The Other 60 Percent

Promising anti-obesity programs in schools

PHOTO: Hayleigh Colombo
Students at Aurora's Park Lane Elementary participate in the Go, Slow, Whoa! program.

Keeping kids thin and fit is no small order in 2011.

Schools experiment with countless ideas to battle children’s obesity. They’ve tried cooking classes, nutrition education, inviting kids to work in school gardens, improving cafeteria food, banning sugary snacks.

They’ve upgraded playgrounds, tinkered with recess, mandated daily physical activity, organized bike clubs and revised physical education standards. They’ve coached parents, coached teachers, coached lunch ladies, coached coaches.

Yet for all the different approaches, the empirical evidence proving what works and what doesn’t  is remarkably sketchy.

Evidence-based anti-obesity programs that repeated studies have proven effective simply don’t exist – yet, according to James O. Hill, director of the Center for Human Nutrition and the Colorado Nutrition Obesity Research Center and one of the nation’s leading experts in anti-obesity efforts.

“If we’re really looking at programs shown to address obesity, there are none out there,” Hill said. “I recall one school study where they just spent millions of dollars, and they found the group that didn’t get the intervention did just as well as the group that did.”

That doesn’t mean, however, that schools shouldn’t keep trying, he said. And some efforts do seem to hold more promise than others.

What follows are three different approaches in place in Denver-area school districts that Hill and others say bear study in hopes their early successes can be replicated. One focuses on nutrition, one on physical activity and one on school environment:

Aurora: Go, Slow, Whoa! nutrition education

Knowledge is power, so they say. But sadly, it’s not willpower.

Knowing of the nutritional facts of life often doesn’t equate to actually making the best food choices. Just ask anyone who’s ever struggled to resist a doughnut, or intended to say “I’ll take the fruit,” but at the last second caved in to the allure of French fries.

Go, Slow, Whoa has expanded to eight Aurora schools this year.

Kids are no different from adults on this point. That’s why so many well-intentioned nutrition education programs succeed in teaching youngsters all about many wonderful fruits and veggies, food pyramids, caloric requirements and all the other tools needed to create a balanced diet – yet fail to make a dent in their real-life eating habits. Study after study shows such programs ultimately don’t change the ways kids eat.

It’s still early in the game, but initial results from one nutrition education program being piloted in Aurora Public Schools show it really may be having a measurable impact on children’s food choices.

Funded by a grant from LiveWell Colorado, the Go, Slow, Whoa program was introduced last year in one Aurora school, Laredo Elementary. This year, in partnership with KMGH Channel 7, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and LiveWell, it has been expanded to seven more schools, and officials hope to eventually expand it to all elementary schools in the district.

Created by the nutritionists at the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute, Go, Slow, Whoa involves a color coding system that helps youngsters make smart food choices by making it easy for them to identify and eat lots of nutrient-dense foods, but not making any foods totally forbidden.

A joint project
  • This series of stories is a joint effort of EdNews Colorado and Solutions, part of the Buechner Institute for Governance at the School of Public Affairs at the University of Colorado Denver.

Stories in this package

“It’s a simplified food-guide pyramid,” said Mona Martinez-Brosh, a registered dietitian and director of nutrition services for the school district.

As students go through the cafeteria line at school, they see the color-coded symbols above each option. Foods tagged with a green apple symbol are “Go” foods. They are high in fiber, low in fats, and good to eat any time you want. They’re things like fresh fruits and vegetables, lean meats, nuts, low-fat milk.

“Slow” foods, tagged with a yellow circle, are still nutrient-dense, but have a little more fat and sugar: they’re things like pancakes, turkey sausage or peanut butter. They’re things that are still wise choices, but shouldn’t be eaten quite as often or in as great a quantity as the “go” foods.

“The pizza we serve at school – with low-fat cheese and whole wheat crust – is a ‘slow’ food, but we tell them that the pizza you get from your local delivery is not,” Martinez-Brosh said.

“Whoa” foods get a red light symbol. The message is “proceed with care.” It’s on foods high in fat or sugar, typically fried foods, sugary sodas and desserts. Don’t give them up entirely, but they should only be eaten once in awhile.

