The Other 60 Percent

“Recess” coaches may help classroom work

Raymundo Barreles, 7, and Osiel Cervantes, 8, students at Denver's Swansea Elementary, settle a playground dispute amicably using the "rock, paper, scissors" method, taught to them by recess coach Eben Bowers.

Recess went better at Denver’s Swansea Elementary School last week than any week Principal Mary Sours can remember in the past ten years.

Kids were running instead of standing against the wall. Disputes were minimal. Energy was expended in a productive, healthy way that left youngsters ready for learning when they went back inside.

Oh, what a difference a week can make. And Sours and her teachers don’t ever want things to go back to the way they were.

“Teachers have now seen what recess can look like,” Sours said, “and they don’t want to give that up now.”

Swansea was one of seven DPS schools to get a trial “recess coach” for a week from Playworks, a California-based non-profit organization that operates programs in ten cities across the country with the goal of making recess more productive in low-income schools.

If funding can be arranged – and Sours is determined to find the $23,000 it will cost – then come fall, Swansea will hire a Playworks recess coach to permanently transform the recess ethos of the school, located in north-central Denver.

Give credit to Eben Bowers, the visiting Playworks coach, who last year ran a program in San Francisco, and now is a national recruiter. Bowers spent his mornings going into Swansea classrooms and teaching youngsters simple games.

He spent his afternoons implementing those games – things like Four Square and kickball and Hen-and-Chicks – paying special attention to those kids who normally hang back at recess time and don’t participate. Jabari Wimbs, Playworks program director from Silicon Valley, California, assisted.

“Believe it or not, a lot of kids don’t know how to play,” said Bowers. “The more athletic kids have all the power. So there are barriers we have to break down. We want to make it safe for any kid to get into any game they want to play. Giving them that opportunity makes all the difference. It builds up a kid’s confidence and social skills.”

Dispute resolution is big, and Playworks relies heavily on the time-tested “rock, paper, scissors” (aka Rochambeau) method.

“That alone cuts down a lot on the things that typically will escalate into fights,” Bowers said. That, and “high fives,” which are employed liberally to encourage youngsters to encourage each other.

Playworks origin: a frustrated principal

Playworks began 14 years ago in Oakland, Calif., the brainchild of Jill Vialet, who at the time was director of a Children’s Museum.

“I was at a school waiting to see the principal, and she was running late,” said Vialet, president and founder of Playworks. “She was coming out of her office looking aggravated, the way only an elementary school principal can, and she had three little boys trailing behind her.

“She started going on about why recess was hell, and how teachers found every reason to be somewhere else. Then she looked at me and said ‘Can’t you DO something?’ I was taken aback. I was there to talk about an artist-in-residence program.”

Eben Bowers teaches children the rules of a game on the playground at Swansea.

But the incident got Vialet thinking – and recalling her own childhood, and Clarence, the beloved park-and-rec worker who always made sure she got in the game: “I thought, ‘I could make it so the school had a guy like Clarence.”

The next year, she launched Sports4Kids, which later became Playworks. It’s the only non-profit organization in the country to send trained, full-time coaches into low-income schools to turn recess into a more positive experience.

Not a replacement for P.E.

The recess coaches don’t take the place of physical education teachers, and they’re not certified teachers. They’re mostly young, enthusiastic recent college graduates who are trained by Playworks to know and teach good games, good sportsmanship and good fun.

The actual cost of the program is closer to $60,000 per school, but grants from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation have enabled the program to underwrite much of the expense while expanding rapidly. An $18 million grant from RWJF in 2008 is helping Playworks expand into 27 cities by 2012.

Vialet said schools will more than recoup the costs of Playworks.

“From a purely monetary sense, over the course of a year, Playworks recovers about 36 hours of instruction per teacher. It works out to about six minutes saved after every recess period, so cumulatively, it adds up over the course of a year,” she said. “Teachers, instead of spending time resolving fights, can spend time teaching. it maximizes value.”

Swansea fourth-grade special education teacher Cleo McElliott figures a smooth recess is worth even more than that.

“It takes 15 to 20 minutes out of a 45-minute block of time to get the kids to settle down after recess,” she said, as she watched her students romp with Bowers. “We’ve had too much chaos going on out here. Too much pushing and shoving. And we’d have kids lined up against the wall, standing there for 30 minutes, not getting to run off any energy. And all this impacts learning.”

McElliott said students need to run and play “but they don’t know how.”

“Some don’t even know how to play tag,” she said. “They just push a kid down and thing that’s tag. It really does affect the classroom. I hate inside days!”

Kids seek structure, predictability

By Friday, Swansea’s playground was deftly organized into small hives of activity. Bowers checked in on each of half a dozen different games going on in different parts of the yard, but the children knew the rules and were largely policing their own play.

“Kids really do like structure and predictability,” Sours said. “Every school has great kids. If you give them something purposeful to do, they will do it themselves, and you just need to monitor it. I’m seeing kids outside with a purpose now.”

