The Other 60 Percent

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.

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“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.

How I Help

Why this high school counselor asks students, ‘What do you wish your parents knew?’

Today, we launch a new series called “How I Help,” which features school counselors, social workers and psychologists across Colorado. It is a companion to our popular “How I Teach” and “How I Lead” series.

Through “How I Help,” we hope to give readers a glimpse into the professional lives of school staff members who often work behind the scenes but nevertheless have a big impact on the day-to-day lives of students.

Our first “How I Help” features Cassie Poncelow, a counselor at Poudre High School in Fort Collins. She was the 2016 Colorado School Counselor of the Year and is one of six finalists for the 2018 National School Counselor of the Year award.

Poncelow talked to Chalkbeat about how she creates a legacy of caring, what teens want their parents to know and why peer-to-peer mentoring is better than a social-emotional curriculum taught by adults.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.

Why did you become a school counselor?
I was incredibly fortunate to have many powerful educators shape my life in my time as a student, but none did more so than my school counselors. My counselor from high school remains a dear friend and mentor. I knew that I wanted to be a part of what is happening in education and loved the diversity of the school counselor job. They get to collaborate with so many different stakeholders, get to know students in really cool ways and be involved with so many aspects of making change.

Cassie Poncelow

Tell us about an effort or initiative you spearheaded at your school that you’re particularly proud of.
Three years ago, we noticed that students were dropping out continuously because they were short on graduation credits and tired of taking the same classes over and over again. I worked with a team to create Opportunities Unlimited, which is a dropout recovery program for students ages 17-21 that is focused on GED completion and concurrent enrollment opportunities. A fifth cohort started this fall and the program has graduated 26 students in two years.

Is there a tool, curriculum or program you couldn’t live without in your job?
Our Ambassadors program is in many ways the backbone of our climate and culture at Poudre High School. This program trains 50 upperclassmen to mentor freshmen through a year-long curriculum that includes topics like stress management, suicide prevention and sexual assault. This mentoring model means that every freshman has an ambassador that is connecting with them for almost three hours each month. The ambassadors deliver comprehensive, peer-to-peer education that is far beyond and better than any social-emotional learning curriculum that counselors could facilitate. As the co-leader for this program, I also couldn’t live without the hope that this crew gives me. They are the best part of my job.

What’s the biggest misconception you’ve encountered about your role in the school(s) where you work?
I am grateful to work in a place and with people who see the vital role of school counselors and are eager to partner with them. In my time at Poudre High School we have added two new school counseling positions, further demonstrating our school’s belief in the work we do. I have worked at schools in the past that created a lot of systemic barriers to accessing school counselors and I think this was based on a misconception that we were a more frivolous part of services for students.

You spend lots of time with students. Knowing what you know, what advice would you give to parents?
I often ask my students, “What do you wish your parents knew?” What I hear consistently is a plea for them to remember what it was like to be 16: How painful and awkward it was, how boys were all the rage and not getting invited somewhere really was the actual worst.

So, I advise parents to remember that. And remember that a lot of what they dealt with at 16 is even more complicated by the world our kids are experiencing. Social media wasn’t a reality when they were kids and our current students have never known a world where mass shootings haven’t happened often. I know it’s no, “I walked uphill both ways without shoes in the snow,” but this is a scary time to be student — different, but equally hard. Our kids need us to hear them in that. And believe that they can change it.

Tell us about a time when you managed to connect with a challenging student or a student facing a difficult situation. How did you do it?
At my core, I think we all thrive on authentic relationships and I do whatever I can to create these with my students. I want each of my students to feel like I am truly in their corner and a champion not only of what they do but more so of who they are. I hope to not only live this, but to model it for my students in ways that inspire them to do the same.

This semester I have a freshman boy who was consistently skipping class (who knew gas station tacos were such a draw?) and failing multiple classes. His “consequence” is that he has to spend a period working on missing work in my office. I also have a slew of seniors who have made my office their home during this fifth hour, many who are excellent students and are just looking for a place to study. They have taken this freshman under their wing and are committed to his success far beyond what I could ever be. They are constantly asking about his upcoming exams, what he needs help with and celebrating his rising grades with him. I think I have built really authentic relationships with these upperclassmen who then remember what it means to feel connected and cared for and are passionate about showing this student just that. I often stress “legacy” to my students and this seems like a clear picture of that.

