First Person

Week of 12/20/10: Healthy schools highlights

Chicago adding in-school health centers

The Chicago Tribune examines the addition of health centers in the city’s schools.

At first glance, this health care center on the city’s Northwest Side looks like any other facility offering medical care to young patients: In the waiting area, children will find a basket of books on a small table, toys on the floor and a chalkboard. But the facility is inside Hibbard Elementary School in Albany Park and is the latest health center to debut inside a Chicago Public Schools facility.

In St. Paul schools, the not-so-sweet life

colorful cupcakesThe Minneapolis Star Tribune takes a look at the St. Paul school district’s attempts to make all public schools “sweet-free zones” by the end of the school year.

Jill Gebeke made it a habit to reward herself with a small piece of chocolate after lunch every day. It’s hard work being a school principal, after all. But the chocolate rewards ended last month when some first- and second-graders caught her. “I thought you said this was a sweet-free zone,” they reminded her.

Colorado Action for Healthy Kids launches Parent Network

Colorado Action for Healthy Kids launched a new Parent Network last month at its first School Wellness Roundtable at the Oxford Hotel in downtown Denver. Sixty-three parents and guests from 10 school districts came together to share resources, success stories and inspiration related to the school wellness work they are doing in their local school communities. Keynote speaker Rainey Wikstrom shared her own journey as a school wellness parent champion along with tips for creating a healthy school environment most effectively. Read this story about her in EdNews Parent.

During the roundtable, 34 parents signed up to be Action for Healthy Kids “School Champions” in their districts. To learn more about becoming an Action for Healthy Kids School Champion, visit this webpage or send an e-mail to  ColoradoActionforHealthyKids@yahoo.com. A team leadership meeting will be held Jan. 24 for all School Champions or Parent Network members.

EdNews Parent expert publishes book

Nutritionist and EdNews Parent expert Julie Hammerstein has a new book called Fat is Not a Four-LetterFat is Not a Four Letter word book cover Word. Hammerstein is a nutritionist, speaker and global health advocate. Her book, “Fat is Not a Four-Letter Word: 14 Daily Lessons to Break Through Your “Fat Kid Mentality” and Keep the Weight Off For Life!” offers an approach to weight loss that goes beyond dieting and deprivation, and embraces the desires and needs of the human body and spirit. We appreciate the time Julie has put into coming up with thoughtful responses to parent questions on this site. Congratulations, Julie. Read her EdNews Parent posts here.

Bike lanes to connect nine Aurora schools

The Aurora Sentinel reports on a new plan that will make nine Aurora schools more biker-friendly.

City council members moved forward Monday with a plan to implement bicycle lanes that will connect nine Aurora schools. In a unanimous vote at their regular session, they approved a contract with Denver-based RoadSafe Traffic Systems, in the amount of about $108,000 to work on the project. The bike lanes will run along portions of Moline Street, Exposition Avenue, Florida Avenue and Troy Street.

The project is one of 14 projects funded with stimulus money received from an Energy Efficiency and Conservation Block Grant through the federal Department of Energy. The cost of the project was below the $166,000 originally estimated.

Parents have less sway over kids’ diets than expected

The Kansas City Star looks at what it takes to change kids’ eating habits from bad to good.

Susanna DeRocco uses homegrown vegetables in meals that her two young sons help prepare. She helps the boys understand food labels and decode messages from advertisers. She supports improvements in school lunches. With a little effort, she says, parents can lay a solid foundation that helps their kids make good food decisions for the rest of their lives.

Breast feeding benefits boys’ brains

Read this story about the new research on the benefits of breast feeding. Breast feeding for at least six months has been associated with enhanced immunity and other benefits for children – but a prospective study from Australia suggests breast feeding may also yield academic benefits later in a child’s life, at least for boys.

Teens helping teens with mental health issues

The Philadelphia Inquirer looks at a new program for teens facing mental health issues.

Francesca Pileggi begins her presentation with a photograph of herself, circa age 5, on the first day of school. The look on her face: utter horror. It’s normal to be anxious at such a time, but Pileggi’s anxiety ruled her life. When teachers called on her, her throat closed. When she played sports, she’d freeze. Her panic attacks were so severe that she sometimes vomited.

