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.

Frequently asked

There are lots of ways schools teach English learners. Here’s how it works.

PHOTO: Andy Cross/The Denver Post
Lindsey Erisman works with 6-year-old students in an English Language Acquisition class at Denver's Cole Arts & Science Academy.

School district officials in Westminster this year signed an agreement with federal officials to change how they educate students who are learning English as a second language.

Similar agreements have also shaped how districts in Denver, Aurora, Adams 14, and Adams 12 educate their English language learner students. But many people, including parents and district insiders, may still have questions about the various complicated programs and requirements.

Although many of the language-education agreements are years old, most of the issues haven’t been resolved. In Adams 14, for instance, parents and advocates have protested a district decision to stop biliteracy programming, and have questioned the district’s compliance with its agreement to better serve English learners. District officials have pointed out that their obligation is teaching students English, not making them bilingual.

Now at least one charter school, KIPP, is looking to fill in that programming gap. Many other states have had a number of biliteracy and other bilingual programs at various schools for years, but Colorado has only more recently started to follow those trends.

So what’s the difference between the various language programs and services? And what is required by law and what isn’t? The following questions and answers might help clarify some of those questions as you follow the news around these issues.

Which students are designated as English language learners? Do parents get to decide, or do schools decide?

Federal guidance requires school districts have some way to identify English learners. Most commonly, districts survey all parents at school registration about their home language and the student’s first language. If that survey finds there might be an influence of another language at home, the student must be assessed to determine fluency in English. While the district has to identify all students who aren’t fluent in English as language learners, parents in Colorado can choose to waive the federally required services for their children. If so, the district doesn’t have to provide special services, but would still be required to monitor that the student is making progress toward acquiring English.

What educational rights do English language learners have?

English language learners have specific rights under the Lau v. Nichols Supreme Court case from 1974 and the subsequent Castañeda standards released in 1981. State laws also outline some requirements for school districts. Specifically, school districts must provide programs for all identified language learners to give them the opportunity to learn English and to access a comprehensive curriculum. The government does not state what that program should be, but provides some standards requiring that any program is theoretically sound and has a research base to support it. The program has to have qualified teachers, and a way to demonstrate that students are making progress in learning English and their academic content. While the civil rights officials consider many details to verify compliance, simply put, school districts have the legal obligation to identify students, serve them in a sound program, and monitor their progress.

What is the difference between bilingual education and “ELL services?”

Bilingual education (which is the program that has the most support for efficacy from the research community) offers students opportunities to learn in their native language while they are learning English. Bilingual programs can vary from short-term, or early-exit programs, to more longer-term developmental programs.

English language learner services do not need to provide opportunities for students to learn in the native language. Most commonly these services only offer English language development classes (generally 45 minutes per day). All other content instruction is offered only in English. ELL services are not bilingual.

What is English language development?

English language development must be a part of any program or model a district or school adopts. It is the class time when students are taught the English language. The government wants to see that English learners are given a dedicated time to learn English, when they are not competing with native English speakers. That means, often, English language development is offered as a time when students are pulled out of class to practice English, or as a special elective period students must take without their English-speaking peers.

The structure of this time period, who has access to it, or who teaches it, are areas commonly cited as problems by the federal Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights.

Do students who are identified as English language learners retain that designation forever? What does it mean to be an “exited ELL?”

They’re not supposed to. Students who are English learners should be tested at least once a year to determine their English proficiency. When a student reaches a high enough level, school staff must determine if the student is now fluent in English. If so, the student becomes an “exited ELL.” The law requires districts to monitor for two years students who have exited and are no longer receiving services. There are, however, students who do not reach English fluency before graduating or leaving school.

What is the difference between being bilingual and being biliterate?

Bilingual generally refers to oral language in that bilingual people can understand and speak two languages but may not be able to read and write in those languages. Biliterate refers to being able to understand, speak, read, and write in two languages. Many people are bilingual but not biliterate. Biliteracy is considered to be a higher form of bilingualism.

What is the difference between dual language and biliteracy models?

Dual language and biliteracy models share many common components. Both models usually have biliteracy as their end goal for students. Dual language models may be “one-way” or “two-way.” One-way programs generally serve students who are designated as English language learners (also sometimes called emerging bilinguals). Two-way dual language programs include students who are native English speakers. The only major difference is that biliteracy models focus on using two languages in the language arts or literacy classes (reading and writing in two languages) whereas dual language focuses on using two languages across the entire school day’s curriculum.

What is an immersion model?

Immersion models traditionally are thought of as referring to programs primarily intended for students from the dominant language population to learn a second language. This is different from programs meant to teach English.

While native English students can choose whether or not to learn a second language, students who are English language learners do not have a choice in learning English.

What is sheltered instruction?

This type of instruction takes place in non-dual language schools, during regular content classes (such as math or science), and it’s one way schools try to make the content understandable to students who aren’t yet fluent in English.

