The Other 60 Percent

Clock ticking on school nutrition legislation

PHOTO: J. Zubrzycki
U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colorado, shared lunch with Thornton students in April.

Colorado child and health advocacy groups are frenziedly writing and calling Washington as the clock ticks down on the 111th Congress — but the legislation necessary to reauthorize funding of the nation’s school lunch program still has not been approved.

One major hurdle was cleared this month when the House Education and Labor Committee passed HR 5504, the “Improving Nutrition for America’s Children’s Act.”

The $8 billion, 10-year package of legislation would expand access to free and reduced-priced school meals, expand summer feeding and other out-of-school meal programs, and boost the quality of school meals while increasing funding for nutrition education. The legislation passed 32-13.

In March, the Senate Agriculture Committee unanimously passed a similar — though much less costly — bill, the “Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010.” Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet, a Democrat who serves on that committee, said the legislation is a priority, particularly given his former job as superintendent of Denver Public Schools.

But now, both bills must still be passed by their respective chambers and then be reconciled before the legislation can be signed into law. And with the August recess looming and a dwindling number of days left for this Congress to act, advocates of the legislation fear it may not work its way to the top of the priority pile.

Read the bills

Click here for a summary of the House “Improving Nutrition for America’s Children Act of 2010.”

Click here for a summary of the Senate “Healthy, Hunger-free Kids Act of 2010.”

Make the call
Toll-free number for the Capitol Hill switchboard: 866-277-7617

Or, as one Senate staffer noted, it’s a top priority but there are a lot of other top priorities as well, and it’s hard for school lunches to edge out jobs and the economy for legislative time. Still, on Wednesday, Sen. Blanche Lincoln, D-Ark., the chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, brought up the legislation on the Senate floor and requested at least eight hours to discuss the bill.

“No one is opposed,” said Kathy Underhill, executive director of Hunger Free Colorado, the local advocacy group that has taken the lead in promoting the legislation.

“The biggest enemy is apathy, and this really needs to be a priority,” Underhill said. “So right now, we’re just encouraging everybody to call. The policies enacted today will be written on the brains and bodies of the next generation.

“If Colorado is serious on the issue of education reform, you have to tackle the issue of hunger first,” she added. “You can have the best teachers in the best classrooms with the best training but if you have a classroom full of hungry kids, none of that matters.”

Hunger Free Colorado, along with the Colorado Health Foundation, LiveWell Colorado, the Colorado Children’s Campaign, the School Nutrition Association and other organizations have been urging members and supporters to write and call members of the Colorado delegation to keep up the pressure for action.

“Most of the organizations have been doing blasts out on their listservs to constituents around the state,” Underhill said. “Now that the House bill has passed, you can expect to see that spike up again.”

Kay Bengston, formerly the domestic policy officer for the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America until her retirement in 2005, has been phoning and calling as a private citizen these days.

First Lady Michelle Obama made her first comment on pending legislation when she urged lawmakers to pass the school meal bills.

“I do it because I have a commitment,” she said. “Hunger is one of the most critical human needs. And members of Congress want to hear from their constituency. Sometimes they just count the calls and record the number of yeses and nos. That tells them something, and every call means something.”

First Lady Michelle Obama, an outspoken proponent of healthier school lunches and crusader against childhood obesity, has added her voice in support, issuing a statement earlier this month urging the House and Senate to bring the bills to the floor and pass them without delay.

It marked the first time the First Lady has commented on pending legislation.

Rep. Jared Polis, D-Boulder, serves on the House committee that passed the legislation, which included several provisions that he sponsored. Polis is optimistic about the chances for passage before the end of this legislative session.

“The chances of child nutrition reauthorization are very strong because there is widespread, bipartisan recognition that we cannot afford to further delay taking action on the interrelated problems of childhood hunger and obesity,” he said in an email to Education News Colorado.

He noted that the House legislation received the support of three of the committee’s 18 Republican members — which is what passes for bipartisan support in today’s political atmosphere.

“As in all legislative business, nothing is guaranteed and in the case of child nutrition, time is of the essence as the programs expire at the end of September,” Polis said. “With a shrinking legislative calendar during an election year, we need to act fast and I urge swift and decisive action as soon as we get back from the recess.”

Polis admitted that the cost of the House legislation is an issue. Unlike the $4.5 billion Senate version, which Senate committee members “paid for” by identifying available funding sources and offsets, the House has identified only $1 billion in offsets.

Quotable

“No one is opposed. The biggest enemy is apathy, and this really needs to be a priority.”
Kathy Underhill, Hunger Free Colorado

Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., chairman of the House Committee on Education and Labor, has vowed to identify the needed additional funding sources before the bill comes to a floor vote in the house. “I am confident that we will be able to find them,” Polis said.

Both the Senate and House bills authorize a number of changes to the nation’s school lunch program. Those changes fall into three categories: reducing childhood hunger, improving nutrition and addressing childhood obesity, and improving the efficiency and integrity of the programs.

In the first category, reducing childhood hunger, both bills seek to eliminate red tape and make sure children who are eligible for free and reduced-price lunches are automatically enrolled in the program. Both would expand after-school snack programs as well.

In essence, they would turn “snacks” into full meals, meaning that some children would be provided with three nutritious meals a day at their school.

“If the after-school or supper program expanded to Colorado, that would be huge for our kids to be able to get that third meal,” Underhill said.

Both bills also would increase the reimbursement rate for school lunch for the first time in 30 years.

While both bills would expand access to free and reduced-price meals, they differ in the size of that expansion. The House version would allow school districts to automatically provide free meals to students who are enrolled in Medicaid programs. That would mean almost 1 million low-income children would begin automatically receiving free meals for the first time without having to fill out any additional paperwork.

The Senate bill would provide free meals to only about 115,000 new children.

U.S. Rep. Jared Polis, D-Boulder, successfully amended the House nutrition bill and is urging its passage.

Likewise, the Senate bill requires the establishment of nutrition standards for all foods sold in schools during the regular school days. The House bill expands that requirement to include any foods sold in schools at any time, even after the end of the regular school day.

The House bill also includes a substantial investment – ½ cent per lunch served – in nutrition education and promotion activities in the school districts. That provision came at Polis’ insistence.

Polis also successfully amended the House bill to include a two-year Healthy School Meals pilot program, which would provide incentives for schools to offer vegetarian options and remove restrictions on non-dairy milk alternatives.

Finally, Polis succeeded in amending the House bill to include the establishment of professional standards for local food service directors, including minimum education, certification and training requirements.

It’s difficult to say just what the impact of the legislation would be on Colorado schools, Underhill said.

“No one has mapped that out because the versions are so different,” she said. “But every piece of it is critical. There’s no piece of the legislation that would not directly impact Colorado.”

Rebecca Jones can be reached at [email protected]

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.”