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

What I learned about the limits of school choice in New York City from a mother whose child uses a wheelchair

PHOTO: Patrick Wall

As a researcher interested in the ways online platforms impact learning and educational decision-making, I’ve been trying to understand how New York City parents get the information to make a crucial decision: where to send their children to school.

So for the past six months, I’ve been asking local parents about the data they used to choose among the system’s 1700 or so schools.

I’ve heard all sorts of stories about the factors parents weigh when picking schools. Beyond the usual considerations like test scores and art programs, they also consider the logistics of commuting from the Bronx to the East Village with two children in tow, whether the school can accommodate parents and children who are still learning English, and how much money the parent-teacher association raises to supplement the school’s budget.

But for some families, the choice process begins and ends with the question: Is the building fully accessible?

The federal Americans with Disabilities Act requires public buildings constructed after 1992 to be fully accessible to people in wheelchairs. However, most New York City public school buildings were constructed prior to that law, and high construction costs have limited the number of new, fully accessible buildings.

As a result, a shocking 83 percent of New York City schools have been found non-compliant with the ADA, according to a two-year federal Department of Justice investigation whose findings the city Department of Education largely disputes. Recently, the city’s Office of Space Management has begun surveying buildings for full accessibility, but more work remains to be done.

One parent’s struggle to find a school suitable for her son, who has a physical disability but no cognitive issues, illustrates what a major role accessibility plays in some families’ decision-making.

Melanie Rivera is the mother of two and a native New Yorker living in Ditmas Park in Brooklyn’s District 22 who shared her story with me — and gave me permission to share it with others. Here is what she told me, in her own words:

My son Gabriel is seven years old. He was born with a condition called arthrogryposis, which affects the development of his joints. His hips, knees, and feet are affected and he has joint contractures, so his legs don’t bend and straighten the way most people’s do. In order to get around, he uses a combination of crutches and a wheelchair.

Before I had my differently-abled son, I was working in a preschool for children with special needs. The kids I worked with had cognitive developmental disabilities.

Despite my professional experience, I was overwhelmed when it was my turn to help my child with different abilities navigate the public school system. I can only imagine the students falling by the wayside because their parents don’t have that background.

When I was completing my son’s kindergarten application, I couldn’t even consider the academics of the school. My main priority was to tour the schools and assess their level of accessibility.

There are only a couple of ADA-accessible schools in my district, and there was no way of indicating on my son’s kindergarten application that he needed one. When we got the admissions results, he was assigned to his zoned school – which is not accessible.

I entered lengthy and extensive mediation to get him into an ADA-accessible school. At that point, I knew I would just have to take what I could get. For families whose children have special needs, “school choice” can ring hollow.

The process of finding any accessible school was a challenge. The DOE website allows families to search for ADA-accessible schools. But the site describes most schools as “partially accessible,” leaving it up to parents to call each school and say, “What do you mean by this?”

When I called the schools and asked, “Are you a barrier-free school?” the staff in the office didn’t know what the term meant. They might reply, “Oh yeah, we have a ramp.” I’d have to press further: “But can you get to the office? Can you get to every floor in the building?” The response was often, “Oh, I don’t know.”

Even the office staff didn’t know. But for my son’s sake, I needed to know.

Gabriel deserves the full range of academic and social experiences. So every day I make sure he’s learning in the least-restrictive environment — from the classroom, to phys ed, to field trips.

I believe the Department of Education also wants to make schools accessible and to place students with different abilities in settings where they’ll flourish, but the current system is not equipped to follow through on those good intentions. While I see gradual changes, I still know that if I don’t find the best placement for my son the system definitely won’t.

At the school level, administrators should know the details of their own school’s accessibility. Teachers should learn to include children with different abilities in their classrooms. Such a commitment means recognizing the value of inclusivity — not viewing accessibility as something ADA says you must do.

Before I had Gabriel, I never thought about accessibility. I never looked at street cutouts or thought about how to enter a store with steps. We’re probably all guilty of perpetuating exclusion at one point or another.

Recognizing that will allow us to change the status quo. It will allow every individual with a physical disability to fully participate in the public school system.

