Colorado

Middle schoolers tackle epidemiology

Students use sticky notes and a kind of "brain mapping" system to determine what questions to ask to help local companies develop an epidemic response plan.

Stephanie Qi was just wiping her hands from a quick rinse in the bathroom sink when Brooke Garbarini accosted her.

“You call that washing your hands?” 11-year-old Brooke yelled. “You have to use soap! Was that hot water? You have to use hot water!”

There was an awkward silence from Stephanie, also 11, then Brooke continued her harangue.

“You have to wash the backs of your hands, between your fingers and your thumbs. Bacteria have a new generation every 20 minutes! You have to use soap to wash off the germs, and keep your hands under the hot water for 20 seconds.”

“And what happens if I don’t?” Stephanie shot back.

“You can get tons of diseases. You can get the flu, swine flu, SARS disease, staph infection, polio and diarrhea. There are millions of germs on your hands.”

Brooke carried on for another minute about the germs on the bathroom door handle, touched on the topic of the incubation of germs, and the threat of mutation caused by overuse of antibacterial soap.

And just in case Stephanie remained skeptical, at that point 12-year-old Shaina Levison and 12-year-old Jesse Zhang stepped out of two nearby stalls and did a little dance and sang a rap song about hand-washing.

Cut! Take five!

The “bathroom hand-washing scene” is just one scene in a movie these precocious youngsters are making to promote public health and educate other students about proper public hygiene.

Nearby, some other equally precocious youngsters are preparing for a presentation they’ll give to some Boulder businesses on coming up with an organizational response plan should an epidemic strike. What mitigation steps can the businesses take? How do they prepare for a worst-case scenario? How do they respond should an epidemic fell large numbers of employees?

The students, all rising seventh and eighth graders in Boulder-area public schools, have spent five weeks soaking up the heady academic atmosphere at a free summer enrichment program at the private Alexander Dawson School in Lafayette. The program – entitled “Epidemic, Past and Present” – ends this week. Sponsored by the Dawson Foundation Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning, it brought in 31 high-achieving middle schoolers and immersed them in a challenging curriculum that included virology, disaster preparedness, history and the economic effects of outbreaks.

“Oh my gosh,” said teacher Valerie Keeney, who normally teaches science at The Pinnacle charter school in Federal Heights but who signed on to teach the science component of the epidemic program at Dawson.

“I’ve been teaching stuff I would teach high school sophomores,” she said. “These kids latched onto it immediately. The stuff they’ve come up with is seriously impressive. It blows me away that they’ve just come out of sixth and seventh grade.”

Students work to create a model of a hand for use in a hand-washing display.

While some students were learning about DNA and RNA and the differences in bacteria and viruses in the science group, others focused on math, doing computer modeling of how epidemics spread. A humanities group focused on a study of the history of epidemics throughout the ages.

They also had the chance to talk to some high-powered experts on the subject. Guest speakers included Boulder County health officials, a medical historian from the University of Colorado, and emergency preparedness experts from Exampla Healthcare and the University of Colorado Hospital.

They also spent time with journalist Maryn McKenna, author of Superbug: The Fatal Menace of MRSA, an account of the dangers of drug-resistent staphylococcus.

“I thought she was trying to scare us a lot,” said Shaina Levison, a student at Heritage Middle School in Longmont, of McKenna’s visit. “But people need to be scared because if we’re not, we won’t learn what to do about it.”

Levison is part of the group of students now working to develop a public hygiene campaign. They’re aiming to create material appropriate for second- and third-graders. Among their projects — a movie, which they have written and will film themselves, and a hand-washing display featuring bacteria they’ve grown themselves.

Watch the students rehearse the hand-washing skit and rap song and dance they wrote.

“We’re not telling them what to do,” said Kevin Cloud, executive director of the Dawson Center. “They’ve listened to the pros, and they’ve learned that the best thing you can do is wash your hands. People already do that, but not well. They’re working on ways to present that information.”