Sours is not alone in appreciating the benefits of recess. A recent study of 2,000 elementary school principals nationwide, sponsored by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, found huge support for recess, even as many principals acknowledge they’ve cut out recess to meet other academic demands.

Still, four out of five principals believe recess positively impacts academic achievement, and two-thirds believe students are more focused in class following recess.

Sours said that while one week isn’t long enough to assess whether an improved recess will impact academic performance at her school, she’s already seen a decrease in discipline problems.

“When kids break a rule, they have to stand by the wall for awhile,” she said. “And I’m seeing fewer bodies by the wall. This is bringing out the best in the kids.”

FOR ADDITIONAL INFORMATION

Read “A State of Play,” the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation report on recess

Read “School Recess and Group Classroom Behavior,” a 2009 study published in Pediatrics

Click here for a peek into the Playworks playbook for ideas about active games that children can play to not only get exercise but also to learn collaboration and problem-solving skills.

Watch an interview with recess coach Eben Bowers:

Watch a video of Swansea kids playing on their playground:

Unmet needs

A social worker in every grade? Perhaps for 10 Colorado elementary schools

PHOTO: Ann Schimke/Chalkbeat
Fifth-graders practice mindfulness at Munroe Elementary School in Denver.

Educators, parents, and social workers told of students struggling with depression, younger and younger children attempting suicide, and youths ending up in prison. A bill approved Thursday by a Colorado House committee would pay for a three-year trial to provide social and emotional help for elementary students in the hopes of addressing some of these challenges.

If approved by the full legislature and signed into law, the measure would create a three-year pilot program at 10 high-needs schools. It is estimated to cost about $5 million a year. House Bill 1017 would place social workers, counselors or psychologists in every elementary grade at the test schools starting next year.

In an impassioned presentation, bill sponsor state Rep. Dafna Michaelson Jenet, a Commerce City Democrat, said schools need more social workers “to stop our children from dying by suicide, from ending up incarcerated, from being failed by our system.”

Suicide is a leading cause of death among youth ages 10 to 24 in Colorado, and advocates of the bill said schools are often ill-equipped to deal with children suffering from trauma, bullying and behavioral challenges.

The bill was scaled back from an original version that would have cost $16 million a year. Michaelson Jenet said the nearly $5 million annual cost would be funded in part by $2.5 million from the state’s marijuana cash fund, with the rest from private foundations.

The National Association of Social Workers recommends one social worker for every 250 students, and one for every 50 students at high-needs schools.

Colorado schools don’t come close to those numbers.

About one-third of the state’s 178 school districts employed social workers during the 2016-17 school year, the most recent for which data was available from the Colorado Department of Education. Those districts represented about 89 percent of that year’s 905,000 pre-K through 12th grade students.

The nearly 590 social workers employed worked out to less than one full-time employee per 1,000 students.

Englewood’s Sheridan School District had three social workers for 1,511 students, while Yuma County had 1½ social workers for 807 students.

The two largest districts, Denver and Jefferson County, employed more than one-third of school social workers that year, with more than one social worker for every 1,000 students. Denver voters approved a 2016 tax to help pay for more social workers.

But many districts have no social workers. And most school social workers are stretched thin.

Jessie Caggiano is a social worker who serves more than 3,000 students at four high schools in Weld County.

“I’m not able to meet with students effectively on a one-on-one basis, because I’m trying to implement other services schoolwide,” she said. “I’m only at each of my schools one day a week, so I’m not able to meet their needs by any means.”

Darlene Sampson, president of the Colorado chapter of the Association of Black Social Workers, recalled working at a Denver school when a student was killed in the cafeteria.

“Many kids are carrying their trauma in their backpacks into the school,” Sampson said.

And Cam Short-Camilli, representing the Colorado School Social Work Association, said students are facing increased emotional problems at most schools. The increase in youth suicide and suicide attempts is especially difficult, she said. One Denver incident last fall attracted national attention.

“Every school district, every student is impacted, that’s rural, urban, suburban schools,” Short-Camilli said. “In the past five years, I’ve been at elementary schools, and it’s been extremely shocking. Kids at those schools, there’s an immense ripple effect.”

But state Rep. James Wilson, a Salida Republican, questioned whether the pilot program would be possible to replicate because of the high number of professionals needed.

“I’m sitting here feeling like the Grinch,” Wilson said. “I cannot bring myself to put together an unrealistic pilot. Will it really work in the real world?”

State Rep. Janet Buckner, an Aurora Democrat, also expressed concerns, but voted for the bill.

“I’m concerned how we’re going to fund it,” she sad. “The suicide rate is off the chart and our kids need so much help. I don’t think we can wait. I have a lot of phone calls and emails about this bill, people who really need the help.”

HB-1017 next goes to the Appropriations Committee before being considered by the full House, then the Senate. It is one of several measures aimed at offering help for students and their families beyond academics at public schools.

