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 rjones@ednewscolorado.org.

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.