“You don’t often find these foods on our school menu, but salad dressing can be a ‘whoa’ food,” Martinez-Brosh said. “If you eat it frequently, in larger portions, it can lead to gaining weight.”

But beyond simply coding foods in the cafeteria, Go, Slow, Whoa seeks to involve parents, and to see to it that students hear a consistent message all day from their classroom teachers and the physical education teacher.

In Aurora, parents were invited to come to a breakfast at the start of the year, and to learn how to program works.

“We tell them we need their help in making sure they’re buying more of those types of ‘Go’ foods at home,” Martinez-Brosh said. “I have one of my own employees who came to me and said her child came to her and said ‘No, we can’t eat that. That’s a ‘Whoa!’ food.’ ”

In addition, students get some hands-on food preparation instruction and food tastings in their classrooms as part of their regular lesson plans. And occasionally, students who do a good job of selecting ‘go’ foods with their lunch can win prizes.

Does it work? One study found that elementary-aged children who’d been exposed to a similar program were, three years later, drawing 67 percent of their total calories from heart-healthy foods, compared to less than 57 percent of the total daily calories for children who didn’t go through the program. That same study also confirmed what many parents and nutritionists have long suspected: that just about all children, regardless of their level of nutrition education, still consume about a third of their total daily calories from snack foods, desserts and pizza.

In Aurora, officials do have a little evidence that their efforts may be making a small but measurable difference. Just before the program was introduced at Laredo in April last year, 200 students were surveyed about their ability to recognize healthy eating choices. For example, they were asked if they should choose popcorn with or without butter at the movies. At a restaurant, should they choose a breaded fried chicken sandwich or a grilled chicken sandwich. A month later, they were given the same survey and the results were compared.

“For most of the choice pairs, it went up from about 75 percent who made the healthy choice in the beginning to about 80 percent on the post-test,” said Mya Martin-Glenn, program evaluator for the school district.

Of course, “should” and “would” are two different things, Martin-Glenn acknowledged. But other questions also indicated a measurable increase in the children’s intentions to make healthy choices.

“We asked them how likely they were to do things like drink low-fat milk instead of whole milk, and we had about 65 percent said they were likely to in the beginning, and that increased to 73 percent on the post-test,” she said. “But we didn’t actually follow them around to see if that’s what they did.”

A more concrete measure of success came in the Laredo cafeteria, where the quantity of fresh fruits and vegetables consumed went up between 50 and 75 percent during the month-long pilot program, Martinez-Brosh said. She’s seeing similar increases in the schools participating in the program this year.

“I think the kids at this age want to make those right choices,” she said. “They just don’t know which foods are which until we educate them.”

Denver: SPARK engaging physical activity in class

The minute the fourth-graders walked into the gym at Denver’s Force Elementary School, P.E. teacher Deborah Ellis had them moving. And for the next 45 minutes, no one stood still for more than a minute or so.

A fourth-grader at Denver's Force Elementary on the climbing ropes in her P.E. class.

While a group of three or four children climbed ropes, another small group worked on the balance beam, another group worked on a climbing wall, another worked on a tumbling mat, and others were jumping rope.

Every few minutes, the groups would trade places, with the rock climbers moving on to the balance beam, the rope climbers moving on to the tumbling mat, and so forth. But between each shift, Ellis turned on the music and every student did a minute of cardio-pumping dance moves or exercise routines.

“Our whole emphasis is that in a 45-minute period, students should be active at least 50 percent of the time – and in this class I’d say it’s at least 75 percent of the time,” said Eric Larson, director of physical education for DPS, as he watched Ellis put the youngsters through their paces.

“We really stay away from something like five-on-five basketball, where 10 kids are playing and the rest are on the sidelines watching and rotating in. Instead, we do things that are one-on-one or two-on-two or three-on three. There’s a lot of touching the ball or working on skills. We want them all active.”

Last year, Force was one of the first elementary schools in DPS to move to a new PE curriculum called SPARK. This year, the curriculum is in 58 DPS elementary schools, and will be in the remaining 30 next year. It was introduced into DPS middle schools in 2004.

