First Person

VIDEO: Children's health and wellness with Karen Connell

Often in life there are people who fly below the radar, yet whose achievements play a driving force in our lives. Karen Connell, supervisor for the health and wellness team at the Colorado Department of Education, is one of those people.

Connell has worked for the state for 20 years, but she’s decided it’s time to retire. This is her last week at work. Over the years, she has made significant contributions to the growing movement of health and wellness for Colorado’s children. EdNews Parent had a chance to sit down with her and discuss some of her achievements, where she thinks children’s wellness is headed, and what parents can do to get more involved in their own children’s health and wellness goals.

Q. What are some of the valuable lessons you have learned working at the CDE?

A. My biggest lesson has been that every single school district cares about the health of their kids. No matter where I have visited around the state, there are at least a few people in every single school building who are passionate about health and wellness and want to take on tough issues, whether it be a food service person, a P.E. teacher, a counselor, a secretary, or the principal. It’s different in every single building, but there are always a couple of individuals who will take the health message and carry it through the building.

Q. What are a few of the biggest successes and milestones you have been a part of at the CDE that furthered children’s health and wellness?

A. Recently, we’ve just held a Healthy Schools Summit where we had over 300 teachers, parents, and administrators come together to celebrate the healthiest schools in the state. We had identified those schools because we had just launched a Healthy Schools Report Card where any school can log in online and give themselves a score to see how healthy they are. With our first try at it this fall, we identified 15 schools that scored higher than all the rest and recognized them last month. We plan to do that every year and we are hoping that by the end of this year we will have enough schools log in and score high enough that we can send at least 100 schools a beautiful banner to hang in front or inside their school that says they are a Healthy School Champion.

I’ve also worked hard to make sure there is a homeless education liaison in every school district. Some other successes I’ve contributed to have included getting health education programs into 22 school districts, building 250 coordinated school health teams to help move wellness policies forward, raising over $9 million in federal and private money for the CDE to increase health and wellness for Colorado students, training over 10,000 school and community members in best practices and policies for health and wellness, and increasing state interagency collaboration by 80 percent on school health professional development by sharing funding and combined resources.

Q. What have been some of the most challenging things you have had to tackle with health and wellness in Colorado?

A. There is never enough money to go around. But we have had some great partners with the Colorado Health Foundation, the Centers for Disease Control, and even our own state Legislature has started contributing money for both health education and coordinated school health. While we can always use more money, we have a good foundation here in Colorado to start to show how important health is to the overall education of kids.

Another issue is a lot of times there’s just simply not enough time in the school day for enough health education – for P.E. So what we’ve learned to do is try and look to community partners and parents who can help with after-school programs, weekend activities, and other way kids can become healthy and fit without taking up too much of the school day.

Q. Would you say then that success for health and wellness for children is largely dependent on collaboration by parents, teachers and the community?

A. It is definitely a collaborative effort at the school level and at the state level. We have developed lots of great partners at the state level that work together and plan together. We have very strong ties with the state department of health and we work together to try and coordinate as much as we can to get resources out to schools and to make sure that it is done in a seamless way so we don’t have 25 people knocking on school’s doors with their own particular program, or flyer, or activity.

Q. What is the most important aspect to success with children’s wellness and health?

A. I would have to say support. We have been blessed here in Colorado with support from the Commissioner of Education, the state Board of Education, and the state Legislature. Recently, we just had new health standards passed, so along with math, social studies, and science, we now have health education standards, and that is huge.

Q. What direction do you see children’s health and wellness in Colorado headed?

A. It can only get better. We have huge momentum here in Colorado. There’s already so much awareness here and it’s great living in such a physically active state with lots of sunny days and an environment that promotes getting outside and enjoying some physical activity.

Q. How could parents get more involved and active in promoting their children’s health and wellness?

A. Talk with the people at the schools and see what is going on already and try and get involved. If there isn’t much going on – then maybe the parents would really like to take the lead and seek out new activities or after- school programs, or a possible policy change that could happen at the school level. For example, parents could address the type of food students bring to school parties. I think it’s important for parents to let their wishes be known at the school because when schools and parents work together, more can happen for the better.

