First Person

Wellness focus pays off for Loveland school

When declining enrollment five years ago forced the staff at Loveland’s B.F. Kitchen Elementary School to think about ways they might attract more students, none of the usual magnet strategies seemed to fit.

Kids at B.F. Kitchen Elementary in Loveland get 30 minutes of physical education five days a week.
Students at B.F. Kitchen Elementary School in Loveland get 30 minutes of physical education five days a week.

International Baccalaureate, also known as IB? Core knowledge? Science and technology?

“We thought, ‘Does every single child like science?’” said principal Kandi Smith. “Does every child get excited about technology?  No.”

Then the P.E. teacher mentioned that she’d heard about a school somewhere in the Midwest that was a wellness-focused school.

That notion intrigued the staff. They began brainstorming about what they might do to promote fitness and wellness at Kitchen, and exploring how such an emphasis might impact their students.

“Once we really saw how this would touch every child in the school, not just those good at math or science, we haven’t looked back,” Smith said.

Entire school day emphasizes fitness, nutrition

Over the next four years, the school went all out to emphasize fitness, wellness and good nutrition in every class.

Healthier US School Challenge logoIt got rid of candy and sodas, and added lots of fresh fruit and vegetables to the lunchline. It made P.E. a daily requirement. It moved recess to before lunch. It started offering exercise classes such as Zumba and yoga after school.

And it partnered with community organizations to expand fitness opportunities available to its students – 65 percent of whom qualify for free or reduced-price lunches.

Now, all fourth-graders taking swimming lessons. Fifth-graders teach the younger students about healthy choices at a yearly health fair. Poudre Valley Health System brought the students into its Healthy Kids Club and supplies them with gym bags stuffed with workout equipment.

Also, the school is working with Colorado State University to create a guided reading group for kids, so students can work on reading skills while reading books on nutrition.

This month, Kitchen won the top award in the national Healthier US School Challenge, a U.S. Department of Agriculture initiative that’s part of First Lady Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move! Campaign.”

“They’re ahead of the game,” said Jane Branch, school nutrition director for the Colorado Department of Education. “This is certainly the direction that a lot of schools are heading, but Kitchen was in a position to reach the top. They’ve certainly proven what’s possible. Kitchen has set the bar very high.”

And you should see the kids’ fitness scores.

“They’ve skyrocketed,” said P.E. teacher Kristin Quere, the same teacher who suggested the notion of a wellness school five years ago. “When you compare fitness scores across the district, there has been substantial improvement.”

Teachers, parents see changes in youngsters

Third-grade teacher Christina Steele said she doesn’t mind all the emphasis put on physical activity, even if it sometimes comes at the expense of time for core academic subjects.

“There’s always something that has to give,” said Steele. “How I look at it, it’s proven that kids learn better with movement. You can try to cram everything in, or you can give them an activity break, which takes away from instruction time, but they’ll get more out of the remaining instruction. So I see it as a win/win.”

Steele tries to incorporate movement into her classroom lessons whenever she can, and her students know they are free to get up and move whenever they feel the need, as long as they’re not disruptive.

“Anytime I can get them up and moving, I notice a change in how they interact,” she said. “They’re more motivated, more energized. They want to participate more.”

Karen Lehigh has two daughters at Kitchen, a first-grader and a fourth-grader. She’s been taken aback by some of the conversations she’s had with her daughters around food lately.

“Last year, my older daughter, Lauren, wanted me to buy jicama at the grocery store. I wouldn’t even have known how to serve it,” she admitted. “But she came home and said ‘Just cut it up and dip it in ranch dressing.’ It was amazing. At one point in her life, she wouldn’t eat broccoli or cauliflower. Now she eats it at school and says she likes it.”

Lehigh is hoping the lessons her girls learn now will stay with them as they move into their teenage years.

“I want to have them able to look at food and think of their bodies as needing fuel to be able to exercise,” she said. “I want them not to look at their bodies and think ‘Oh, I’m fat,’ but to look at themselves and think ‘I’m healthy.’ I hope they’ll have this mentality when they’re 16, so they’ll know that if you eat healthy and your body is healthy, and you take care of it, it will look how it’s supposed to.”

Fifth-grader Tyler Ryan remembers back to the old days – back when he was a first-grader – and he knows things have changed a lot.

“Before, we didn’t do a lot of active stuff,” he said. “But I’ve been doing yoga after school now, and I like it.”

Juggling schedules posed greatest challenge

Getting to this point hasn’t been easy, Smith said. Moving recess to the morning, for instance, took enormous effort.

“It takes a lot of coordination to get all those kids lined up, get their hands washed, get them outside,” she said. “We could have abandoned the whole thing that first year because it was such a paradigm shift for us. But you just make it work.”

Squeezing in 30 minutes of P.E. every day for every student has also required some creative scheduling – especially on Wednesdays, when students are let out an hour early so the staff can have professional development time.

The answer was to double up P.E. classes on Wednesdays: two classes at a time instead of one, with a classroom teacher serving as Quere’s assistant.

“The team teaching has been wonderful,” Quere said. “Pairing a classroom teacher with a P.E. teacher is extremely powerful. We teach the kids multiplication tables while they’re moving. There are endless math and activities we can do.”

Today, Kitchen no longer has to worry about attracting students. Its enrollment has shot up from under 200 five years ago to 261, which is 11 students above capacity.

Smith doesn’t really think it’s the emphasis on wellness that has brought the growth. IB and arts programs are the kinds of things parents will drive their children across town to have access to, she said. Not wellness programs.

No, she’s pretty sure it’s the bad economy that has packed her school.

“We’re in a lower-income neighborhood, and people are moving into the area because this is where they can afford to live now,” she said. “But what I do find is that once they come into Kitchen, they don’t want to leave.”

Fitness Results 2009-2010

See just how B.F. Kitchen students’ fitness scores compare with other elementary schools in the Thompson district.

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.