The SPARK curriculum really isn’t new. It’s been around for 22 years. In 1989, a team of researchers got funding from the National Institutes of Health to create and evaluate a PE program that could become a national model. The acronym stands for Select fruits and vegetables, Play actively, Avoid excess sugar and fat, Reduce TV/media time, Keep H2O the way to go.

DPS students showed a marked improvement in strength and flexibility after exposure to the SPARK curriculum.
Denver students showed a marked improvement in strength and flexibility after exposure to the SPARK curriculum.

Today, SPARK has research-based physical activity programs for not only school physical education classes but also early childhood, after-school and coordinated school health programs. It’s been honored as exemplary by everyone from the Surgeon General to the U.S. Department of Education to the Centers for Disease Control. A 2009 survey of anti-obesity programs, conducted by the HSC Foundation, lauded SPARK as one of the best physical education models available.

But it’s not inexpensive. Keeping children constantly active requires lots of equipment – enough so that every child has ready use of a ball or a hoop or whatever fitness gear is required for a given lesson. Stocking the suggested equipment for an elementary school runs between $5,000 and $9,000 per school, and can top $14,000 for a middle school. And Ellis – the P.E. teacher at Force for the past 19 years – has an equipment budget of just $300 a year.

A $450,000  3-year federal grant allowed DPS to put the SPARK curriculum – and the required equipment – into every school. In addition to seven days of intensive training in the curriculum, Ellis and her fellow DPS elementary PE teachers each got $7,000 worth of equipment.

“I had already accumulated a lot of equipment on my own through the years, but when I got all this SPARK equipment, it was like I’d died and gone to heaven,” said Ellis.

The district is in the process of measuring the impact of the SPARK curriculum on its elementary students’ fitness levels. Results of cardio, flexibility and strength tests conducted before the students began the program and again after several months’ exposure to it won’t be available until spring. But if the elementary students respond like the middle school students did, Larson is expecting noticeable improvements.

Student's at Denver's Lowry Elementary pose with $7,000 in new gym equipment purchased with a grant for the SPARK curriculum.
Students at Denver's Lowry Elementary pose with $7,000 in new gym equipment purchased with a grant for the SPARK curriculum.

When the SPARK curriculum was introduced to DPS middle schools six years ago, students averaged a 17 percent increase in their aerobic fitness, a 13 percent boost in upper-body strength and a 5 percent increase in flexibility.

Just as importantly, the time the students spent being physically active during PE class zoomed from 29 percent to 66 percent. And after the teachers were trained using the SPARK methods, the percentage who encouraged their students to be physically active outside of school went from three out of 11 to all 11 – 100 percent.

Will the increased physical activity time in PE class translate into leaner, fitter students over time?

“It’s tough to correlate that,” Larson acknowledges. “There are some national studies that have drawn correlations between fitness levels and academic performance, but no one has come up with a measure to show whether kids’ BMIs (body mass index) are lower because of increased moderate to physical activity. There are just so many factors that come into play.”

Cherry Creek, Douglas: Workplace wellness for staff

School districts across the nation are devising ways to not only slim down their students, but to slim down their faculty and staff too. The hope is that it will result in an environment in which fitness is “catching,” a schoolwide ethos of healthy diet and exercise and a healthier, cheaper-to-insure workforce.

Since 2004, most school districts have been required to develop wellness plans, though their commitment to implementing and evaluating them varies widely. But two Denver-area school districts – Douglas County and Cherry Creek – have been especially aggressive in creating workplace wellness programs for teachers and staff, to complement programs targeting children. It’s too soon to know whether this approach will ultimately prove effective, but James O. Hill finds such workplace wellness programs especially promising – if they last.

Last year, Douglas County teachers vied for prizes and financial incentives for participating in wellness programs. Those incentives have now been curtailed due to budget cutbacks.

Cherry Creek schools recently partnered with Kaiser-Permanente, which will provide funding to launch five worksite wellness pilot programs at five elementary schools. Schools were invited to apply to be a pilot site, and the winners haven’t yet been selected. But those who are chosen will each be given $10,000 to spend as the school sees fit to develop the wellness activities most appropriate for its teaching staff.

“It’s unprecedented for a school to receive money that goes to supporting staff in this way, especially when times are tight like they are now,” said Janise McNally, wellness coordinator for the district.

