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.

raising the curtain

Aurora high school students started rehearsing a musical about an earlier time — and discovered ‘harsh truths’ about today

Ebony Nash, left, sings during a rehearsal of Ragtime at Hinkley High School. (Photo by Yesenia Robles, Chalkbeat)

Nine weeks ago, more than 50 theater and choir students at Aurora’s Hinkley High School came together to begin work on a musical set in turn-of-the-20th-century New York.

At first, the kids did what high school students often do — cluster into familiar cliques, or self-segregate by race. Then the students started immersing themselves in the material.

The musical, “Ragtime,” intertwines the stories of a white family, a Jewish immigrant family and an African-American couple to spotlight differences and commonalities in the American experience.

At the urging of their teachers and directors, the Hinkley students began to use the plot and characters to examine their own actions, prejudice and biases. About 92 percent of Hinkley’s more than 2,100 students are students of color, the vast majority of them Latino.

The cliques and segregation slipped away. The production began taking shape.

“Ragtime” gets its Hinkley High School debut on Thursday and will be performed again on Friday and Saturday.

Chalkbeat sat down with a group of students involved in the production as they were in final preparations to learn about what their experience had taught them. The following is a portion of that conversation, slightly condensed and rearranged for clarity:

Janelle Douglas, a 17-year-old senior who portrays a friend of one of the story’s main characters, said the first time she saw and read through Ragtime, “it was intense.” She often cries as she rehearses her solo, sung during a funeral.

DOUGLAS: “I thought, this is powerful. This is overwhelming. This is amazing.”

Pamela Arzate, 17, plays the role of Evelyn Nesbit, a real model and actress who is incorporated into the fictional story and accused of being shallow.

ARZATE: “It’s very eye-opening because you look at it and it’s just a simple musical, but if you take a step back and go to the real world, it’s the exact same thing that’s going on today.”

Hodaly Sotelo, 17, plays the role of Mother, a woman whose attitudes toward her identity as a wife and woman evolve throughout the story.

SOTELO: “It reminds me of when I was younger and I was like, ‘Oh yeah, we’re over all that racism.’ But now, I look back and I think, what the heck? This stuff is still going on and we thought it was way over.”

Brianna Mauricio-Perez, 17, is one of two student directors.

MAURICIO-PEREZ: “It talks about all of the harsh truths that no one wants to talk about.”

DOUGLAS: “I think it’s safe to say it shows the true colors of our history.”

MAURICIO-PEREZ: “Even within our cast we did have to have a talk about how we were so separated because we were at the very beginning. Everyone was in their little groups and with their friends. You just want to keep to yourself.”

DOUGLAS: “It was literally ‘Ragtime.’”

MAURICIO-PEREZ: “We had a big talk with everybody. Things have gotten so much better. By the end of Act Two, we were all mixed up.”

Brenda Castellanos, 17, plays the role of Emma Goldman, drawn from a real-life political activist and anarchist.

CASTELLANOS: “Now that we’re closer, now that we’re all comfortable, we put in more effort.”

After nearly every rehearsal, teachers and directors give students a talk, urging them to immerse themselves in the feelings of their characters, relating to them if necessary through their parents, grandparents or ancestors who were immigrants, or through current events.

“What if you saw someone beaten, and bloodied and killed in front of you?” one director asked.

They also remind students of why the play should be impactful. “You have to figure out how for two-and-a-half hours you can give hope to that audience,” Marie Hayden, Hinkley’s choir director told students last week.

CASTELLANOS: “I think it it helps us. Every day, we get more into it and more into it until we actually believe it. You actually feel it — like how Janelle feels when she’s singing and she starts crying and makes everybody cry. We all feel connected.”

Students say they have different scenes that impact them the most, but they don’t hesitate to find how the scenes relate to their life despite the story being set in the first decade of the 1900s. Hayden’s class and the practice for the musical are safe places where they can discuss those parallels, they said.

Shavaun Mar, 16, is a junior who plays the main character of Coalhouse Walker Jr., a ragtime piano player who is the target of racial attacks and struggles with revenge and forgiveness.

MAR: “I feel like that is crucial that we give people those opportunities to talk because a lot of people have very valid things to say but they just don’t have a way to get it out.”

CASTELLANOS: “The shootings.”

ARZATE: “The racism. They help us discuss it because there’s so many things that are going on. Pretty much everyday there’s a tragedy going on. And so, in a way, we can use that sentiment, that emotion that we feel with the real world and convey it when we’re doing this show. We use those feelings and we try to think about it in that way. To display that emotion. To display it to everyone else. And not directly represent what’s going on today but just to give them that ‘aha’ moment, like ‘wow.’”

Ebony Nash, 17, plays the character of Sarah, an innocent girl who wants to help her boyfriend settle his problems.

NASH: “It just makes us want justice in real life because these things are still going on even though it’s not out there. It just makes us want justice for our community. This musical showed me that I need to become better within myself because I’m not perfect.”

