler said, because the student population has changed so much since School 19 became a magnet school.

But the school’s own measurements of students’ fitness have found gains every year, according to Ostler. And teachers say they see another benefit to moving more in class: Students are happier and more engaged during the day.

Megan Burt, an interventionist at School 19, was a first-grade teacher when the magnet program started. She said that students used to get bored in class, resting their heads on their hands. Now, they are more excited about coming to school and rarely seem disinterested.

“It’s hard to teach a group of kids who are just sitting there with their heads on their hands, bored, because then you start to get bored,” she said. “It’s exciting to see kids so excited about school.”

second chance

An embattled Harlem charter school that serves kids with disabilities will be allowed to keep its middle school — for now

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
Opportunity Charter School

A Harlem charter school will be allowed to keep its middle school next school year, despite the fact that top city education officials have repeatedly ruled that it is too low performing to stay open.

That decision offers at least temporary relief for Opportunity Charter School, which has been embroiled in a dispute with the education department since March. The disagreement centers on whether city officials properly took into account the school’s students — over half of whom have a disability — when it judged the school’s performance.

The city’s education department, which oversees the school as its charter authorizer, tried to close the middle school and offered only a short-term renewal for the high school when the school’s charter came up for review earlier this year. The school appealed that decision, and was denied late last month.

But the education department is backing down from its position — at least for now. That reversal appears to be based mostly on logistics: A Manhattan Supreme Court judge has temporarily blocked the closure through at least mid-July in response to a lawsuit filed by the school and some of its parents last month, complicating the process of finding students new schools outside the normal admissions cycle.

“Students always come first, and given where we are in the school year, we will allow the middle school grades to remain open in 2017-18,” education department spokesman Michael Aciman wrote in an email on Thursday. Still, he noted, the department will continue to push to close the middle school in the future.

Kevin Quinn, a lawyer representing Opportunity Charter, said the city’s decision was the only responsible one, given that the school has already held its admissions lottery and made offers to parents.

“This is a wise decision by the [education department],” Quinn wrote in an email, “and [we] appreciate their acknowledgment that placement of this population at this time would be significantly disruptive.”

language proficiency

Educators working on creating more bilingual students worry new state requirements aren’t high enough

A second grade class at Bryant Webster K-8 school in Denver (Joe Amon, The Denver Post).

Colorado educators who led the way in developing high school diploma endorsements recognizing bilingual students worry that new legislation establishing statewide standards for such “seals of biliteracy” sets the bar too low.

Two years ago, Denver Public Schools, Eagle County Schools and the Adams County School District 14 started offering the seal of biliteracy to their students. The three districts worked together to find a common way to assess whether students are fluent in English and another language, and recognize that on high school diplomas. Advocates say the seal is supposed to indicate to colleges and employers that students are truly bilingual.

A bill passed by state legislators this year that will go into effect in August sets a path for districts that want to follow that lead by outlining the minimum that students must do to prove they are fluent in English and in another language.

According to the new law, students must meet a 3.0 grade point average in their English classes and also earn a proficient score on the 11th grade state test, or on Advanced Placement or IB tests. For showing proficiency in the second language, students can either earn proficient scores on nationally recognized tests — or meet a 3.0 grade point average after four years of language classes.

Although educators say the law sends a message of support for bilingual education, that last criteria is one part of what has some concerned.

“It allows for proficiency in a world language to be established solely by completing four years of high school language classes,” said Jorge Garcia, executive director of the Colorado Association for Bilingual Education. “Language classes in one school district may have a different degree of rigor than they do in another.”

The second language criteria should be comparable to the English criteria, several educators said. In the requirements set by Denver, Eagle County and Adams 14, students must at a minimum demonstrate language proficiency through a test score, or in some cases with a portfolio review and interview if a test is not available.

The three districts also catered their requirements based on what each community said was important. In Adams 14 and in Eagle schools, students must perform community service using their language skills. Students also have to do an interview in both languages with a community panel.

“Our school district team developed the community service criteria because we wanted our kids to have authentic practice in their languages,” said Jessica Martinez, director of multilingual education for Eagle County Schools. “We also wanted students to be a bridge to another community than their own. For example, one group of students created academic tutoring services for their peers who don’t yet speak a lot of English. Another student started tutoring her mom and her parents’ friends so they could get their GED.”

The state law doesn’t require students to do community service. But it does allow school districts to go above the state’s requirements when setting up their biliteracy programs.

“Thoughtful school districts can absolutely address these concerns,” Garcia said.

Several school districts in the state are looking to start their own programs. In March, the school board for the Roaring Fork School District in Glenwood Springs voted to start offering the seal. Summit School District also began offering the seal this year.

Leslie Davison, the dual language coordinator for Summit, said that although her program will change in the next year as she forms more clear requirements around some new tests, she will continue to have higher requirements than the state has set.

This year her students had prove proficiency in their second language by taking a test in that language. They also had to demonstrate English proficiency through the ACT. In addition, students did oral presentations to the community in both languages.

“Their expectations aren’t as high as mine are,” Davison said. “We’ll probably stay with our higher-level proficiencies. I do have some work to do in terms of how that’s going to look for next year, but I certainly don’t want to just use seat time.”

Meanwhile, the districts that started the seal are increasing their commitment to biliteracy so as many students as possible can be eligible to earn seals in the future.

The Adams 14 school district in Commerce City is using Literacy Squared, a framework written by local researchers for teaching students to read English by strengthening literacy in the native language. The program is being rolled up year by year and will serve students in 34 classrooms from preschool through fourth grade in the fall.

In Eagle County, Martinez said parents have shown such a strong demand for biliteracy that most elementary schools are now dual language schools providing instruction to all students in English for half of the school day and in Spanish for the other half.

Both districts are also increasing the offerings of language classes in middle and high school. The options are important for students who are native English speakers so they too can become bilingual and access the seal. For students whose primary language is not English, the classes can help ensure they don’t lose their primary language as they learn English.

Of Eagle’s 25 students who graduated with a seal of biliteracy this year, 17 were native Spanish speakers and eight were native English speakers.

“We want all kids to see their bilingualism is an asset,” Martinez said. “It’s huge for them.”