Schools will have freedom to do what they think best, but the district wants them to concentrate on one or more of the district’s goals: improving physical fitness and making healthy food choices; stress management and strengthening resiliency; and making environmental or structural changes to support physical activity.

“This is not just about bringing in a bunch of programs and classes, but about shifting our culture to be more supportive of fitness and wellness in general in our schools,” McNally said. “It will require the building’s leadership to be behind it full force.”

Throughout the district, staffers have been provided with pedometers and wellness officials are launching a “Flat 14er” challenge to get employees to begin walking more and tracking the steps they take every day, charting their progress online. The district’s second annual Family Wellness Summit is set for April.

“We know our adults are models for our kids,” McNally said. “We can’t expect our students to be well if our adults aren’t well. If our staff is stressed-out or not well, it’s more difficult for them to meet the needs of the students.

Points of view
“We know our adults are models for our kids. We can’t expect our students to be well if our adults aren’t well.”
Janise McNally, Cherry Creek

“We believe that modeling wellness for kids is huge. But budgets being what they are, we had to make decisions based on what was best for students in the classroom.”
Sean McGraw, Douglas County

While Cherry Creek is just ramping up its workplace wellness program, Douglas County started strong two years ago but is already reassessing its efforts. At one point, two-thirds of all district employees were participating in some form of district-sponsored fitness program, fueled by prizes for the faithful and promises of financial incentives if they kept it up.

But budget cuts forced the district to curtail most of the incentive programs and to drop its contract with Andrew Sykes, chairman of the Chicago-based Health at Work, a company that specializes in workplace wellness programs.

“From our point of view, it looks like abandonment,” complained Sykes. “Douglas County was far ahead of the other school districts, but not now. And we’re only interested in working with clients who are seriously interested in working on wellness.”

“It’s still a high priority,” insists Sean McGraw, executive director of the Douglas County Educational Foundation, a non-profit association developed 20 years ago to develop private resources to enrich education in the county. The DCEF has now taken over the district’s workplace wellness program.

“We believe that modeling wellness for kids is huge. But budgets being what they are, we had to make decisions based on what was best for students in the classroom. We had to abandon the pedometer program because we ran into an incentive issue,” McGraw said. “But I believe health and fitness can’t be driven by a financial reward. Our pedometer program will have to change, but it’s just one of the many options people will have. But the options will have to be free or at low-cost to the district.”

The DCEF has hired Carla Sassano, a teacher on special assignment, to oversee workplace wellness. Sassano says she is preparing to roll out a whole series of classes – things like Zumba, strength and conditioning, boot camp, yoga, Pilates, and a combination of Pilates and yoga called Pi-Yo – geared to teachers, staff and parents. They will be scheduled for every day of the week at various schools around the county. Cost will be $5 per person per class.

Sassano also plans a healthy recipe exchange, a districtwide 5K and other motivational events.

“It’s a proven trickle-down effect,” said Sassano. “But if you don’t have buy-in from your administrators and teachers, there’s not going to be passion in teaching about the necessity of physical activity and nutrition. This is the whole lead-by-example thing. If the kids leave school but see their teachers staying for an exercise class, that’s their role model. And there’s no doubt in my mind that the healthier the staff is, the healthier our kids will be.”

cracking the code

Newark schools partner with Girls Who Code to expand access to coding clubs

PHOTO: Kei-Sygh Thomas/Chalkbeat
Students at announcement of Girls Who Code partnership with Newark Public Schools at Rafael Hernandez School

Starting in the spring, more Newark middle schoolers will be learning how to code, owing to a new partnership between Newark Public Schools and Girls Who Code. Schools Superintendent Roger León announced the initiative at Rafael Hernandez Elementary School on Thursday. The partnership will establish Girls Who Code clubs in 24 of the district’s middle schools, providing an introduction to coding skills to more than 3,000 girls.

“If we are serious about equity and opportunity, especially when it comes to communities of color, we have to teach them how to code,” said Reshma Saujani, the CEO of Girls Who Code. “I think it’s an opportunity to reach the hardest-to-reach communities.”