Cloud figures that adults, too, can learn something from these super-smart kids. He’s recruited three local companies – a high tech startup, an industry group and a small manufacturer – to be guinea pigs for the students. They will study these businesses, ask them questions and put together customized response plans that the companies could initiate should an epidemic strike.

Students studying the history of epidemics created graphic representations of pandemics down through the ages.

“They’re not just a bunch of kids,” Cloud said. “They can do serious stuff. For the companies, there is no downside to this. If the resulting plan has value to them, that’s great. Or maybe they won’t want to use the document the students develop, but it may start a dialogue within the company.”

Above all, Cloud expects the students who participated in the five-week program to take what they learned back into their home schools come fall. There, they will impact the health of their classrooms by their example.

“One highly motivated student per classroom makes a big difference,” he said.

That’s something the youngsters themselves are certain they will do.

“I think we’ll take this with us wherever we go,” Levison said. “Stuff like how not to spread your diseases to other people. And I never realized before how medicines can hurt you. Did you know if you take medicines for a bug you don’t have, it can mutate?

“And if you’re taking antibiotics, and you don’t finish them all, the bug can become resistant to them,” added Qi. “This weekend, I’m going to the wilderness but I’m going to wash my hands a lot. From now on I’m going to wash my hands 10 times as much as I used to.”

Rebecca Jones can be reached at rjones@ednewscolorado.org.

Top 10

From forest preschools to a secret apology, here are Chalkbeat Colorado’s must-read stories of 2018

PHOTO: Ann Schimke/Chalkbeat
Megan Patterson works with children to make a dam in a creek during a recent "forest school" class.

We spend a lot of time at Chalkbeat chasing the news to keep our readers informed about controversial policy changes, fast-moving debates, and late-breaking decisions.

But we also relish the opportunity to dig deep into issues affecting students and families, shine light on innovative ideas, and hear from dedicated educators making a difference. With that in mind, we’ve gathered 10 of our best stories from 2018.

These stories don’t necessarily chronicle the biggest education issues of 2018, from teacher walkouts to unprecedented state interventions. But they are stories we think are important and insightful, and that we enjoyed reporting and writing. We hope you enjoy reading them.

No walls: Forest preschools let kids run free, but can they change to reach diverse families?

One day this past summer, about a dozen children frolicked by a Jefferson County creek — making pretend tea in small metal buckets, and building dams with sticks and mud.

They were students at Worldmind Nature Immersion School, where children spend all their time outside. So-called forest preschools like Worldmind are beloved by many families but face significant regulatory and logistical barriers in expanding their footprint nationwide. Here in Colorado, a pilot program could lead a new kind of child care license designed for them.

And being licensed could help the schools confront another problem: a lack of diversity among their students. Read more.

Colorado was never ranked 46th for teacher pay. Does this change the debate?

It was an oft-cited statistic: that Colorado, despite its booming economy, ranked 46th in the nation for teacher pay. The eye-popping number found its way onto social media posts and signs at massive teacher rallies last spring. News outlets latched on to it, too.

But it was wrong. Colorado was actually ranked 30th in the nation.

Our story breaks down how the mistake happened (hint: a new data system, an unrevised report) — and how groups with different agendas seized on the snafu to score points. Read more.

This is the letter of apology that Adams 14 leaders never sent

The Adams 14 district in Commerce City is arguably the most troubled and low-performing in Colorado. Just last month, state officials directed Adams 14 to hire an external manager to oversee the district’s operations for at least the next four years.

Back in September, Adams 14 officials considered taking a rare step: saying sorry to the community. But an apology letter was never signed nor sent out.

Chalkbeat obtained a copy of the letter, which makes mention of “various and conflicting priorities, coupled with constant turnover and organizational disarray.” Read more.