Q. Do you have any tips for parents looking to encourage health and wellness in the home that might carry over to life at school?

A. There is now a national guideline stating that kids should have at least 30 minutes of activity  (90 minutes for older children) per day. That is something parents can really encourage at home by pushing their children to get up off the couch. Parents should encourage physical activities the whole family can enjoy, like going on a bike ride or going for a hike. Parents should also set a good example by eating healthy food at home and sending healthy food to school with their kids.

Q. I know you must be excited about retirement as well. What are you most excited for?

A. I think sleep. (Laughing). But also I want to travel and hang out at the library and do some reading that I enjoy. I really like mysteries and am excited to check out some new books now that I will have more free time.

Connell started her career with the CDE, working with the high-risk intervention unit and later on prevention initiatives before becoming a part of the health and wellness campaign. In the latter role, she initiated, designed, created, and re-framed programs that have pushed and expanded the established boundaries of the CDE. She has focused on comprehensive health education, homeless education, school Medicaid, expelled and at-risk services, coordinated school health youth risk behavior surveys, student wellness programs, healthy schools trainings, the creation of comprehensive health education standards, and implementation of the Healthy School Champion Score Card. She pushed for passage of the  Colorado Comprehensive Health Education Act of 1990, House Bill 1224 for student wellness programs and the state board resolution for healthy and fit students.

First Person

I was an attorney representing school districts in contract talks. Here’s why I hope the Supreme Court doesn’t weaken teachers unions.

PHOTO: Creative Commons / supermac1961

Many so-called education reformers argue that collective bargaining — and unions — are obstacles to real change in education. It’s common to hear assertions about how “restrictive” contracts and “recalcitrant” unions put adult interests over children’s.

The underlying message: if union power were minimized and collective bargaining rights weakened or eliminated, school leaders would be able to enact sweeping changes that could disrupt public education’s status quo.

Those that subscribe to this view are eagerly awaiting the Supreme Court’s decision in the case of Janus v. American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees. At issue is the constitutionality of “agency” or “fair share” fees — employee payroll deductions that go to local unions, meant to cover the costs of negotiating and implementing a bargaining agreement.

In states that permit agency fees (there are about 20), a teacher may decline to be part of a union but must still pay those fees. If the Supreme Court rules that those agency fees are unconstitutional, and many teachers do not voluntarily pay, local unions will be deprived of resources needed to negotiate and enforce bargaining agreements.

Based on my experience as an attorney representing school districts in bargaining and contract issues, I have this to say to those hoping the Court will strike down these fees: be careful what you wish for.

Eliminating fair share fees (and trying to weaken unions) represents a misguided assumption about bargaining — that the process weakens school quality. To the contrary, strong relationships with unions, built through negotiations, can help create the conditions for student and school success. Indeed, in my experience, the best superintendents and school boards seized bargaining as an opportunity to advance their agenda, and engaged unions as partners whenever possible.

Why, and how, can this work? For one, the process of negotiations provides a forum for school leaders and teachers to hear one another’s concerns and goals. In my experience, this is most effective in districts that adopt “interest-based bargaining,” which encourages problem-solving as starting point for discussions as opposed to viewing bargaining as a zero-sum game.

Interest-based bargaining begins with both sides listing their major concerns and brainstorming solutions. The touchstone for a solution to be adopted in a bargaining agreement: Is the proposal in the best interests of children? This important question, if embedded in the process, forces both sides to carefully consider their shared mission.

For example, some districts I worked with paid teachers less than comparable neighboring districts did. It would have been unreasonable for unions to insist that their pay be increased enough to even that difference out, because that would mean reducing investments in other items of importance to children, like technology or infrastructure. At the same time, it would have been untenable for management to play “hard ball” and deny the problem, because to do so would likely lead to a disgruntled workforce.