The initiative complements a push to increase computer science education statewide. In January, New Jersey passed a law requiring every public high school, starting this fall, to offer a computer science class. And in October, Governor Murphy committed $2 million to increasing the number of public high schools making advanced computer science classes available to students. Priority consideration will be given to schools that receive Title I funds.

Girls Who Code already offers clubs in six Newark schools, according to its website: Newark Tech High School, East Side High School, Barringer High Schools, TEAM Academy, Hawkins Street School, and First Avenue. The new partnership will increase that number and target middle schools exclusively.

By age 15, girls have often lost interest in math, science or technological subjects, according to one report. The program wants girls “to act or think like a computer scientist,” said Chrissy Ziccarelli, the director of education at Girls Who Code.

It also hopes to inspire girls to enter technology-related fields. The U.S. Bureau of Labor projects that there will be approximately 4.6 million computing jobs nationwide by the year 2020 but not enough people with the skills to fill those jobs.

“A majority of our girls want to take another computer science class after they participate in a club,” Ziccarelli said. Alumni of the program are also more likely to major in computer science, she said.

The challenge for districts, however, isn’t just exposing students to computers, says Darrin Sharif, Executive Director of Newark Kids Code, another organization that provides extra-curricular enrichment programs for Newark students, but also showing them how to use them. The Thirteenth Avenue School has two computer labs, for example. Rather, schools struggle to find teachers who are trained in how to teach computer science.  

“It’s not a digital divide, it is a digital use divide,” Sharif said.

According to a report by, universities in New Jersey only graduated three new teachers prepared to teach computer science in 2016. Because of the shortage in computer-science instructors, Girls Who Code will use volunteer facilitators, who are not required to have a technical background (and often do not). Their training consists of two, 15-minute videos to introduce the structure of the program.

The facilitators are then encouraged to learn alongside their female students by completing tutorials with them. The clubs in the new Newark Public Schools partnership will also have access to one club specialist, who has a technical background, whom facilitators can reach out to online or by phone for support.

Newark Kids Code is approaching the teacher shortage by working to tap more homegrown talent. “There is a lot of tech activity that is happening downtown, but there’s no connection to our schools at all. It may be a while before [NPS] can fill that gap,” Darrin Sharif said.  

To compensate, Newark Kids Code recruits computer science students from New Jersey Institute of Technology. These NJIT student facilitators then use curriculum from to teach six-hour workshops to elementary school students every Saturday at the Urban League’s headquarters for ten weeks. Students learn to develop websites, animations, and games with HTML and Scratch.

Stephanie Burdel has been teaching coding at Hawkins Street Elementary School for almost two years and attends “training” at Newark Kids Code on Saturdays, where she assists students, some of whom attend Hawkins and can observe the NJIT student facilitators. Burdel uses the time to learn best practices for teaching coding to her own students.

“I get extra engagement with students and see what problems they come across in the Scratch program,” Burdel said. “I learn what to do when students have problems when they’re coding and speak with the facilitators if I have questions.”

Last week, Burdel’s kindergarten and first-grade students participated in an Hour of Code, a national event designed to encourage interest in coding. She was amazed by how engaged students were. Burdel believes that learning to code in school can help students build character and improve in other subjects.

“I especially love seeing the little ones sitting and talking through the problems together,” she said. “You don’t think they have the capability especially with shorter attention spans. But they sat engaged the whole time and they loved it.”

Ana Quezada is one of Burdel’s students. She is 10 years old and sees herself becoming a programmer so she can understand computers to make them better.

“When I’m not able to figure something out on my own after ten minutes, I look around to see who can help me,” Ana said. “I ask them to explain it so I know how everything works.”

Kei-Sygh Thomas is a Newark-based journalist, who grew up and went to schools in the city.

First Person

The SHSAT helps Manhattan families like mine. I finally stood up last week to say that’s wrong.

PHOTO: Christina Veiga/Chalkbeat
Parents in Manhattan's District 3 gathered in June to learn about the middle school admissions process.

Choosing schools in New York City can be a formidable challenge. That was evident at a Community Education Council meeting in District 2 last week, when I spoke in favor of a proposal to phase out the exam that governs admissions to the city’s sought-after, specialized high schools — and many other parents voiced opposition to the plan.

