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’m a principal who thinks personalized learning shouldn’t be a debate.

PHOTO: Lisa Epstein
Lisa Epstein, principal of Richard H. Lee Elementary, supports personalized learning

This is the first in what we hope will be a tradition of thoughtful opinion pieces—of all viewpoints—published by Chalkbeat Chicago. Have an idea? Send it to

As personalized learning takes hold throughout the city, Chicago teachers are wondering why a term so appealing has drawn so much criticism.

Until a few years ago, the school that I lead, Richard H. Lee Elementary on the Southwest Side, was on a path toward failing far too many of our students. We crafted curriculum and identified interventions to address gaps in achievement and the shifting sands of accountability. Our teachers were hardworking and committed. But our work seemed woefully disconnected from the demands we knew our students would face once they made the leap to postsecondary education.

We worried that our students were ill-equipped for today’s world of work and tomorrow’s jobs. Yet, we taught using the same model through which we’d been taught: textbook-based direct instruction.

How could we expect our learners to apply new knowledge to evolving facts, without creating opportunities for exploration? Where would they learn to chart their own paths, if we didn’t allow for agency at school? Why should our students engage with content that was disconnected from their experiences, values, and community?

We’ve read articles about a debate over personalized learning centered on Silicon Valley’s “takeover” of our schools. We hear that Trojan Horse technologies are coming for our jobs. But in our school, personalized learning has meant developing lessons informed by the cultural heritage and interests of our students. It has meant providing opportunities to pursue independent projects, and differentiating curriculum, instruction, and assessment to enable our students to progress at their own pace. It has reflected a paradigm shift that is bottom-up and teacher led.

And in a move that might have once seemed incomprehensible, it has meant getting rid of textbooks altogether. We’re not alone.

We are among hundreds of Chicago educators who would welcome critics to visit one of the 120 city schools implementing new models for learning – with and without technology. Because, as it turns out, Chicago is fast becoming a hub for personalized learning. And, it is no coincidence that our academic growth rates are also among the highest in the nation.

Before personalized learning, we designed our classrooms around the educator. Decisions were made based on how educators preferred to teach, where they wanted students to sit, and what subjects they wanted to cover.

Personalized learning looks different in every classroom, but the common thread is that we now make decisions looking at the student. We ask them how they learn best and what subjects strike their passions. We use small group instruction and individual coaching sessions to provide each student with lesson plans tailored to their needs and strengths. We’re reimagining how we use physical space, and the layout of our classrooms. We worry less about students talking with their friends; instead, we ask whether collaboration and socialization will help them learn.

Our emphasis on growth shows in the way students approach each school day. I have, for example, developed a mentorship relationship with one of our middle school students who, despite being diligent and bright, always ended the year with average grades. Last year, when she entered our personalized learning program for eighth grade, I saw her outlook change. She was determined to finish the year with all As.

More than that, she was determined to show that she could master anything her teachers put in front of her. She started coming to me with graded assignments. We’d talk about where she could improve and what skills she should focus on. She was pragmatic about challenges and so proud of her successes. At the end of the year she finished with straight As—and she still wanted more. She wanted to get A-pluses next year. Her outlook had changed from one of complacence to one oriented towards growth.

Rather than undermining the potential of great teachers, personalized learning is creating opportunities for collaboration as teachers band together to leverage team-teaching and capitalize on their strengths and passions. For some classrooms, this means offering units and lessons based on the interests and backgrounds of the class. For a couple of classrooms, it meant literally knocking down walls to combine classes from multiple grade-levels into a single room that offers each student maximum choice over how they learn. For every classroom, it means allowing students to work at their own pace, because teaching to the middle will always fail to push some while leaving others behind.

For many teachers, this change sounded daunting at first. For years, I watched one of my teachers – a woman who thrives off of structure and runs a tight ship – become less and less engaged in her profession. By the time we made the switch to personalized learning, I thought she might be done. We were both worried about whether she would be able to adjust to the flexibility of the new model. But she devised a way to maintain order in her classroom while still providing autonomy. She’s found that trusting students with the responsibility to be engaged and efficient is both more effective and far more rewarding than trying to force them into their roles. She now says that she would never go back to the traditional classroom structure, and has rediscovered her love for teaching. The difference is night and day.

The biggest change, though, is in the relationships between students and teachers. Gone is the traditional, authority-to-subordinate dynamic; instead, students see their teachers as mentors with whom they have a unique and individual connection, separate from the rest of the class. Students are actively involved in designing their learning plans, and are constantly challenged to articulate the skills they want to build and the steps that they must take to get there. They look up to their teachers, they respect their teachers, and, perhaps most important, they know their teachers respect them.