Editor’s note: There won’t be a healthy schools highlights post next week as the EdNews Parent offices will be closed for the holidays.

First Person

I spoke with our governor during his TNReady listening tour. Here’s what I hope he heard.

PHOTO: TN.gov
Tara Baker raises her hand to talk during Gov. Bill Haslam's Sept. 4 roundtable discussion about state testing challenges. An assistant principal at Nashville's McGavock High School, Baker was among about 150 educators invited to participate in Haslam's six-stop "listening tour," which began Aug. 31 in Knoxville and ends Sept. 18 in Gibson County.

As the testing coordinator for a large high school in Nashville, I was in the eye of the proverbial storm this spring as tens of thousands of Tennessee students slogged through technical snafus and breakdowns in the state’s return to online testing.

It was ugly.

The daily stops and starts sucked the joy of learning right out of our school community. And the testing platform was not the only thing that broke down. Students were frustrated to the point of tears after their hard work disappeared behind a spinning blue cursor.

Students and their teachers should never feel that level of exasperation and futility.

That’s why I was thrilled to be invited — along with about 150 other educators from across Tennessee — to troubleshoot testing problems with Gov. Bill Haslam this month during his six-stop “listening tour” on TNReady, the assessment that’s now entering its fourth year.

I wanted the governor and his education commissioner, Candice McQueen, to know just how bad testing went at my school, and to hear observations and ideas from ground zero for moving forward.

I talked about our school’s disappointment and tears as we persevered through a rocky start, with already overtested students exasperated by what felt like unending technical difficulties. “They were defeated,” I told the governor. “It crippled us before we really ever got started.”

I shared how only 36 out of 500 students in our English III classes were able to successfully submit their essays for one part of their online exam. Imagine working for over an hour to read and examine an article and construct an in-depth response, only to have your computer freeze or shut down before you could finish. Our sophomores had more success, but we still had almost 150 incomplete submissions in that class after multiple attempts. The stories were similar for students in Integrated Math, Chemistry, and U.S. History. While I can’t know for sure, I believe the intensity of the problems contributed significantly to our school being rated recently at the state’s lowest possible level for academic growth — a devastating blow to me and my colleagues.  

The governor’s 90-minute roundtable discussion, held in a middle school media room in the town of Franklin, was cathartic for many of us present at the fourth listening tour stop. We realized that we were not alone in our frustrations and concerns.

PHOTO: TN.gov
Educators in Middle Tennessee participate in the governor’s fourth roundtable discussion at Freedom Middle School in Franklin.

Gov. Haslam and Commissioner McQueen listened intently, and I was grateful for the opportunity to share my school’s experience. But a lot of ideas and emotions were compressed into a relatively short amount of time. At the end of the day, here’s what I hope they heard:

We spend too much time on testing and not enough on educating students. Teachers talked about using class time to take practice tests in the fall, the long three-week testing window in the spring, and the sheer number of tests that students are required to take.

We should still test; we just have to do it better. Teachers want valid data. We want useful and meaningful feedback. But we need to know that the information provided is a true representation of what our students know. And we should be able to accomplish that with shorter, more thoughtful tests that cut down on subparts, testing times, and the number of questions. The current testing regimen isn’t working. It stresses out our students, teachers, and families.

We are not ready for online assessments in Tennessee. Computer-based testing generates faster results, but it introduces many factors that currently are beyond school or district control. Dead batteries, network updates, lack of internet connectivity and bandwidth — these are not things that schools can regulate with certainty, and they directly impact testing. Most importantly, until we have enough computers so that every student has one-to-one access to a device, we should have other options and school-level contingency plans in place. This could mean having paper backups on hand or quickly available.

Teachers and test administrators need to know the plan! As the link with our stakeholders, we need training to make sure the information that we provide students and parents is correct. It’s our job to promote the assessments to the community but, to do that, we should completely understand the process and be appropriately trained, including what to do when things go wrong.  

Tests need to reflect the diversity of our students. Reading selections should be varied to address students’ abilities, experiences, and lifestyles. For example, Jane Eyre is not relatable to any of my urban high school students. Could we pull from some high-interest contemporary novels, such as Jason Reynolds’ “Long Way Down,” about a black teenager whose brother dies in a shooting?