In 2011, when my husband and I began to think about where our daughter would go to kindergarten, we realized what a complex educational landscape we would have to navigate. In the years since, we have struggled, as former teachers ourselves, to reconcile our values and self-interests. And sometimes our choices have reflected the latter.

I’ve come to see these choices through a different, critical lens, and I think our family’s story — just one in a school system with more than one million schoolchildren — may shed light on how the system isn’t yet set up to make the right choices the easy ones, and why I’ve come to believe elevating these values is so important at this moment.

The first decision we confronted was where our daughter should go to elementary school. She was zoned to attend P.S. 51 in Hell’s Kitchen. Although State Sen. Brad Hoylman would later call P.S. 51 “one of the jewels in our city’s school system,” in 2011, by traditional measures, the school faced steep challenges. Almost 70 percent of P.S. 51’s students lived in poverty, and only 61 percent of the school’s third-graders passed the state’s standardized tests. This performance still exceeded the citywide average by a significant margin but remained far below the city’s top-ranked schools. In addition, the school itself was in the middle of a construction zone.

As plans were finalized to build a new housing development and school facility where P. S. 51 stood, it was relocated to the Upper East Side, where the school stayed for two years. And so, although school buses were provided, our neighborhood school was no longer in our neighborhood.

We had another possible option. Midtown West, also known as P.S. 212, an unzoned school that accepted children via a lottery system, was a block away from our home. Years earlier, Hell’s Kitchen parents had founded the magnet school based on the progressive pedagogy championed by Bank Street College as an alternative to the neighborhood’s existing public schools, P.S. 51 and P.S. 111.

The combined efforts of school administrators, teachers, and parents led to a strong program at Midtown West. Increasing numbers of middle-class students from Hell’s Kitchen and neighborhoods around the city began to apply to the school, which attracted more resources of all types. By the time we applied to Midtown West in 2011, 87 percent of third-graders passed state tests, and 22 percent of students lived in poverty. In addition, although P.S. 51 and Midtown West were only four blocks apart, P.S. 51 had 73 percent black and Latinx students, whereas Midtown West had 38 percent. The demographics, performance, and resources of the two schools (which parents often look up) were starkly different.

In addition, we had a third possibility. Our daughter tested into the citywide Gifted and Talented program. The closest gifted program was at P.S. 11 in Chelsea, and we attended an orientation. The majority of the parents there (ourselves among them — I am white and my husband is Indian-American) were white and Asian. The gathering was a reflection of the program’s overall demographics; in 2011, more than 70 percent of kindergartners in gifted programs were white and Asian.

This stood in contrast to the broader demographics of the city’s public schools, where 70 percent of children were black and Latinx. We were deeply uncomfortable with the racial disparities between the gifted and general education classrooms but were also daunted as parents by the logistical nightmare of getting one child to school in Chelsea and another to daycare in Hell’s Kitchen — and still getting to work on time.

So here were our choices: We could send our child to a school in transition that had relocated across Manhattan. We could send her to a sought-after school that served those lucky enough to make it through a lottery system. Or, we could send her to a gifted program that served a fraction of New York City’s children. Options one and three would place our child outside of our neighborhood and in deeply segregated environments. Midtown West was closer and less segregated than most gifted classrooms, but only marginally so.

Ultimately, we were among the few to make it through Midtown West’s lottery system and we chose to enroll our daughter there. But this choice, I now see, was a Faustian bargain between our self-interest and our values.

As former teachers who had benefited from quality educations ourselves and with remunerative careers, we could have enrolled our child at P.S. 51. We could have become active parents, making positive contributions to a school in need of advocates and racial and socioeconomic diversity. But as two working parents with young children, we already felt stretched too thin. We determined that we needed a school that would successfully educate our child — with or without our involvement. P.S. 51’s relocation across town cemented our decision. So we made our own needs a priority and abandoned our zoned school.

Geography and school performance had combined to shape our choice. Midtown West was a short walk from our apartment and offered a well-rounded program. But in the process, we became inured to a system that lifted our choice about what was best for our child over the needs of the majority of the city’s schoolchildren.