Rising test scores and dwindling trust: Denver’s Tom Boasberg leaves a complicated legacy

Colorado’s largest school district experienced a big change this year when longtime leader Tom Boasberg announced he would step down after nearly 10 years in Denver Public Schools.

Because of his school improvement strategies — some of which were controversial and heightened tensions with the community — the district that the new superintendent, Susana Cordova, will inherit in January is vastly different than it was a decade ago.

One tangible difference: Schools that once served as anchors of the community but struggled academically have been closed or replaced. That disappearance was on display on one of Boasberg’s last days, when he held his cell phone close to his mouth and enunciated each word so his GPS would understand his direction: “Montbello High School.” Read more.

Parents in one Aurora high school are visiting classrooms and giving teachers feedback

Like many schools in Colorado, Aurora’s Rangeview High School has a test score gap between white and black students. But the assistant principal there came up with a unique way to try to address it: by inviting black parents to visit classrooms and observe how students are — or are not — engaging with the teacher’s lesson, and then provide suggestions for improvement.

“We give true and honest feedback,” said one parent involved, “if they looked or appeared comfortable, how they interacted with the environment, the temperature of the room.”

Although the assistant principal considers the African American Parent Committee an experiment, she said it’s generating uncomfortable but necessary conversations. Read more.

How education reform became a wedge issue among Colorado Democrats this election year

For years, more moderate Democrats, often working in unison with like-minded Republicans, championed education reform efforts ranging from school choice to holding educators accountable for student performance.

But partly because of backlash against President Donald Trump and his education secretary, those strategies no longer fly with many Democrats — especially left-leaning Democrats who see them as undercutting public education and devaluing the work of teachers.

That sentiment was palpable in Colorado’s Democratic gubernatorial primary, and could shape the next legislative session, which starts in January. “Education is the issue that really stands to divide the left in a very substantial way,” one observer said. Read more.

How a Colorado school district turned things around at 10,000 feet above sea level

School improvement efforts look a little different high in the Rocky Mountains. While many of the strategies used by the 1,000-student Lake County school district are familiar to urban settings, they’ve been retrofitted to meet the needs of a district that’s 100 miles west of Denver.

For example, instead of firing teachers and principals who weren’t accelerating student learning fast enough, the district adopted a new curriculum and gave its teachers lots of training.

“The belief that the people are the problem is wrong,” the superintendent said. “Our teachers are professionals, and we believe in them. We’re proving that there is a framework or a pathway for rural schools to improve that’s about building capacity within your own community.” Read more.

7 things to know about how Colorado schools punish their youngest students

After state lawmakers rejected a bill to limit the use of suspensions in the earliest grades, Chalkbeat wanted to know more about the early childhood discipline landscape in Colorado. Data from the Colorado Department of Education revealed several trends.

Among them: Young black boys are suspended at disproportionate rates. Some rural school districts have the highest early childhood suspension rates in the state.

And despite nationwide debate about the impact of harsh discipline on young children and local efforts to bring the numbers down, suspensions in the early grades are actually going up. Read more.

In Denver’s gentrifying neighborhoods, some middle-class parents are avoiding the school down the block

Many neighborhoods in Denver are gentrifying, with middle-class families moving into what have historically been working-class communities. That type of demographic shift could easily lead to neighborhood schools that are more integrated by family income and race.

But that doesn’t always happen in Denver. Instead, data show that wealthier families – more often than low-income families – are using Denver Public Schools’ universal school choice process to send their kids to schools elsewhere in the city.

That’s a problem because research shows integrated schools boost test scores for students from low-income families without lowering the scores of those from wealthier ones. Denver officials want to see those benefits, but allowing parents to choose may be thwarting them. Read more.

Why this Colorado principal hand delivers birthday cards to more than 2,000 students and staff

Northglenn High School Principal Sharee Blunt is Colorado’s 2018 School Principal of the year — but perhaps even more impressive is the enormous number of birthday cards she hand delivers each year. If you’re one of those people who can barely remember your spouse’s birthday, you’ll be floored by Blunt’s annual feat.