Instead, both sides were forced to “own” the issue and collaboratively craft plausible solutions. That made unions more agreeable to proposals that demonstrated some commitment by the district to addressing the issue of pay, and districts open to other things that they could provide without breaking the budget (like more early release days for professional development).

To be sure, many school administrators could get frustrated with the process of bargaining or having to consult the negotiated agreement when they want to make a change. Some districts would very much like to adopt an extended school day, for example, but they know that they must first consult and negotiate such an idea with the union.

Yet, in districts where school administrators had built a reservoir of goodwill through collective bargaining, disagreement does not come at the cost of operating schools efficiently. Both sides come to recognize that while they inevitably will disagree on some things, they can also seek agreement — and often do on high-stakes matters, like teacher evaluations.

How does this relate to the Supreme Court’s pending decision? Without fees from some teachers, unions may lack the resources to ensure that contract negotiations and enforcement are robust and done well. This could create a vicious cycle: teachers who voluntarily pay fees for bargaining in a post-Janus world, assuming the court rules against the unions, will view such payments as not delivering any return on investment. In turn, they will stop contributing voluntarily, further degrading the quality of the union’s services.

Even more troubling, if fair share fees are prohibited, resentment and internal strife will arise between those who continue to pay the fees and those who refuse. This would undercut a primary benefit of bargaining — labor peace and a sense of shared purpose.

Speaking as a parent, this raises a serious concern: who wants to send their child to a school where there is an undercurrent of bitterness between teachers and administrators that will certainly carry over into the classroom?

It is easy to see the appeal of those opposing agency fees. No one wants to see more money going out of their paycheck. The union-as-bogeyman mentality is pervasive. Moreover, in my experience, some teachers (especially the newer ones) do not recognize the hidden benefits to bargaining contracts.

But, obvious or not, agency fees help promote a stable workplace that allows teachers to concentrate on their primary responsibility: their students. Removing the key ingredient threatens this balance.

Mark Paige is a former school teacher and school law attorney who represented school districts in New England. He is currently an associate professor of public policy at the University of Massachusetts – Dartmouth.

First Person

I’m a Florida teacher in the era of school shootings. This is the terrifying reality of my classroom during a lockdown drill.

Outside of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

“Remember,” I tell the children, looking them in the eyes in the darkened classroom. “Remember to keep the scissors open. They’ll stab better that way.”

My students, the target demographic for many a Disney Channel sitcom, laugh nervously at me as they try to go back to their conversations. I stare at the talkative tweens huddling in a corner and sigh.

“Seriously, class,” I say in the tone that teachers use to make goosebumps rise. As they turn back to me with nervous laughter, I hold up that much-maligned classroom tool, the metal scissor that’s completely ineffective at cutting paper. “If a gunman breaks in, I’ll be in the opposite corner with the utility knife.” Said tool is in my hand, and more often used to cut cardboard for projects. All the blood it’s hitherto tasted has been accidental. “If I distract him and you can’t get out, we have to rush him.” I don’t mention that my classroom is basically an inescapable choke point. It is the barrel. We are the fish.

They lapse into silence, sitting between the wires under the corner computer tables. I return to my corner, sidestepping a pile of marbles I’ve poured out as a first line of defense, staring at the classroom door. It’s been two hours of this interminable lockdown. This can’t be a drill, but no information will be forthcoming until it’s all over.

I wonder if I really believe these actions would do anything, or am I just perpetrating upon my students and myself the 21st century version of those old “Duck and Cover” posters.

We wait.

The lockdown eventually ends. I file it away in the back of my head like the others. Scissors are handed back with apathy, as if we were just cutting out paper continents for a plate tectonics lab. The tool and marbles go back into the engineering closet. And then, this Wednesday, the unreal urge to arm myself in my classroom comes back. A live feed on the television shows students streaming out of Marjory Stoneman Douglas, a high school just a short drive away. I wonder whether the teachers in its classrooms have passed out scissors.

