First Person

Survey: Colorado youngsters fitter, safer

Students at Kennedy High School in Denver.Colorado youngsters tend to be a bit healthier, a bit fitter and a bit safer than students nationwide, and they seem to have gotten better in some areas than they were four years earlier.

That’s according to results, released Tuesday, of a survey of more than 1,500 Colorado students from 36 high schools around the state.

But there’s no reason for exultation, since the prevalence of risky and unhealthy behaviors is still alarmingly high, and in some cases it’s getting higher, state health and education officials say.

“I think one of the positives that people should take away from the report is that in terms of physical activity, nutrition and obesity, Colorado youth are really doing better than the national average,” said Paula Gumina, a program coordinator for the Colorado Department of Education.

“But there are some things we really need to pay attention to,” she said. “Schools can use this data to really help make strategic decisions about programs and how they allocate resources based on what the youth are telling us they need.”

The Healthy Kids Colorado Survey was administered to ninth- to 12th-graders at randomly selected high schools in the fall of 2009. Parts of the same survey were distributed to more than 16,000 teens nationwide in 42 states and 20 large urban school districts. This national Youth Risk Behavior Survey allows officials to compare Colorado students to their peers nationwide.

Key findings among the survey results:

Alcohol, tobacco and substance abuse

  • Tobacco, alcohol and other substance use overall was down slightly in 2009. Just over 72 percent or teens reported having tried alcohol, down from 76 percent; 43 percent reported trying cigarettes, down from 49 percent.
  • Marijuana use remained stable, at just over 42 percent of teens reporting having tried it. Since the survey was taken in 2009, it does not reflect potential effects of the state’s growth in medical marijuana usage. “But we are ramping up now to conduct this survey in the fall of 2011, so that will give us more updated information on tobacco, alcohol and other substance abuse,” Gumina said.
  • Colorado students in 2009 were less likely to report driving after drinking than in 2005, down from 11 percent to 7 percent. Yet a quarter of them reported riding with a driver who was drinking within the past 30 days. However, that’s still less than the national averages: 10 percent who have driven while drinking and 28 percent who have recently ridden with a driver who was drinking.

Depression

  • Depression remains a problem for just over a quarter of Colorado teens, just as in 2005, and nearly 14 percent reported seriously considering suicide in both years. Eleven percent actually made a suicide plan and 7.6 percent did attempt suicide, up slightly from 2005.
  • More significant was the growth in the number of teens who sustained an injury that required medical attention while attempting suicide: 3 percent, up from 1 percent in 2005. Nationwide, the number of suicide-related injuries has declined, from 3 to 2 percent. In  other mental health-related areas, Colorado mirrored national trends.

Diet and exercise

  • Close to 90 percent of Colorado students say they got at least one hour’s worth of physical activity at least one day a week in 2009, up from 80 percent in 2005. And 47 percent said they got a good workout at least five days out of seven, up from 37 percent in 2005. The national average remains 37 percent.
  • But the number of Colorado students who report attending a PE class at least one day a week has fallen, from just over 50 percent in 2005 to 45 percent in 2009. That’s far below the national average of 56 percent.
  • Only 20 percent of Colorado students were classified as overweight or obese in 2009, roughly the same number as in 2005, but significantly less than the nearly 28 percent of teens nationwide in those categories. However, far fewer reported exercising or eating less to lose weight than in 2005, and nationwide teens are far likelier to change their diets to lose weight than they are in Colorado.
  • Not surprisingly, while boys were slightly more likely to have a weight problem than girls, girls were far more likely to describe themselves as overweight, and vastly more likely to exercise or eat less to lose weight. This is true nationally as well.
  • From a nutrition standpoint, salad consumption is down slightly – 71.5 percent in 2005 ate at least one salad a week, compared to 67 percent in 2009 – but the percentage who report eating at least five fruits or vegetables every day is up, from 19 to 24 percent. Colorado teens do exceed the national averages in their consumption of fruits and veggies, while their milk and soda consumption is comparable.

Differences by ethnicity

  • A number of ethnic differences emerged in regards to risky behaviors among the teens. In Colorado, as well as the rest of the nation, Hispanic students were more likely to report being involved in a physical fight in the past year, and more likely to report being threatened with a weapon and missing school because they felt unsafe.
  • Unlike the rest of the country, Colorado Hispanic students were no more likely to experience relationship violence or forced sexual intercourse than were other students.
  • Bullying in Colorado also appears to be spread more evenly, with no significant differences between Hispanic and non-Hispanic youths reporting it, whereas nationwide, white non-Hispanic youth are more likely to be bullied.
  • Cigarette use is markedly higher among Hispanic students than non-Hispanic whites in Colorado, 55 percent to 39 percent, though that drops to 21 percent and 17 percent respectively when asked about smoking in the past 30 days, the survey shows. Nationally, those differences are even more pronounced.

