The Other 60 Percent

Schools track student fitness with Fitnessgram

Physical education students at Aurora Central High School do push-ups as part of their Fitnessgram assessment tests last month.

Seventeen-year-old Christian Quintero’s 56 laps of the 20-meter “track” set up in the gym at Aurora Central High School might not qualify him for star athlete status, but it does mean his cardiovascular endurance is approaching the healthy zone for a young man his age.

What’s more, it’s tangible evidence that his weight lifting and running regimen is having an affect. In January, he could only do 43 laps before getting so winded he had to stop.

“I’m walking to school more, too,” said Quintero, who pronounced himself pleased with his performance, and vowed to continue his workouts.

Meanwhile, classmate Jonathan Ruiz’s 36 pushups mark him as having exceptional upper body strength. “It’s the bench press and triceps extensions I’ve been doing,” said Ruiz, 14. In January, he could do only 30.

The boys and their P.E. classmates have tracked their fitness progress using Fitnessgram, a fitness assessment and reporting program for youth developed in Texas nearly 30 years ago, but spreading rapidly through Colorado schools in the past few years. The program uses a variety of fitness tests –  including a 20-meter shuttle run, skin fold test, curl-ups, push-ups and a sit-and-reach test – that assess body composition, cardiovascular endurance, flexibility, and muscular strength and endurance. Individuals can then compare their scores to age- and gender-weighted standards based on levels of fitness needed for good health.

It looks a lot like the older Presidential Physical Fitness Award Program, which was introduced by President Lyndon Johnson in 1966 and is still around, though today’s it’s called the President’s Challenge. But unlike the Presidential program, which is a competitive assessment that honors students whose fitness scores are in the 85th percentile or better, Fitnessgram participants compete only against themselves.

The computerized software program provides individualized printouts for each student, whether he or she is in the so-called “Healthy Fitness Zone,” and how those scores have changed over time.

It’s one of the most research-based fitness assessments there is,” said Clayton Ellis, Aurora Central’s physical education teacher – and the American Association for Health, Physical Education, Recreation and Dance 2010 National High School Physical Education Teacher of the Year.

Aurora Central student Matthew Gordon, 16, does the sit-and-reach test of flexibility in his physical education class under the direction of student teacher Clint Naegel.

Aurora Public Schools adopted Fitnessgram assessment program three years ago when it approved a new physical education curriculum, and the district is committed to assessing and tracking every elementary and middle school student twice yearly, starting in third grade. High school students are assessed four times yearly in their required P.E. classes.

Unfortunately, the district doesn’t yet have the capability to export individual scores from one school to another. So they can’t track a student’s progress all the way through elementary to middle to high school, but Ellis believes it’s just a matter of time before that’s possible.

“Somebody has that data someplace, and our research and assessment department is looking to create a spreadsheet so we could store that data and track at the district level according to a student’s identification number,” he said.

Aurora has the best-established tracking program, but around the state, numerous school districts are moving in that direction, said Terry Jones, senior consultant for health and physical education for the Colorado Department of Education. And most are adopting Fitnessgram, even as fewer and fewer participate in the President’s Physical Fitness Challenge.

“I don’t have an exact number of districts who are doing this, since there’s no state mandate for this, but we’re seeing a definite increase, though it’s not above 50 percent yet,” Jones said. “The problem with the President’s Physical Fitness Award is that it measures students’ ability against the entire country. We don’t want to encourage that. We want to see them improve their individual levels, to help them make goals to increase their own fitness levels rather than compare themselves to everybody else.

“Because competition doesn’t help the students that need the most intervention. If they just see themselves at the low end of the bell curve, they won’t work to improve as much as someone who just wants to make himself healthy.”

Denver Public Schools has been using Fitnessgram in its middle schools for five years, and recently obtained a grant to add the program into all its elementary schools by 2013. It went into the first 29 elementary schools this year, will go into 29 more next year and 30 more the following year.

“The reason we have to phase it in is because the site license is $350 per school, so we want to make sure the money is there to support those schools now using it and those that will be using it,” said Eric Larson, physical education coordinator for DPS.

Larson said he recently met with P.E. teachers who got the Fitnessgram program this year, and it received largely positive comments.

“The one thing they really like is the feedback to the students, and how the students can create their own fitness goals,” he said. “If they’re already in their healthy fitness zone, they’re asking themselves how they can improve. When they look at that printout, and see their scores, it encourages them.