By not enrolling our child in P.S. 51, we divested our zoned school of whatever resources we could have provided. Our values were in conflict with our actions. And we participated in this system again as we made our way through the screened middle school process. Our daughter received an offer from the Salk School of Science, one of the most selective and least diverse middle schools in the city. We accepted the offer, and she is at Salk today.

Now, with our daughter two years away from high school, our city is immersed in a battle over the Specialized High School Admissions Test, or SHSAT, a conflict that often pits families’ interests against one another, and the needs of the city’s children as a whole.

A small but vocal group of largely white and Asian parents has mobilized to protect the SHSAT, a mechanism that has historically preserved seats in the city’s most selective high schools for their children. Today those schools are comparable to gifted programs in their racial disparity. The majority of specialized high schools’ students are white and Asian; only 10 percent are black and Latinx.

The energy of these parent advocates for their cause could measure on the Richter scale. I know because I felt the tremors when I spoke out at the District 2 CEC meeting in favor of the city’s initiative to make the system more fair by phasing out the test and offering seats to the top 7 percent of each of the city’s middle schools. Education department projections show this measure would increase black and Latinx enrollment at the city’s specialized high schools to 45 percent — still far below the average citywide but a step closer to representative.

If the SHSAT is eliminated, the odds of these parents’ children attending specialized high schools will be significantly reduced. The same will be true for our daughter. Last year, in a school system with almost 600 middle schools, students from just 10 middle schools received 25 percent of the overall admissions offers from the city’s specialized high schools. Salk was one of those 10 schools; 70 Salk students received such offers. If the city’s plan is adopted, Salk’s number of admitted students will likely plummet.

So why did I speak out in support of phasing out the SHSAT? When our daughter was entering elementary school and middle school, we chose what was most advantageous to our family. Why change course now? Some will say the answer is because the hard choices are behind us. Many great New York City high schools exist beyond just the specialized ones. But that’s not quite it.

In 2011, as our daughter was about to enter the New York City school system, this country stood poised to elect President Obama for a second term. A common perception — one that we naively shared — was that the critical mass of American politics and culture was moving in a progressive direction. And in such a climate, my husband and I reflected less on how our choices made in self-interest might undermine the momentum toward a greater public good.

The state of our country in the last two years has increasingly reshaped our thinking and helped us begin to grapple with and develop a new understanding of how our individual actions, however great or small, contribute to the weaving or unraveling of a more just society.

Our evolution is also related to changing family dynamics. During earlier decisions about our daughter’s education, my husband and I had to answer only to each other. We had long discussions during which we weighed our options against our values and could more easily accept and forgive rationalizations and expediency. Now we are making choices in the presence of a highly engaged third party: our perceptive young daughter, who has a keen sense of social justice honed in New York City’s public schools.

How do we look her in the eye and continue to seek privilege in an educational system that is structured to favor some children, including our own, and not others? She is old enough to understand that our choices define and reveal who we really are.

The fervor of the parents at the SHSAT meeting is surely driven by their desire to secure the best opportunities for their children. That’s something we have in common with all parents across New York City.

So what would happen if we united to demand that the New York City public schools genuinely serve the public good? What if we took to heart the words issued by the city’s Board of Education in 1954, in the wake of the landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision: “Public education in a racially homogeneous setting is socially unrealistic and blocks the attainment of the goals of democratic education, whether this segregation occurs by law or by fact.” What would happen if we insisted that the goals of a democratic education — equal educational opportunities for all children — be realized?

Committing to those values would mean scrapping more than the SHSAT. It would mean rethinking gifted programs and middle school screening, and all the ways we separate and isolate children, which have contributed to making New York City’s school system one of the most segregated in the country.

Committing to these values would mean integrating our schools, so all children can benefit from the enhanced ability to participate a multiethnic, democratic society. It would mean offering well-funded, high quality schools to all children in all New York City neighborhoods. Yes, it would also likely mean more discomfiting conversations, like the ones at the meeting where I spoke — conversations with each other and also with ourselves. And it would mean living in harmony with what we say we believe and what we actually do.

Alexis Audette is a parent of two children in District 2. Portrait photo credit: Mark Weinberg.