PHOTO: TN.gov
Gov. Bill Haslam listens during his Sept. 4 roundtable discussion. An advisory team is using the feedback to develop principles and recommendations for consideration by his and the next administration.

This school year, the stakes are higher than ever to get testing right. No one has confidence in last year’s scores or results. How could they when we learned on the third day of testing that the scores wouldn’t count? And this wasn’t our first rodeo with TNReady problems, either. For the new school year, we must get it right to rebuild confidence in the assessment. To the state’s credit, the Department of Education already has made some good moves — for instance, bringing aboard ETS, a reputable testing company, and planning stress tests for online assessments in the fall and spring. I welcome the on-the-ground input of 37 educators serving as our state’s new TNReady ambassadors, as well as steps to improve customer service before and during the next round of testing.

But will it be enough? The above list of concerns represents what I heard at this month’s roundtable discussion and from other educators, too.

Thanks for listening, Gov. Haslam. I hope that yours and the next administration consider this a call to action.

A former English teacher, Tara Baker is an assistant principal at McGavock High School, a 2,400-student learning community in Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools.

First Person

We’ve come a long way in addressing student stress and trauma. I could use help, too.

PHOTO: Jose M. Osorio/Chicago Tribune/TNS via Getty Images

There’s an old adage, “You can’t pour from an empty cup.” But as a paraprofessional in Chicago, my cup is almost drained.

Each day, I provide academic, emotional, and behavioral support for over 200 students. The amount of mental and emotional energy it takes to calm a single student down, redirect or remove them from the class, and provide appropriate consequences is overwhelming — even with experience — when there are 11 other six-year-olds in a classroom that need my help.

Related: Chicago teachers, take our back-to-school survey

I look forward to coming to work in the morning, but by the time I get home, I barely have the energy to make my own dinner or plan activities for the next day. I tune out almost everything and everyone. While I love what I do, it is hard.

This heavy responsibility affects my mental health and the health of all educators, and it certainly impacts our ability to properly teach and support students. In the wake of Chicago’s teacher assistant layoffs this summer, my colleagues and I have dealt with the added stress of job uncertainty, too.

But we haven’t acknowledged the effects of that stress on educators, and we aren’t equipped with support to manage it.

The good news is that we are having a conversation about the effects of stress and trauma on our students. I’ve watched advocates successfully push for change: Educators for Excellence-Chicago, an educator-led organization I am involved with, brought some of these issues to light last June. Since then, we have held citywide problem-solving forums in partnership with the district’s Office of Social Emotional Learning and successfully advocated for the passage of two school state resolutions to ensure that student trauma is appropriately recognized throughout Illinois.

The recent focus on social-emotional learning — also known as “soft skills” — in our classrooms is also helping schools better prepare students for challenges that no child should face, but many do.

Those challenges are real: In my classroom, one student is a caregiver for his parent, another has lost multiple siblings to gun violence, and many others have parents that work long hours and are rarely around. These experiences have a considerable impact on their learning; often, students don’t have the tools to cope with this stress, and so they express their frustration by acting out in disruptive ways.

And yet, amid all this advocacy for our students’ mental health, we neglect our own. I worry that without a healthy state of mind, educators can’t offer their best teaching and attention to students, perhaps causing additional harm to kids already dealing with heavy burdens outside of school.

I don’t think it has to be this way. If more funding was allocated to our schools for student counseling, it would allow educators more time to focus on teaching. Our schools could provide social and emotional support to our students and staff to help them learn coping mechanisms. We would be able to hold self-care activities for the entire school. Support staff could give students and parents tools to support them outside of school.

To ensure students’ well-being, we need our own help.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said it best: “Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. This is the interrelated structure of reality.” Student and educator mental wellness are deeply interconnected, and we all must make sure we help educators be the best they can be for their students.

Shakita Smith is a teacher’s assistant at Pablo Casals School of Excellence in Humboldt Park. She is also a member of the Chicago Teachers Union and Educators for Excellence, a national teacher policy and advocacy organization.