“The President’s Challenge emphasizes students that perform well. The high achievers get those patches. But Fitnessgram is more in tune with students who are overweight, who don’t perform well. There’s still encouragement for those students.”

In the Yampa Valley, Shawn Baumgartner, boys’ PE teacher for Hayden Middle and High Schools, switched to Fitnessgram this month, after years of using the President’s Physical Fitness Challenge. The program was provided through a grant from LiveWell Northwest Colorado.

“We’re excited about this because of the feedback we can give the kids,” said Baumgartner. “It doesn’t say ‘You need to do this to rank at a national level.’ It says ‘Here’s what you need to do to be in a healthy fitness zone, and here’s how we can help you achieve that.’ It lets them enter their own data and they’re learning a life skill for when they leave here. They’re learning to self-monitor.”

Baumgartner expects to have the program implemented for all students in grades 3-12 by next school year.

For more information

Click here to see Fitnessgram standards for boys and girls, ages 5 to 17+.

Click here to see the qualifying standards for the Presidential Challenge.

Watch a video of Aurora Central High School students participating in a variety of Fitnessgram tests.

Movers & shakers

Former education leaders spearhead new Memphis group to zero in on poverty

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Klondike-Smokey City is the first Memphis neighborhood targeted by Whole Child Strategies to coordinate the fight against poverty.

In a “big small town” like Memphis, neighborhoods are a source of pride and strength for residents in one of the poorest cities in America.

Natalie McKinney

Now, a new Memphis nonprofit organization is seeking to address poverty by coordinating the work of neighborhood schools, businesses, churches, and community groups.

Natalie McKinney is executive director of Whole Child Strategies, created last fall to help neighborhood and community leaders chart their own paths for decreasing poverty, which also would increase student achievement.

“There’s a lot of people ‘collaborating’ but not a lot of coordination toward a shared goal,” said McKinney, a former policy director for Shelby County Schools.

McKinney doesn’t want to “reinvent the wheel” on community development. However, she does want to provide logistical resources for analyzing data, facilitating meetings, and coordinating public advocacy for impoverished Memphis neighborhoods through existing or emerging neighborhood councils.

“Poverty looks different in different areas,” she said, citing varying levels of parent education, transportation, jobs and wages, and access to mental health services. “When we get down and figure out what is really going on and really dealing with the root cause for that particular community, that’s the work that the neighborhood council is doing.”

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Luther Mercer

Her team includes Luther Mercer, former Memphis advocacy director for the Tennessee Charter School Center, and Rychetta Watkins, who recently led the Big Brothers Big Sisters of the Mid-South, along with Courtney Thomas, Elizabeth Mitchell, and Tenice Hardaway.

Whole Child Strategies is supported by an anonymous donor and also plans to raise more funds, according to McKinney.

The first neighborhood to receive a grant from the nonprofit is Klondike-Smokey City, which includes a mix of schools run by both Shelby County Schools and Tennessee’s Achievement School District. The group is drilling down to find out why students in those schools are missing school days, which will include a look at student suspensions.

At the community level, Whole Child Strategies has canvassed Agape Child & Family Services, Communities in Schools, City Year, Family Safety Center, Klondike Smokey City Community Development Corp., Mid-South Peace & Justice Center, and Seeding Success for ideas to increase transportation, reduce crime, and provide more mental health services.

For example, Family Safety Center, which serves domestic abuse survivors, now has a presence in schools in the Klondike-Smokey City community. McKinney said that’s the kind of coordination she hopes Whole Child Strategies can foster.

One need that already is apparent is for a community-wide calendar so that meetings do not overlap and organizations can strategize together, said Quincey Morris, executive director of the Klondike Smokey City Community Development Corp.

“I think like any new thing, you have to crawl first,” Morris said. “And I think the more that the community is informed about the whole child strategy, the more that we involve parents and community residents, I think it will grow.”

It takes a village

What does it mean to be a community school? This Colorado bill would define it – and promote it

PHOTO: Yesenia Robles
A teacher leads a class called community living at Jefferson Junior-Senior High School in Jeffco Public Schools.

A Colorado lawmaker wants to encourage struggling schools to adopt the community school model, which involves schools providing a range of services to address challenges students and their families face outside the classroom.

Community schools are an old idea enjoying a resurgence in education circles with the support of teachers unions and other advocates. These schools often include an extended school day with after-school enrichment, culturally relevant curriculum, significant outreach to parents, and an emphasis on community partnerships.