What is the hardest part of your job?
Kid stuff is hard. I hurt for kids a lot, as I think all educators do. They live lives far beyond our walls and far beyond what we could imagine and ever control. That’s the hardest. Close second would be trying to operate in a system that seems to be driven by folks who aren’t doing the work. I recognize that there are so many moving pieces and would love to have some of the actual “decision-makers” come spend the day in our role and better understand the work we do.

Tell us about a memorable time — good or bad — when contact with a student’s family changed your perspective or approach.
A year ago, I had a student who was really struggling with some significant mental health issues. I knew that we needed to bring in a parent but the girl was very anxious about this idea, to the point where she had literally crumpled up on my office floor. After calling her mom to meet with us, I joined her on the floor of my office to talk more. Her mom walked in shortly after, assessed the scene and sat right down on the floor with us, despite the chair-filled room. This move shifted everything and I was so grateful for her wisdom to be where her kid was at. It was a good reminder to me to do that always: be where kids are at.

You spend your days trying to help students and staff with any number of things. How do you wind down after a stressful day?
A lot of my unwinding still includes my students as I announce volleyball games or attend other sporting events or performances. I love these opportunities because they let me see my kids in a different light and remind me how awesome they are. I also spend as much time outside as possible, whether it’s going for a quick hike with my pup or a bike ride. Beyond traveling and reading, I cheer hard for the CSU Rams! Go State!

Big money

Millions in grant dollars will bring more counselors to Indiana’s underserved students

KIPP Indy was one of several schools in the county to receive a counseling grant.

Scores of Indiana schools were awarded private grants that will allow them to bolster counseling services for students, many of whom are lacking help for an increasing portfolio of problems, including fallout from the state’s drug epidemic and basic needs like advice on college applications.

The $26.4 million in grants, decided last month, include six for Marion County districts and charter schools. They were awarded by Lilly Endowment, a prominent Indianapolis-based philanthropy founded by key players in the pharmaceutical giant Eli Lilly.

The grants went to 52 school districts and five charter schools, covering about a third of the state’s counties. Based on enrollment, they ranged from about $68,000 to almost $3 million.

Lilly began its push to help schools build better counseling programs last year.

“The response from school corporations and charter schools far exceeded the Endowment’s expectations,” said Sara B. Cobb, the Endowment’s vice president for education. “We believe that this response demonstrates a growing awareness that enhanced and expanded counseling programs are urgently needed to address the academic, college, career, and social and emotional counseling needs of Indiana’s K-12 students.”

As Chalkbeat previously reported, school counselors have been stretched exceedingly thin in recent years, both in Indiana and across the country. On average, each Hoosier counselor is responsible for 630 students, making Indiana 45th out of 50 states and the District of Columbia for counselor-to-student ratios. The American School Counselor Association recommends a ratio of no higher than one counselor for every 250 students.

So far, state-led efforts to expand counseling have fallen short; a bill proposed in 2015 to require a counselor in every school was withdrawn for further study, and the issue hasn’t resurfaced significantly in the legislature since. At the time, cost was the sticking point.

Schools and districts had to apply for the grants and show how they would use the money. Lilly reported that mental health and business partnerships, mentoring programs, improving curriculum and adding in more training for staff were all strategies that grant-winners have proposed.

Initially, 254 districts and charter schools applied, many pointing out how Indiana’s recent opioid crisis has increased social and emotional challenges for students. Counselors have to juggle those serious needs with college and career advising and, increasingly, responsibilities that have nothing to do with counseling, such as overseeing standardized tests.

Because of the level of interest, Lilly is planning a second round of grants, which would total up to $10 million.

“Because the implementation grant process was so competitive, the Endowment had to decline several proposals that had many promising features,” Cobb said. “We believe that with a few enhancements, many of these proposals will be very competitive in the second round of the Counseling Initiative.”

These are the districts and schools in Marion County that received counseling grants. (Find the full list here.)

  • Indianapolis Public Schools: $2,871,400
  • KIPP Indianapolis: $100,000
  • Lawrence Township: $1,527,400
  • Pike Township: $1,114,700
  • Neighborhood Charter Network: $68,312
  • Southeast Neighborhood School of Excellence: $99,870

IPS said in a news release that it planned to use the grant money to build counseling centers in each of the district’s high schools, which would begin operating in 2018 after IPS transitions to four high schools. Superintendent Lewis Ferebee said counselors are “critical” for students as they prepare to graduate high school and pursue higher education and careers.

“We’re thrilled that the students and families we serve will benefit from this gift,” Ferebee said.