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’ve been mistaken for the other black male leader at my charter network. Let’s talk about it.

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

I was recently invited to a reunion for folks who had worked at the New York City Department of Education under Mayor Michael Bloomberg. It was a privilege for me to have been part of that work, and it was a privilege for me to be in that room reflecting on our legacy.

The counterweight is that only four people in the room were black males. Two were waiters, and I was one of the remaining two. There were definitely more than two black men who were part of the work that took place in New York City during that era, but it was still striking how few were present.

The event pushed me to reflect again on the jarring impact of the power dynamics that determine who gets to make decisions in so-called education reform. The privileged end up being relatively few, and even fewer look like the kids we serve.

I’m now the chief operating officer at YES Prep, a charter school network in Houston. When I arrived at YES four years ago, I had been warned that it was a good old boys club. Specifically, that it was a good old white boys club. It was something I assessed in taking the role: Would my voice be heard? Would I truly have a seat at the table? Would I have any influence?

As a man born into this world with a black father and white mother, I struggled at an early age with questions about identity and have been asking those questions ever since.

As I became an adult, I came to understand that being from the suburbs, going to good schools, and being a lighter-skinned black person affords me greater access to many settings in America. At the same time, I experience my life as a black man.

Jeremy Beard, head of schools at YES, started the same day I did. It was the first time YES had black men at the leadership table of the organization. The running joke was that people kept mistaking Jeremy and me for each other. We all laughed about it, but it revealed some deeper issues that had pervaded YES for some time.

“Remember when you led that tour in the Rio Grande Valley to see schools?” a board member asked me about three months into my tenure.“That wasn’t me,” I replied. I knew he meant Jeremy, who had worked at IDEA in the Valley. At that time, I had never been to the Valley and didn’t even know where it was on the map.

“Yes, it was,” he insisted.

“I’ve never been to the Valley. It wasn’t me. I think you mean Jeremy.”

“No, it was you, don’t you remember?” he continued, pleading with me to recall something that never happened.

“It wasn’t me.”

He stopped, thought about it, confused, and uttered, “Huh.”

It is difficult for me to assign intent here, and this dynamic is not consistent with all board members. That particular person may have truly been confused about my identity. And sure, two black men may have a similar skin tone, and we may both work at YES. But my life experience suggests something else was at play. It reminds me that while I have the privilege of sitting at the table with our board, they, as board members, have the privilege of not having to know who I am, or that Jeremy and I are different black dudes.

It would be easy to just chalk this all up to racial politics in America and accept it as status quo, but I believe we can change the conversation on privilege and race by having more conversations on privilege and race. We can change the dynamics of the game by continuing to build awareness of diversity, equity, and inclusion. We can also advocate to change who has seats at the table and whose voices will be heard.

I remain hopeful thanks to the changes I have witnessed during my time at YES. The board has been intentional in their efforts to address their own privilege, and is actively working to become more diverse and inclusive.

Personally, I have worked to ensure there are more people of color with seats at the table by mentoring future leaders of color at YES Prep and other black men in this work. Jeremy and I also created Brothers on Books, a book club for black men at YES to find mentorship and fellowship. Through this book club, we can create a safe space to have candid discussions based on literature we read and explore what it means to be black men at YES.

When I think about privilege, I am torn between the privilege that has been afforded to me and the jarring power dynamics that determine who gets to have conversations and make decisions in so-called education reform. White people are afforded more voices and seats at the table, making decisions that primarily impact children of color.

It is not lost on me that it is my own privilege that affords me access to a seat at the table. My hope is that by using my role, my voice and my privilege, I can open up dialogue, hearts, minds, opinions, and perceptions. I hope that readers are similarly encouraged to assess their own privileges and determine how they can create positive change.

Recy Benjamin Dunn is YES Prep’s chief operating officer, overseeing operations, district partnerships, and growth strategy for the charter school network. A version of this piece was first published on YES Prep’s blog.

First Person

I’m a Bronx teacher, and I see up close what we all lose when undocumented students live with uncertainty

The author at her school.

It was our high school’s first graduation ceremony. Students were laughing as they lined up in front of the auditorium, their families cheering them on as they entered. We were there to celebrate their accomplishments and their futures.

Next to each student’s name on the back of those 2013 graduation programs was the college the student planned to attend in the fall. Two names, however, had noticeable blanks next to them.

But I was especially proud of these two students, whom I’ll call Sofia and Isabella. These young women started high school as English learners and were diagnosed with learning disabilities. Despite these obstacles, I have never seen two students work so hard.

By the time they graduated, they had two of the highest grade point averages in their class. It would have made sense for them to be college-bound. But neither would go to college. Because of their undocumented status, they did not qualify for financial aid, and, without aid, they could not afford it.

During this year’s State of the Union, I listened to President Trump’s nativist rhetoric and I thought of my students and the thousands of others in New York City who are undocumented. President Trump falsely portrayed them as gang members and killers. The truth is, they came to this country before they even understood politics and borders. They grew up in the U.S. They worked hard in school. In this case, they graduated with honors. They want to be doctors and teachers. Why won’t we let them?

Instead, as Trump works to repeal President Obama’s broader efforts to enfranchise these young people, their futures are plagued by uncertainty and fear. A Supreme Court move just last week means that young people enrolled in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program remain protected but in limbo.

While Trump and the Congress continue to struggle to find compromise on immigration, we have a unique opportunity here in New York State to help Dreamers. Recently, the Governor Cuomo proposed and the state Assembly passed New York’s DREAM Act, which would allow Sofia, Isabella, and their undocumented peers to access financial aid and pursue higher education on equal footing with their documented peers. Republicans in the New York State Senate, however, have refused to take up this bill, arguing that New York state has to prioritize the needs of American-born middle-class families.

This argument baffles me. In high school, Sofia worked hard to excel in math and science in order to become a radiologist. Isabella was so passionate about becoming a special education teacher that she spent her free periods volunteering with students with severe disabilities at the school co-located in our building.

These young people are Americans. True, they may not have been born here, but they have grown up here and seek to build their futures here. They are integral members of our communities.

By not passing the DREAM Act, it feels like lawmakers have decided that some of the young people that graduate from my school do not deserve the opportunity to achieve their dreams. I applaud the governor’s leadership, in partnership with the New York Assembly, to support Dreamers like Sofia and Isabella and I urge Senate Republicans to reconsider their opposition to the bill.

Today, Sofia and Isabella have been forced to find low-wage jobs, and our community and our state are the poorer for it.

Ilona Nanay is a 10th grade global history teacher and wellness coordinator at Mott Hall V in the Bronx. She is also a member of Educators for Excellence – New York.