The Other 60 Percent

Boot camp aims to remake school meals

Mindi Wolf, food service director for Keenesburg and Fort Lupton schools, uses a meat thermometer to check the doneness of some roasted chicken.

Wendy Blake and her two kitchen assistants turned out 56,000 meals this past school year to feed the students in Wiggins. Blake, the food services director for the school district, admits they relied on a lot of processed frozen food in order to do it.

But Blake says she learned a valuable lesson in kitchen time management this week. “I’ve learned it takes the same half hour to thaw and reheat chicken nuggets that it takes to roast a fresh chicken,” she said.

You can bet that Wiggins students are going to be seeing more roasted chicken and fewer chicken nuggets next year. More fresh produce and less frozen commodities. More scratch cooking and less reheated processed fare.

PHOTO: Oliver Morrison
Wiggins food services director Wendy Blake gets a lesson in handling roasted chicken.

Blake was one of two dozen nutrition directors and school cafeteria staff to participate in a free five-day School Chef Culinary Boot Camp at Adams City High School in Commerce City this week. By the end of July, more than 100 school food service workers from 32 districts around the state will have been through the training, which is also scheduled for Colorado Springs, Montrose and Aurora. Last year, 11 districts participated in similar boot camps.

The boot camps, led by two New York City chefs who specialize in school lunch reform, are coordinated by LiveWell Colorado and funded by the Colorado Health Foundation and by a federal grant. The students get hands-on training in the fundamentals of scratch cooking, knife skills, kitchen time management, food safety, recipe and menu development, breakfast strategies and tips on things like commodity ordering and even promoting nutritious school lunches on Facebook.

Total investment in each student is about $3,000, said Venita Robinson-Currie, who is coordinating the boot camps for LiveWell.

“I don’t expect everything will change tomorrow,” said Chef Andrea Martin, who put the students through their paces Thursday morning barbecuing chicken, whipping up mashed potatoes and enough other dishes to serve a cafeteria-ful of visitors, there to check out the progress of the boot camp. “But we’re teaching them culinary techniques, professionalism. And there are some immediate steps they can all take. They can look at what they’re serving. They can eliminate chocolate milk and replace it with low-fat milk. They can serve cereal with little or no added sugar. They can make sauces and salad dressings from scratch.”

“Our goal is to ensure that every student in Colorado gets nourishing and delicious meals at school, which is vitally important in reducing childhood obesity,” said Maren C. Stewart, president and CEO of LiveWell Colorado. “These boot camps do not simply teach school food service personnel how to prepare healthier meals. They also arm them with the tools to build and sustain school food programs that will positively impact the health of Colorado’s children.”

And by all accounts, Colorado’s children are in dire need of some help. A 2008 study found that only 8 percent of Colorado children eat the recommended amounts of fruit and vegetables daily. More than a quarter of children ages 10-17 in Colorado are overweight or obese. In 2003, Colorado ranked third in the nation for fewest obese children. By 2007, Colorado had slipped to 23rd.

Weight problems are particularly acute among the low income. According to a 2007 study, 24.7 percent of Colorado children who live in households where the income is less than $25,000 are obese. In households where income is greater than $75,000, just 8.8 percent are obese.

Since school lunches and breakfasts take on an especially critical role in meeting the nutritional needs of the poor, the culinary boot camps are being offered free to school districts of at least 5,000 students in which at least 40 percent of the students qualify for free or reduced lunches. In Commerce City – Adams County District 14 – 82 percent of students qualify for free or reduced lunches.

In addition to the training, each participating district will receive a grant of $1,000 to buy kitchen equipment to help in the preparation of fresh foods.

Culinary boot camp students sample the fresh mashed potatoes.

“We have a lot of equipment issues,” complained Mindi Wolf, food services director for Keenesburg and Fort Lupton schools. “We have ovens and that’s it. If we could get an immersion blender and some slicers, then we could do a lot of stuff. But we just don’t have the staff right now to be slicing vegetables. Maybe in two or three years…”

Back in the kitchen, Jeremy West, director of food services for Weld County District 6 in Greeley, marveled at the low-fat macaroni-and-cheese dish he was making. “We learned to make a sauce from butternut squash, so there’s actually very little cheese in this,” he said. “It’s very low-fat, and it’s delicious. We could do this in Greeley.”

For more information

Click here to read the 2009 Colorado Health Report Card, published by the Colorado Health Foundation

at odds

Westminster’s model part of dispute with federal investigators in education of students learning English

Teacher Amy Adams walks around her classroom checking on students working independently on math at Flynn Elementary School in Westminster. (Photo by Yesenia Robles, Chalkbeat)

Westminster schools may have failed to identify scores of students needing help learning English, and also neglected to effectively teach many of those students, according to a federal investigation. Those are among the findings in newly released documents behind the school district’s agreement to boost services for English learners.

The 9,400-student district signed a settlement agreement with the U.S. Department of Justice in February, which outlines changes the district must make.

Despite the district’s agreement, Westminster Public Schools officials dispute the investigation’s findings.