In our interview with Blunt, part of Chalkbeat’s “How I Lead” Q&A series with distinguished school leaders, she talks about what she realized after a mother’s emotional reaction, and why she gave a teacher a pass during a lesson that went awry. Read more.

union power

Charter teachers won big in nation’s first strike. What now?

PHOTO: Yana Kunichoff / Chalkbeat
Teachers from Acero charter schools in Chicago protest stalled negotiations Oct. 24, 2018, as they readied to vote on authorizing a strike.

Some 500 unionized teachers joined in the nation’s first charter strike last week, and succeeded in negotiating wage increases, smaller class sizes and a shorter school day. Their gains could foreshadow next year’s citywide contract negotiations — between the Chicago Teachers Union, with its contract expiring in June, and Chicago Public Schools.

“The issue of class size is going to be huge,” said Chris Geovanis, the union’s director of communications. “It is a critically important issue in every school.”

Unlike their counterparts in charters, though, teachers who work at district-run schools can’t technically go on strike to push through a cap on the number of students per class. That’s because the Illinois Education Labor Relations Act defines what issues non-charter public school teachers can bargain over, and what issues can lead to a strike.

An impasse on issues of compensation or those related to working conditions, such as length of the school day or teacher evaluations, could precipitate a strike. But disagreements over class sizes or school closures, among other issues, cannot be the basis for a strike.

The number of students per class has long been a point of contention among both district and charter school teachers.

Educators at Acero had hopes of pushing the network to limit class sizes to 24-28 students, depending on the grade. However, as Acero teachers capped their fourth day on the picket line, they reached an agreement with the charter operator on a cap of 30 students — down from the current cap of 32 students.

Andy Crooks, a special education apprentice, also known as a teacher’s aide, at Acero’s Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz school and a member of the teachers bargaining team, said that even having two fewer students in a classroom would make a huge difference.

“You really do get a lot more time with your students,” Crooks said. “And if you are thinking about kindergarten in particular, two less 5-year-olds really can help set the tone of the classroom.”

In district-run schools, classes are capped at 28 students in kindergarten through third grade, and at 31 students in fourth through sixth grade. But a survey by the advocacy group Parents 4 Teachers, which supports educators taking on inequality, found that during the 2017-2018 school year, 21 percent of K-8 classrooms had more students than district guidelines allowed. In 18 elementary school classrooms, there were 40 or more students.

The issue came up at last week’s Board of Education meeting, at which Ivette Hernandez, a parent of a first-grader at Virgil Grissom Elementary School in the city’s Hegewisch neighborhood, said her son’s classes have had more than 30 students in them. When the children are so young and active — and when they come into classrooms at so many different skill levels — “the teachers can’t handle 30 kids in one class,” she told the board.

Alderman Sue Garza, a former counselor, accompanied Hernandez. She also spoke before the board about classroom overcrowding — worrying aloud that, in some grades at one school in particular, the number of students exceeded the building’s fire codes. (Board chair Frank Clark said a district team would visit the school to ensure compliance fire safety policies.)

While the Chicago Teachers Union aren’t technically allowed to strike over class sizes, the union does have a history of pushing the envelope when it comes to bargaining.

Back in 2012, when the Chicago Teachers Union last went on strike, they ended up being able to secure the first limit on class sizes in 20 years because the district permitted the union to bargain over class size.

They also led a bargaining campaign that included discussion over racial disparities in Chicago education and school closures, arguing that these trends impacted the working conditions of teachers.

“Even if you can’t force an employer to bargain over an issue, you can push them to bargain over the impact of an issue,” Bob Bruno, a labor professor at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana, explained.

The Chicago Teachers Union also emerged from its 2012 negotiations with guarantees of additional “wraparound services,” such as access to onsite social workers and school counselors.