Sexual activity

  • Sexual behavior remained pretty consistent between 2005 and 2009. Forty percent of high school students reported having had sex at least once in their lives, with close to 30 percent having a current sexual partner. That’s similar to national trends.

Violence and relationship abuse

  • Violence continues to plague a significant number of Colorado’s young people. Nearly a third of students reported engaging in a physical fight in the 12 months before taking the survey – roughly the same percentage as in 2005. And nearly a fifth, or 19 percent, reported having been bullied at school in the previous year. The bullying question was new so there is no point of comparison.
  • One behavior that appears to be up significantly is relationship violence. Just over 9 percent of youths reported having been hit by a boyfriend or girlfriend in the previous year, up from 6 percent in 2005, and 7.7 percent report having been forced to have sex, up from 5.1 percent. These results parallel findings nationwide.

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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.

First Person

I’m a Houston geography teacher. This is my plan for our first day back — as soon as it arrives

PHOTO: Creative Commons / Texas Military Department
Texas National Guard soldiers arrive in Houston, Texas to aid citizens in heavily flooded areas from the storms of Hurricane Harvey.

Hurricane Harvey has upended so many things here in Houston, where I am starting my third year as a teacher. One of them is the lesson I am planning for the first day of school — as soon as it arrives.

This upheaval is nothing compared to what people across the city have faced, including my students, who have been sending me photos of evacuation boats going past their houses.

But it is fundamental to the task of being a teacher at a time of crisis. As an A.P. Human Geography teacher, my job is to help students make connections between the geography concepts we are learning in class and their real lives: Does Houston look like the models of urban development we study? Does their family history include a migration?

Before the storm, my thinking went like this: I am white and was born in England and most of my students are Hispanic, many with parents who were born in other countries. I was excited for us to share and compare our different stories. My students last year were shocked and fascinated when they discovered that my white, middle-aged father who is a university professor was applying for a green card, just as many of their family members were.

Now, Hurricane Harvey has underlined for me the importance of those real-world connections. As I looked at the photos from my students, I was struck by how geography concepts can affect us in very real — even life-threatening — ways.

I had planned to teach a lesson at the end of the year about how urbanization affects the environment. The lesson looks at how urbanization can exacerbate flooding: for example, how paving over grassy areas can increase the speed with which rain reaches the bayous, causing the water levels to rise faster. I would then have students evaluate different policies cities can adopt to mitigate that risk, such as encouraging the building on brownfield rather than greenfield sites and passing laws to protect farmland — options that have significant benefits but also significant costs.

I have decided to move this lesson up in the curriculum and teach it when we have school again. School is scheduled to start again on Tuesday, though at this stage everything is provisional, as each hour we find out about more families that have had their homes destroyed by the rising waters. It is still unclear how all our staff, let alone students, will get to school.

I am worried that the lesson could re-traumatize students who have experienced so much trauma in the past few days. I know I will need to make an active effort to make students feel comfortable stepping into the hall if they are feeling overwhelmed. However, my experiences with the recent presidential election make me think that this lesson is exactly what some students might need.

After the election, many students were genuinely confused about what had happened. One question in particular was on their minds: How you can you win the popular vote but not the election? We talked through the Electoral College together, and having clarity about what had happened and why it happened seemed to give them a firmer foundation to build on as they processed their emotions. I am hopeful that teaching about flooding will help ground them in a similar way.

This lesson about flooding was once simply another lesson in the curriculum, but now it has taken on a new urgency. In moments of disaster, it is easy to feel powerless; I certainly could not help the people I saw posting on Facebook that they were been on hold with 911 for hours while standing on their roofs.

Yet teachers have a unique power — the power to shape the minds of future generations to solve the problems that we face. Houston’s location means that it will always be susceptible to flooding. But by teaching about the flood I hope I can play a small role in helping our city avoid repeating some of the tragic scenes I witnessed this week.

Alex McNaughton teaches history and geography at YES Prep Southeast in Houston.

Looking to help? YES Prep is collecting donations to support its students and their families. Houston ISD and KIPP Houston are also soliciting donations for their students.