“We still maintain that we were not out of compliance with the law,” said James Duffy, the district’s chief operating officer. But he said in the interest of students, “instead of continuing to argue and waste resources going back and forth, we are going to meet the agreement.”

Many of the disagreements center on how Westminster places and advances students based on proficiency rather than age, which is known as competency-based learning.

The district’s model also has put it at odds with the state. Last year, the district argued that Colorado’s accountability system unfairly flagged Westminster’s district for low performance, in part because some students were tested by the state on material they hadn’t yet been exposed to.

Below is a breakdown of the major ways the government believes Westminster schools were violating the law in serving English learners, the way the district argues they weren’t, and some next steps.

  • Finding: Westminster Public Schools has not identified all students that need English language services.

District officials said they had already identified problems in their process before the Department of Justice pointed them out, and were in the process of changing their system.

When a student enrolls in school, most districts require parents to fill out a home language survey that asks the language the students speaks and the language spoken in the home. The problem, in part, was that Westminster officials, years ago, were not testing students whose home language was something other than English, so long as parents had noted that their child did speak English.

“Based on experience with other states and school districts…this practice frequently results in the under-identification of ELs,” the justice department wrote.

This year, state numbers show Westminster has identified 38 percent of its 9,400 students, or 3,615, as English learners.

Officials said they have been using a new form, and said students are now tested for English proficiency when parents identify a primary language in the home that is not English. Teachers also can flag a student for testing and services.

The settlement agreement also requires the district to identify long-term English learners who have been enrolled in American schools for more than five years without making progress toward fluency.

Officials said they have identified 730 long-term English learners in the district. Parents of those students will soon receive letters asking if they are interested in sending their children to school this summer for a program to help those students make more progress.

  • Finding: Westminster Public Schools is not providing adequate services for students that need English language development.

According to the Department of Justice findings, most students in the district aren’t getting help to learn the language.

“Our site visits and review of data revealed that the type of language assistance services (English learners) receive varies widely, depending on which school they attend,” the department states. And when students are getting instruction to learn English, they aren’t always getting it from a teacher who is trained and certified to do so, they found.

Westminster schools use what they call an “interventionist framework” that combines specialists who have Colorado’s Culturally and Linguistically Diverse Education endorsement, as well as other specialists, including special education teachers, to form a team of “interventionists” that all work with lagging students. That team works by going into classrooms throughout the day.

It’s a system that, in part, helps maximize the number of teachers working with students when the district doesn’t have enough of one kind, but it also can target which kind of help a student needs, Duffy said.

“We look at the need of our students and not the broad brush labels,” Duffy said. “They are getting services from a number of people. This is a program that has been recognized.”

But the district only tests students in English, meaning some students may not get an appropriate education.

When the district is trying to figure out what class levels to place a new student in, they test them for math and English using tests in English, so if a student can’t understand the test, they may not be able to demonstrate their ability to read or to do math and end up placed in classes below their ability.

District officials say that once in classrooms, teachers look at data closely and can determine if a student has been placed incorrectly just because of a language barrier. Teachers also have some flexibility in how they ask students to show they’ve learned a standard so they can move to another level.

“It’s just an initial placement,” Duffy said. “They are approaching this from a very traditional model. It’s not in alignment with our system.”

As part of the settlement agreement, however, the district must develop new procedures for testing and placing students, including “assessing ELL’s literacy and math levels in Spanish where appropriate and available.”

  • Finding: The district does not have enough staff for its English language learners and does not provide teachers with enough training to help students in their classes.

District officials admit they cannot hire enough trained staff to work with all students, but point out that it’s not a problem unique to their district.

According to district-provided numbers from December, 83 district staff have a Culturally and Linguistically Diverse Education endorsement. The February settlement agreement asks the district to increase the number of teachers with the endorsement.

To recruit these highly-sought after teachers, Westminster officials have gone to national job fairs and have provided signing bonuses for hard-to-staff positions, including for teachers with this credential. Going abroad to recruit foreign teachers has not been something Westminster can afford, Duffy said, but the district would hire qualified foreign teachers if they applied.

Westminster also provides out-of-state teachers with a stipend for moving expenses but runs into the high cost of living in Colorado.

“It’s scaring a lot of people away,” Duffy said.

One other incentive Westminster and many other districts offer is a tuition subsidy for teachers interested in earning the endorsement.

The Department of Justice also will require Westminster to develop new and additional training for district teachers who don’t have the credential, so they can better teach language learners.

The district is going to work with the University of Colorado Denver to provide that training. Duffy said officials submitted their teacher training plan to the Department of Justice, and are awaiting approval.



On track

This bill could help Colorado foster youth keep their school – and graduate – even when home changes

When she was a little girl, Gloria Mendez would dream of walking across a stage in a cap and gown to receive her high school diploma.

But when she went into foster care at the age of 15, already a mother herself, that dream got further and further out of reach. She was placed in a home in Greeley, separated from her brother and more than hour away from her school in Aurora. She changed homes and schools frequently. Each time, the credits and classes required to graduate changed.