Story time

This Memphis teacher’s favorite student didn’t stand for the Pledge of Allegiance. She taught him a powerful lesson.

PHOTO: Xzavier Bonds
Daniel Warner teaches at East High School in Memphis.

When one of Daniel Warner’s favorite students refused to stand for the Pledge of Allegiance, he could feel the tension in himself rising.

It was August 2017, the first week of classes, and Warner said he knew how important setting a tone was during the first few days of school.

“Didn’t my teacher prep program teach me that I have to set high expectations in that first week or the year is lost?” asked Warner, a U.S. history teacher at East High School in Memphis. “If I don’t set those, we’re done for.”

But before Warner reacted, he said he took a few moments to reflect on what could be going through her head.

Chalkbeat TN Storytelling Event
PHOTO: Xzavier Bonds
Daniel Warner tells his story to a crowded room.

It was the Monday after a violent white supremacists rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. Stories of former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick were again dominating the news, as he remained ostracized for kneeling during the national anthem to protest police brutality.

Instead of punishing her, Warner said, he refocused on what she might be thinking through as a black American high schooler.

“The lesson she taught me that day was that some of the most harmful instances of school discipline happen when we are too focused on ourselves as teachers,” Warner said.

Warner was one of seven educators and students who participated in a February story storytelling night hosted by Chalkbeat Tennessee, Spillit, and The Knowledge Tree. The stories told centered around school discipline practices, a topic Chalkbeat recently dove into in this special report.

Video Credit: Gillian Wenhold, The Social Exchange. The Social Exchange is a pay-as-you can PR & content creation firm for nonprofits and responsible, women/minority owned businesses.

Here’s an edited transcript of Warner’s story. It has been lightly edited for length and clarity:

It’s a week into school in early August. And kids are just trickling into my senior homeroom mostly asleep, sitting quietly in their desk as 18-year-olds do at 7:15 in the morning…And then morning announcements come on. “Please stand for the Pledge of Allegiance.”

So I stand up, and I say, “Alright y’all, go ahead and stand up with me.” I see these seniors throwing their bodies out of their seats, trying to stand up while they are still asleep. And almost everyone stands up but one girl doesn’t…  

So, my eyes meet this girls eyes as she stays in her seat during the pledge. And I can feel the tension in me of my authority being challenged in the room. And I wonder if everyone else is looking at me, my other students. So I give her a teacher look meant to communicate, “Are you going to stand up?” And she looks at me from across the room and shakes her head and mouths, “I can’t.”

So this student was one of my best students the year before in honors U.S. History. She engaged deeply with the material and personally. She asked questions of herself, of her country, of democracy, what this whole thing is about. She processed the double consciousness she feels of being both black and American. And she did so while being kind, thoughtful hardworking. The student you think of that makes you want to cry, you love that kid so much. I wonder what’s going on, what is she thinking about…

This is a Monday and the weekend before had been the white supremacists march in Charlottesville… When she told me, that she couldn’t stand, I went and sat in the desk next to her…I asked, “What’s keeping you from standing up?”

She started by saying, “I hate,” and she stopped herself. She took a breath, calmed herself down and said, “I just can’t.” And so we just sat there for a second. I could see as I got closer to her that she was flooded with emotion and feeling something deeply. And so we let the announcements end and I tell her, “When I say the pledge I say it more as a hope and a prayer…that there would be liberty and justice for all.” She said, “Yeah, I was thinking about that,” like a good U.S. History student, but she said “things don’t’ seem to be headed that way right now…

The lesson she taught me that day was that some of the most harmful instances of school discipline happen when we are too focused on ourselves as teachers. She showed me that I was a little too focused on how I was being perceived by other students in the classroom. And that I wasn’t focused enough on her and what she might be processing. As teachers, we have all of this opportunity to escalate conflict, I’ve done it plenty of times. But we also have an opportunity to be gracious to students who are working out who they are in public…

This girl wasn’t being disengaged by saying no to me, she was being especially engaged with who she is… When we talk about restorative justice, the first step we have to take is for us as educators and adults, and it’s doing your own emotional work. And we have to ask ourselves questions about our identities. You can only lead someone somewhere if you’ve gone there yourself…

What is it about us when it sets us off when a kid says no to us? Why are we that insecure? … When we pay attention to ourselves, our emotional status, the hurt we’ve felt, the pain we’ve lived through, that is when we can begin paying attention to how formative schools are. They are spaces where folks are working out their identities in public, and that’s when you feel the most self conscious and vulnerable and in need of grace offered by someone else.

So, I hope as we talk about this, we think of ways where we can make school a space for people to be figuring out who they are and not just punished into compliance. In high poverty schools, you talk about compliance like it’s the ultimate behavior. I hope we can make schools where students can learn what it is to seek justice, even when and especially when, things just don’t seem to be headed that way right now.