SOTELO: “It opened my eyes a lot more for sure. This kind of just makes me realize the problems I have. It makes me realize yea, I’m having immigration issues with my father right now, but that also my friends, you know, they’re going through the same thing too. This DACA stuff or this coming out stuff. I became more accepting of what other people might be going through and how I can help.”

MAR: “The past few years, I have been in a bit of a shell. So putting myself in this situation and pushing myself to be this other person has really shown me what I’m capable of and it’s helping me break out of that shell and realize who I am as a person.”

NASH: “Basically, this is our getaway from real life because we get to come on stage and be somebody else. It also makes us want to put the story out right so people can understand. So people can feel what we want them to feel.”

CASTELLANOS: “That there’s hope after all this corruption that’s going on.”

DOUGLAS: “That even in your bad times you can still laugh, cry, dance.”

NASH: “What I want people to get from this is change. To learn how to change and learn how to forgive and learn how to come together as a community and just, like their worth.”

SOTELO: “And to be strong. To stand up for what’s right.”

ARZATE: “And it might sound weird, but I feel like they should feel a certain level of uncomfort because that means that they’re going to look at themselves while seeing the musical. Maybe they’ll go ‘I’m uncomfortable because I do that’ or ‘I have that prejudice’ or ‘I feel that certain way,’ so if they come out and they feel uncomfortable and then at the end they’re like, ‘Wow. There’s that hope for change.’ Hopefully that like…”

DOUGLAS: “… It inspires them to do better.”

ARZATE: “Like, you can do it.”

SOTELO: “It’s kind of like a water droplet. One small move can domino-effect to something bigger.”


Taking attendance

Want to make middle school admissions more fair? Stop looking at this measure, parents say

PHOTO: Monica Disare
Middle school students write their names down at a high school fair in Brooklyn.

Parents across New York City have pushed for changes in the way selective middle schools pick their students, saying the process is unfair.

Now, a group of Manhattan parents has come up with a novel solution: Stop looking at students’ attendance records.

The parent council in District 2 — where about 70 percent of middle schools admit students based on their academic records — points to research showing that students from low-income families are far more likely to miss school. Those children are at a distinct disadvantage in the competition for the district’s top middle school seats, the council argues, even though factors beyond the control of any fourth-grader — especially family homelessness — often account for poor attendance and tardiness.

“This outsized focus on attendance disproportionately impacts students who don’t have secure housing and may not have secure healthcare, and that is troubling to me,” said Eric Goldberg, a member of the community education council in District 2, which includes stretches of Lower Manhattan and the Upper East Side. “There are many factors that should not impact a student’s educational opportunities — and the way the system is set up, it does.”

Eighteen of the district’s 24 middle schools are “screened,” meaning they rank applicants based on factors including test scores, grades, and interviews. Of those, all but one school also considers how often students were late or absent in fourth grade, according to the parent council.

Most of the schools assign points to each factor they consider. Some give absences 10 times more weight than science or social studies grades, the council found, while others penalize students for even a single absence or instance of tardiness.

Disadvantaged students are especially likely to miss school.

A recent report by the city’s Independent Budget Office found that homeless students are more likely than other students to be chronically absent — typically defined as missing about 10 percent of the school year.

Schools with the highest chronic absenteeism are in communities in “deep poverty,” which have the highest rates of unemployment and family involvement with the child-welfare system, according to a 2014 report by the New School at the Center for New York City Affairs.

“We can use chronic absenteeism as a good guess of all the other things kids are dealing with,” said Nicole Mader, a senior research fellow at the New School and a co-author of the report. “If these middle schools are using absenteeism to weed kids out, that means they’re going to automatically weed out those kids who have the most barriers to academic success already.”

The attendance requirement can put pressure on any family, regardless of their financial status or housing situation.

Banghee Chi, a parent of two children in District 2, said she sometimes sent her younger daughter to school with a fever when she was in fourth grade rather than have her marked absent.

Her daughter would show up to class only to be sent to the school’s health clinic — which would call Chi to pick her up. Chi was thinking ahead to middle school, when a missed day of class could hurt her chances of getting into the most sought-after schools.

“It was something I was really conscious and aware of during my child’s fourth-grade year,” she said. “I think it’s unfair.”

The education council’s resolution, which will be put to vote in December, is nonbinding because middle schools set their own admissions criteria. But a show of support from parents could lead to action from the education department, which has been prodded by integration advocates to make other changes in high school and middle school admissions.

This summer, the department announced it would end the practice of “revealed rankings,” which allowed middle schools to select only those students who listed them first or second on their applications. The city is also appointing a committee of parents, educators, and community leaders in Brooklyn’s District 15 to come up with a proposal for making that district’s middle school applications process more fair.

“We’re collaborating with communities across the city to make school admissions more equitable and inclusive, including in District 2,” said department spokesman Will Mantell in an email. The department looks forward “to further conversations about this resolution and other efforts to improve middle school admissions in District 2.”