Along the way, we’ve found that students respond favorably when adults treat them as individuals. When teachers make important decisions for them, they see learning as a passive exercise. But, when you make it clear that their needs and opinions will shape each school day, they become invested in the outcome.

As our students take ownership over their learning, they earn autonomy, which means they know their teachers trust them. They see growth as the goal, so they no longer finish assignments just to be done; they finish assignments to get better. And it shows in their attendance rates – and test scores.

Lisa Epstein is the principal of Richard H. Lee Elementary School, a public school in Chicago’s West Lawn neighborhood serving 860 students from pre-kindergarten through eighth grade.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect that Richard H. Lee Elementary School serves 860 students, not 760 students.

First Person

I’ve spent years studying the link between SHSAT scores and student success. The test doesn’t tell you as much as you might think.

PHOTO: Photo by Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images

Proponents of New York City’s specialized high school exam, the test the mayor wants to scrap in favor of a new admissions system, defend it as meritocratic. Opponents contend that when used without consideration of school grades or other factors, it’s an inappropriate metric.

One thing that’s been clear for decades about the exam, now used to admit students to eight top high schools, is that it matters a great deal.

Students admitted may not only receive a superior education, but also access to elite colleges and eventually to better employment. That system has also led to an under-representation of Hispanic students, black students, and girls.

As a doctoral student at The Graduate Center of the City University of New York in 2015, and in the years after I received my Ph.D., I have tried to understand how meritocratic the process really is.

First, that requires defining merit. Only New York City defines it as the score on a single test — other cities’ selective high schools use multiple measures, as do top colleges. There are certainly other potential criteria, such as artistic achievement or citizenship.

However, when merit is defined as achievement in school, the question of whether the test is meritocratic is an empirical question that can be answered with data.

To do that, I used SHSAT scores for nearly 28,000 students and school grades for all public school students in the city. (To be clear, the city changed the SHSAT itself somewhat last year; my analysis used scores on the earlier version.)

My analysis makes clear that the SHSAT does measure an ability that contributes to some extent to success in high school. Specifically, a SHSAT score predicts 20 percent of the variability in freshman grade-point average among all public school students who took the exam. Students with extremely high SHSAT scores (greater than 650) generally also had high grades when they reached a specialized school.

However, for the vast majority of students who were admitted with lower SHSAT scores, from 486 to 600, freshman grade point averages ranged widely — from around 50 to 100. That indicates that the SHSAT was a very imprecise predictor of future success for students who scored near the cutoffs.

Course grades earned in the seventh grade, in contrast, predicted 44 percent of the variability in freshman year grades, making it a far better admissions criterion than SHSAT score, at least for students near the score cutoffs.

It’s not surprising that a standardized test does not predict as well as past school performance. The SHSAT represents a two and a half hour sample of a limited range of skills and knowledge. In contrast, middle-school grades reflect a full year of student performance across the full range of academic subjects.

Furthermore, an exam which relies almost exclusively on one method of assessment, multiple choice questions, may fail to measure abilities that are revealed by the variety of assessment methods that go into course grades. Additionally, middle school grades may capture something important that the SHSAT fails to capture: long-term motivation.

Based on his current plan, Mayor de Blasio seems to be pointed in the right direction. His focus on middle school grades and the Discovery Program, which admits students with scores below the cutoff, is well supported by the data.

In the cohort I looked at, five of the eight schools admitted some students with scores below the cutoff. The sample sizes were too small at four of them to make meaningful comparisons with regularly admitted students. But at Brooklyn Technical High School, the performance of the 35 Discovery Program students was equal to that of other students. Freshman year grade point averages for the two groups were essentially identical: 86.6 versus 86.7.

My research leads me to believe that it might be reasonable to admit a certain percentage of the students with extremely high SHSAT scores — over 600, where the exam is a good predictor —and admit the remainder using a combined index of seventh grade GPA and SHSAT scores.

When I used that formula to simulate admissions, diversity increased, somewhat. An additional 40 black students, 209 Hispanic students, and 205 white students would have been admitted, as well as an additional 716 girls. It’s worth pointing out that in my simulation, Asian students would still constitute the largest segment of students (49 percent) and would be admitted in numbers far exceeding their proportion of applicants.

Because middle school grades are better than test scores at predicting high school achievement, their use in the admissions process should not in any way dilute the quality of the admitted class, and could not be seen as discriminating against Asian students.

The success of the Discovery students should allay some of the concerns about the ability of students with SHSAT scores below the cutoffs. There is no guarantee that similar results would be achieved in an expanded Discovery Program. But this finding certainly warrants larger-scale trials.

With consideration of additional criteria, it may be possible to select a group of students who will be more representative of the community the school system serves — and the pool of students who apply — without sacrificing the quality for which New York City’s specialized high schools are so justifiably famous.

Jon Taylor is a research analyst at Hunter College analyzing student success and retention.