In Colorado, the Jefferson County school district’s Jefferson Junior-Senior High School is moving toward a community school model with job services and English classes for parents. New York Mayor Bill de Blasio has made this approach the centerpiece of school turnaround efforts in that city.

State Sen. Rachel Zenzinger, an Arvada Democrat, is sponsoring a bill that would, for the first time, create a definition of community schools in state law and make it explicit that innovation schools can be community schools. The Senate Education Committee held a hearing on the bill Thursday and didn’t kill it. Instead, state Sen. Owen Hill, the Colorado Springs Republican who chairs the committee, asked to postpone a vote so he could understand the idea better.

“My concern is these chronically underperforming schools who are wavering between hitting the clock and not for years and years,” Zenzinger said. “What sorts of things could we be doing to better support those schools? In Colorado, we tend to do triage. I’m trying to take a more holistic approach and think about preventative care.”

Colorado’s “accountability clock” requires state intervention when schools have one of the two lowest ratings for five years in a row. Schools that earn a higher rating for even one year restart the clock, even if they fall back the next year.

Becoming an innovation school is one pathway for schools facing state intervention, and schools that have struggled to improve sometimes seek innovation status on their own before they run out of time.

Innovation schools have more autonomy and flexibility than traditional district-run schools – though not as much as charters – and they can use that flexibility to extend the school day or the school year, offer services that other schools don’t, and make their own personnel decisions. To become an innovation school, leaders need to develop a plan and get it approved by their local school board and the State Board of Education.

Nothing in existing law prevents community schools. There are traditional, charter, and innovation schools using this model, and many schools with innovation status include some wraparound services.

For example, the plan for Billie Martinez Elementary School in the Greeley-Evans district north of Denver envisions laundry services and an on-site health clinic.

District spokeswoman Theresa Myers said officials with the state Department of Education were extremely supportive of including wraparound services in the innovation plan, which also includes a new learning model and extensive training and coaching for teachers. But the only one that the school has been able to implement is preschool. The rest are on a “wish list.”

“The only barrier we face is resources,” Myers said.

Under Zenzinger’s bill, community schools are those that do annual assets and needs assessments with extensive parent, student, and teacher involvement, develop a strategic plan with problem-solving teams, and have a community school coordinator as a senior staff person implementing that plan. The bill does not include any additional money for community schools – in part to make it more palatable to fiscal hawks in the Republican-controlled Senate.

Supporters of community schools see an opportunity to get more money through the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, which includes non-academic factors like attendance, school climate, and expulsions in its school ratings and which encourages schools to work with parents and community partners. In a 2016 report, the Center for Community Schools said ESSA creates “an opportune moment to embrace community schools as a policy framework.” And a report released in December by the Learning Policy Institute argues that “well-implemented community schools” meet the criteria for evidence-based intervention under ESSA.

Zenzinger said that creating a definition of community schools in state law will help schools apply for and get additional federal money under ESSA.

As Chalkbeat reported this week, a series of studies of community schools and associated wraparound services found a mix of positive and inconclusive results – and it wasn’t clear what made some programs more effective at improving learning. However, there doesn’t seem to be a downside to offering services.

The State Board of Education has not taken a position on the bill, and no organizations have registered lobbyists in opposition. But there are skeptics.

Luke Ragland of Ready Colorado, a conservative group that advocates for education reform, said he’s “agnostic” about types of schools and supports the existence of a wide variety of educational approaches from which parents can choose. But he worries that the focus of community schools might be misplaced.

“They try to address a lot of things that are outside the control of the school,” he said. “I wonder if that’s a wise way forward, to improve school by improving everything but school.”

Ragland also worries about the state directing schools to choose this path.

“I would argue that under the innovation statute, the ability to start this type of school already exists,” he said. “We should be thinking about ways to provide more flexibility and autonomy without prescribing how schools do that.”

Zenzinger said her intent with the bill is to raise the profile and highlight the benefits of the community school model. She stressed that she’s not trying to force the community school model on anyone – doing it well requires buy-in from school leaders, teachers, and parents – but she does want schools that serve lots of students living in poverty or lots of students learning English to seriously consider it.

“There is not a roadmap for implementing innovation well,” she said. “There are a lot of options, and not a lot of guidance. There’s nothing saying, ‘This is what would work best for you.’ If they’re going to seek innovation status, we want to give them tools to be successful.”

This post has been updated to reflect the result of the Senate Education Committee hearing.