Claire Fontaine is a researcher at Data & Society, a research institute in New York City focused on social, cultural, and ethical issues arising from technological development. Kinjal Dave is a research assistant at Data & Society. You can read more about their project, which seeks to better understand the ways in which diverse New York City parents draw on school performance data, online dashboards, and school review websites when researching schools for their children.

First Person

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Grace Tatter covers a press conference at the Tennessee State Capitol in 2015.

For three years, I covered the Statehouse for Chalkbeat Tennessee, reporting on how policies from Nashville trickled down into more than 1,800 public schools across the state.

Now I’m starting back to school myself, pursuing graduate studies aimed at helping me to become a better education journalist. I’m taking with me six things I learned on the job about public education in Tennessee.

1. Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.

I heard from hundreds of parents, educators, and students who were passionate about what’s happening — good and bad — inside of schools. I covered crowded school board meetings and regularly scrambled for an open seat at legislative hearings where parents had filled the room after driving since dawn to beat the opening gavel. Not incidentally, those parents usually came from communities with the “worst” schools and the lowest test scores. While many disagreements exist about the best way to run schools, there is no shortage of people, particularly parents and educators, who care.

2. Tennessee has one of the most fascinating education stories in America.

I’ve had a front-row seat to massive changes in K-12 education under reforms ushered in by Race to the Top — an overhaul being tracked closely well beyond the state’s borders. But the national interest and import doesn’t end with changes stemming from the $500 million federal award. Tennessee is home to some of the nation’s premier education researchers, making its classrooms laboratories for new ideas about pre-K, school turnaround, and literacy instruction, just to name a few. And at the legislature, more lobbyists are devoted to education than to most any other cause. A lot of eyes are on Tennessee schools.

3. The education community is not as divided as it looks.

During the course of just a few years, I watched state lawmakers change their positions on accountability and school vouchers. I witnessed “anti-charter” activists praise charter leaders for their work. I chronicled task force meetings where state leaders who were committed to standardized testing found middle ground with classroom educators concerned that it’s gone too far. In short, a lot of people listened to each other and changed their minds. Watching such consensus-building reminded me that, while there are no simple debates about education, there is a widespread commitment to making it better.

4. Money matters.

Even when stories don’t seem to be about money, they usually are. How much money is being spent on testing, teacher salaries, school discipline reform? How much should be available for wraparound services? Why do some schools have more money than others? Is there enough to go around? Tennessee leaders have steadily upped public education spending, but the state still invests less than most other states, and the disparities among districts are gaping. That’s why more than a handful of school districts are battling with the state in court. Conversations about money are inextricable from conversations about improving schools.

5. Race is a significant education issue, but few leaders are willing to have that conversation.

More than 60 years after Brown v. Board of Education, Tennessee’s schools are largely racially segregated. Yet most policymakers tread lightly, if ever, into conversations about achieving real racial integration. And in many cases — such as a 2011 law enabling mostly white suburban Shelby County towns to secede from the mostly black Memphis district — they’ve actually gone backwards. Then there’s the achievement data. The annual release of test scores unleashes a flurry of conversation around the racial achievement gap. But the other 11 months of the year, I heard little about whether state and local policies are closing those gaps — or contributing to them — or the historical reasons why the gaps exist in the first place. To be sure, state leadership is trying to address some of Tennessee’s shortcomings. For example, the State Department of Education has launched modestly funded initiatives to recruit more teachers of color. But often, race and racism are the elephants in the room.

6. Still, there’s lots to celebrate.

If there were unlimited hours in the day, I could have written thousands of stories about what’s going right in public education. Every day, I received story ideas about collaborations with NASA in Oak Ridge, high school trips to Europe from Memphis, gourmet school lunches in Tullahoma, and learning partnerships with the Nashville Zoo. Even in schools with the steepest challenges, they were stories that inspire happiness and hope. They certainly inspired me.

Grace Tatter graduated from public schools in Winston-Salem, N.C., and received her bachelor’s degree in history from the University of North Carolina. She’s now pursuing a master’s degree in specialized studies at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.