This is especially common in schools where English learners speak a variety of languages. Crawford Elementary in Aurora, for instance, has had up to 35 different languages represented among its approximately 560 students. If there aren’t enough students who speak a common first language and also a teacher who speaks the same language as those students, then schools must teach through English, while making the English as accessible as possible.

In practice, this means an English-speaking teacher would use sheltered instruction techniques to help all children understand the lessons such as, physical props, a focus on building vocabulary, and sentence stems.

Denver designates schools as TNLI schools. What does that mean?

Denver created the TNLI label in 1999 to set the district apart from other bilingual program models. TNLI stands for Transitional Native Language Instruction. The Denver TNLI program is a transitional bilingual education program model with a label created just for Denver. It’s a model where instruction in Spanish is used to help students learn while they’re acquiring English, but still has a goal of making students fluent in English as soon as possible, at which point students move into mainstream English classrooms.

Is one of these models best suited for English learners?

Among researchers, it is commonly accepted that dual language or biliteracy models are the most effective to put English learners on par with their native speaking peers, in the long run.

Why do teachers have to be trained specifically to teach this population of students? What are teachers learning?

Educators and researchers say that teachers need to learn the differences and similarities between learning in one language and learning bilingually. Teachers need to learn about literacy methodology and how teaching literacy in Spanish (for example) is the same and different as teaching literacy in English. They have to learn how to teach English language development to students who are beginning to learn English (it is different than just teaching in English). These trainings also help teachers learn about cultural similarities and differences and about sources of culture conflict. Teachers need to be able to teach children English; how to use English to learn; and how the English language works. In bilingual settings teachers need to learn those three things for two languages. In short, the training needed to be a bilingual teacher is quite different. Colorado will soon require some of this training for all teachers.

What are the challenges districts have in offering these different programs? How do schools decide which type of model to offer?

The demographics of a district’s student population, and district politics play a large part in helping a district decide what model or program to use. Resources can also be a factor in deciding how to structure services or what programs to offer. In Adams 14, when the district leadership decided to pause the roll out of a biliteracy program, the district cited a lack of qualified bilingual teachers, among other things.

In Westminster, the school district’s unique competency-based approach, which removes grade levels and seeks to personalize instruction, was cited as a reason why the district had structured its English language development the way it had before the investigation by the Office for Civil Rights sought to change it.

Does Colorado provide guidance or oversight for how districts are doing this work?

The Colorado Department of Education offers some guidance for districts, but oversight of the districts’ compliance with what is required is limited. In practice, when parents suspect their children aren’t educated well, they have filed complaints with the federal government. In Denver, the complaints went through the Department of Justice. Investigations of most other metro-area districts have been conducted by the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights.

task force

Jeffco takes collaborative approach as it considers later school start times

File photo of Wheat Ridge High School students. (Photo by Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

The Jeffco school district is weighing pushing back start times at its middle and high schools, and the community task force set up to offer recommendations is asking for public input.

Nearby school districts, such as those in Cherry Creek and Greeley, have rolled out later start times, and Jeffco — the second largest school district in Colorado — in December announced its decision to study the issue.

Thompson and Brighton’s 27J school districts are pushing back start times at their secondary schools this fall.

The 50-person Jeffco task force has until January to present their recommendations to the district.

Supporters of the idea to start the school day later cite research showing that teenagers benefit from sleeping in and often do better in school as a result.

Jeffco is considering changing start times after parents and community members began pressing superintendent Jason Glass to look at the issue. Middle and high schools in the Jeffco district currently start at around 7:30 a.m.

The task force is inviting community members to offer their feedback this summer on the group’s website, its Facebook page, or the district’s form, and to come to its meetings in the fall.

Katie Winner, a Jeffco parent of two and one of three chairs of the start times task force, said she’s excited about how collaborative the work is this year.

“It’s a little shocking,” Winner said. “It’s really hard to convey to people that Jeffco schools wants your feedback. But I can say [definitively], I don’t believe this is a waste of time.”

The task force is currently split into three committees focusing on reviewing research on school start times, considering outcomes in other districts that have changed start times, and gathering community input. The group as a whole will also consider how schedule changes could affect transportation, sports and other after school activities, student employment, and district budgets.

Members of the task force are not appointed by the district, as has been typical in district decision-making in years past. Instead, as a way to try to generate the most community engagement, everyone who expressed interest was accepted into the group. Meetings are open to the public, and people can still join the task force.

“These groups are short-term work groups, not school board advisory committees. They are targeting some current issues that our families are interested in,” said Diana Wilson, the district’s chief communications officer. “Since the topics likely have a broad range of perspectives, gathering people that (hopefully) represent those perspectives to look at options seems like a good way to find some solutions or ideas for positive/constructive changes.”

How such a large group will reach a consensus remains to be seen. Winner knows the prospect could appear daunting, but “it’s actually a challenge to the group to say: be inclusive.”

For now the group is seeking recommendations that won’t require the district to spend more money. But Winner said the group will keep a close eye on potential tax measures that could give the district new funds after November. If some measure were to pass, it could give the group more flexibility in its recommendations.