*

The weapons. It’s not a subject we teachers enjoy bringing up. You’d have an easier time starting a discussion on religion or politics in the teacher’s lounge then asking how we all prepare for the darkness of the lockdown. Do you try to make everyone cower, maybe rely on prayer? Perhaps you always try to convince yourself it’s a drill. Maybe you just assume that, if a gun comes through the door, your ticket is well and truly up. Whatever token preparation you make, if at all, once belonged only to the secret corners of your own soul.

In the aftermath of Parkland, teachers across the nation are starting to speak. The experience of being isolated, uninformed, and responsible for the lives of dozens of children is now universal to our profession, whether because of actual emergencies or planned drills. You don’t usually learn which is which until at least an hour and sometimes not until afterwards. In both cases, the struggle to control the dread and keep wearing the mask of bravery for your students is the same.

And you need a weapon.

I’ve heard of everything from broken chair legs lying around that never seem to be thrown away to metal baseball bats provided by administration. One teacher from another district dealt with it by always keeping a screwdriver on her desk. “For construction projects,” she told students. She taught English.

There’s always talk, half-jokingly (and less than that, lately) from people who want teachers armed. I have a friend in a position that far outranks my own whose resignation letter is ready for the day teachers are allowed to carry guns in the classroom.

I mean, we’ve all known teachers who’ve had their cell phones stolen by students …

*

Years earlier, I am in the same corner. I am more naïve, the most soul-shaking of American massacres still yet to come. The corner is a mess of cardboard boxes gathered for class projects, and one of them is big enough for several students to crawl inside.

One girl is crying, her friend hugging her as she shakes. She’s a sensitive girl; a religious disagreement between her friends having once brought her to tears. “How can they be so cruel to each other?” She asked me after one had said that Catholics didn’t count as Christians.

I frown. It’s really my fault. An offhand comment on how the kids needed to quiet down because I’m not ready to die pushed her too far. Seriously rolling mortality around in her head, she wanted nothing more than to call her family. None of them are allowed to touch their cell phones, however, and the reasoning makes sense to me. The last thing we need is a mob of terrified parents pouring onto campus if someone’s looking to pad their body count.

She has to go to the bathroom, and there are no good options.

I sit with her, trying to comfort her, wondering what the occasion is. Is there a shooter? Maybe a rumor has circulated online. Possibly there’s just a fleeing criminal with a gun at large and headed into our area. Keeping watch with a room full of potential hostages, I wonder if I can risk letting her crawl through the inner building corridors until she reaches a teacher’s bathroom. We wait together.

It seemed different when I was a teen. In those brighter pre-Columbine times, the idea of a school shooting was unreal to me, just the plot of that one Richard Bachman book that never seemed to show up in used book stores. I hadn’t known back then that Bachman (really Stephen King) had it pulled from circulation after it’d been found in a real school shooter’s locker.

Back then my high school had plenty of bomb threats, but they were a joke. We’d all march out around the flagpole, sitting laughably close to the school, and enjoy the break. Inevitably, we’d all learn that the threat had been called in by a student in the grip of “senioritis,” a seemingly incurable disease that removes the victim’s desire to work. We’d sit and chat and smile and never for a second consider that any of us could be in physical danger. The only threat we faced while waiting was boredom.

*

Today, in our new era of mass shootings, the school districts do what they can, trying to plan comprehensively for a situation too insane to grasp. Law enforcement officials lecture the faculty yearly, giving well-rehearsed speeches on procedures while including a litany of horrors meant to teach by example.

At this level, we can only react to the horrors of the world. The power to alter things is given to legislators and representatives who’ve been entrusted with the responsibility to govern wisely while listening to the will of the people. It’s they who can change the facts on the ground, enact new laws, and examine existing regulations. They can work toward a world where a lockdown is no longer needed for a preteen to grapple with gut-churning fear.

We’re still waiting.

K.T. Katzmann is a teacher in Broward County, Florida. This piece first appeared on The Trace, a nonprofit news site focused on gun violence.