“I was like, ‘OK, two or three more classes. Not a big deal.’ But then they move you again,” she said. “I needed two more credits, and I got to Denver, and they told me I needed three more years. I was already 18.”

At that point, she said, social workers and school counselors began to pressure her to get a GED instead. She told them: “I don’t want a GED. I want my high school diploma.”

Mendez is hardly alone: Youth in foster care in Colorado graduate from high school at a rate that’s abysmal — and falling, unlike the graduation rates of students from other vulnerable groups. Last year, just 23.6 percent of youth in foster care graduated on time, down 10 points since 2016. The statewide graduation rate is 81 percent.

People who work in child welfare have taken notice, convening a group that included teens in foster care to brainstorm ways to preserve schools as places of stability for children whose families are in crisis.

Now, lawmakers are moving toward putting some of those ideas into practice. A bill that passed a key committee this week aims to help students in foster care graduate on time by allowing more of them to stay in their home school and by providing flexibility around graduation requirements, regardless of where they’re enrolled.

The bill would require county child welfare officials and schools to work out transportation plans so that children can stay in their home schools when they go into foster care. It would make funding available to counties to work out solutions that make sense in their area, whether that’s contracting with ride-share services or paying mileage to foster parents or creating shuttle routes.

When children can’t stay in their home school, the bill would allow them to enroll immediately in a new school, without waiting for immunization records or academic records to transfer.

The bill would also allow districts to waive certain requirements or create alternative ways to meet requirements so that youth in foster care aren’t penalized for changing schools.

The bill is part of a package of legislation to address problems with the foster system, including providing foster parents with more information about the children in their care and extending services beyond the age of 18 for more people. That package represents Colorado’s effort to comply with 2016 federal rules requiring states to take additional steps to keep children in their home schools and to pay for transportation when necessary.

Those rules, part of the federal education law, didn’t come with new money, and it’s unclear whether Colorado will step up to fund the transportation requirements. The bill’s sponsor, state Rep. Dafna Michaelson Jenet, a Commerce City Democrat, asked for $2.9 million in the state budget, but members of the Joint Budget Committee declined to include that money in their budget proposal. They said they were open to adding it in later if the bill passes, and state child welfare officials said they’ll look for other funding if they need to.

After the bill passes the Democratic-controlled House, it goes to the Republican-controlled Senate.

For now, the state’s 6,600 youth in foster care continue to rack up experiences that set them back in school. While students who are removed from their homes usually see their academic performance even out after a few months, their growth is often slower than other students who aren’t dealing with the trauma of instability, according to Kristin Melton, youth services manager in the state’s Division of Child Welfare

“If you are in a low-interest rate saving account and everyone else is in the stock market, you will never catch up and you will fall further and further behind,” Melton said.

Sister Michael Delores Allegri has been a foster parent to more than 70 children over 20 years. She said it’s often a challenge to even get kids enrolled in school in a timely manner.

“Even if you miss two weeks of high school, you’ve missed a lot,” she said. And then curriculum often doesn’t line up, or they can’t participate in sports or drama or whatever activity was their lifesaver in their home school.

“They lose their high school life, and because of that, they don’t engage,” she said. “We put obstacles in the kid’s way.”

The ability to earn a diploma can be incredibly meaningful to those who persevere, she said.

“Those kids who graduate from high school have that sense about themselves that nothing can stop them,” she said. “It’s all of our responsibility as adults to reach out and tell the kids, ‘I know you can do it, and I’m going to help you.’ It’s not that they don’t want to do it. They just get so discouraged.”

Mendez said she was embarrassed at times to be legally an adult and still in the foster system, still in high school – but she did eventually get her high school diploma. She “stumbled into” the Emily Griffith Technical College and met with a counselor who, for the first time in her high school career, really listened to what she wanted for herself.

The Emily Griffith school in downtown Denver offers GED courses along with a wide range of technical and vocational programs for adult students, and it also offers a standard high school track for adult students.

Mendez graduated in 2015, three years later than she would have if her academic career had stayed on track, and walking across the stage was every bit the accomplishment she dreamed of.

“It felt like, I proved you wrong,” she said. “No matter how many times you doubted me or pushed me to get a GED, finally being able to graduate and walk across that stage and having your high school diploma … all my hard efforts paid off.”

Kristina Smith, now 20, did manage to graduate on time, despite spending most of high school in a group home, but she said transportation help would have transformed her school experience. She had to walk 45 minutes to school and 45 minutes back every day, regardless of weather. All those hours spent walking, in the cold, in the dark, in the snow, and in the rain, often made her want to give up and made her feel like no one cared if she succeeded or failed – or even if she was safe.

She returned to her home school and her family during her senior year. At first she was excited, but the academics were a lot more challenging. She had to stop doing sports, which she had loved, to make it to graduation. Things shouldn’t have been that hard, she said.

Smith said she wants policy makers to know: “There are not that many things holding these kids back that can’t be fixed.”