The Other 60 Percent

Radon levels untested in some schools

As many as half the schools in Colorado may be out of compliance with a 1991 state law that required them to test radon levels in their buildings and keep documentation of those tests on file.

Radon Gas SignA survey of each of the state’s 2,274 K-12 schools – sent out by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment in 2009 and still not completed by all of them – found that most schools likely did the testing, and that most of those who found elevated levels of the cancer-causing gas did take steps to fix the problem.

But many did not. More than 300 acknowledge they never completed the testing. And many others lack the documentation to prove they did – nor can they show whether any remediation steps they took were adequate at the time and remain adequate today.

Key points
  • More than 300 Colorado schools acknowledge they never tested for radon, as required by a 1991 state law.
  • Many other schools lack the documentation to prove they completed the testing, also required by law.
  • No law requires retesting or reporting to the state on mitigation so state health officials don’t know how worried they should be.
  • The state’s Radiation Advisory Committee is mulling whether to ask lawmakers to put some teeth into the law.

Since there’s no law that requires schools to ever retest for radon levels, no law that requires them to do anything if they find radon problems and no law that requires them to report their findings or their mitigation efforts to the state, state health officials still don’t know whether they should be worried about this or not.

The state’s Radiation Advisory Committee, which received the preliminary survey results in mid-February, now must decide if the problem is potentially grave enough to warrant asking the legislature to put some teeth into the 20-year-old law.

In the meantime, no one is really monitoring what schools are doing in regards to radon, and the state lacks the resources to adequately analyze the data it does have. The report presented to the RAC was the work of a graduate student working on his master’s thesis.

“I am the radon program, and I have very limited time,” said Chrys Kelley, radon coordinator for the CDPHE’s Hazardous Materials Waste Management Division.

“It’s a project that’s bigger than me. I’ve got a million things to do, and this survey has been eating up 20 percent of my time for two years now. Who will look at it, and should there be regulatory changes? Those are questions beyond my authority. Technically, this is a school inspection issue, not a hazardous materials issue. I don’t have any authority over schools.”

Radon problem especially acute in Colorado

Radon is a colorless, odorless, tasteless, naturally-occurring radioactive gas. It is the second-leading cause of lung cancer in the United States. While it is found in all 50 states, it is especially problematic in Colorado, where 53 of 64 counties report high levels of the gas.

It’s not an immediate threat to life, the way carbon monoxide is, but long-term exposure is blamed for 21,000 lung cancer deaths each year, including 500 in Colorado. State health officials estimate that fully half of the homes in Colorado have radon levels in excess of the level the Environmental Protection Agency considers unsafe.

Radon map of Colorado
Fifty-three of Colorado's 64 counties - designated on the map in red - are radon hot spots, with likely potential for as least some rooms in buildings to have elevated radon levels.

In response to studies done in the 1980s, Colorado became one of just eight states in the nation to require radon testing in schools. The law, passed in 1990, gave schools until March 1991 to test radon levels. The law also requires newly-built schools to complete radon testing within 19 months of opening, and to alert the state after any major remodeling to determine if more tests needed to be done. The results of the tests are to be kept on file at each school and available for review.

Nearly 20 years later, the Radiation Advisory Committee – a group appointed by the governor to assess radiation-related issues in Colorado – asked Kelley to survey the schools to verify they were still in compliance with the law.

By September 2010, 1,855 of the schools – 81.6 percent – had responded, and their answers became the basis for the report delivered to the RAC. Since then, another 20 schools have responded, Kelley said. The survey was voluntary.

Most of the respondents – 1,533 – had tested as required. But 306 had not, and 16 didn’t answer the question. Most of the 306 laggards indicated that they would be doing the testing at some point. Kelley hopes that these schools will supply her with the test results once they’re completed, but they’re under no obligation to do so.

Thirty percent of schools found problems

Among schools who have done the radon tests, 30 percent – 468 schools – reported finding at least one room in the school with elevated radon levels. Those rooms had readings surpassing the level at which the EPA suggests retesting over a ninth-month period. If the long-term test continues to show high levels, the EPA says, remediation is needed. But Colorado law does not require retesting or remediation.

image of student radon poster
Olivia Brett, a Fort Collins middle school students, won top honors in the state health department

Of those 468 schools, only 194 – 41 percent – reported taking any remediation steps in the rooms that had elevated radon levels. It’s unclear why the others did not. It’s possible that they retested the problematic rooms, and if the long-term results did not signify a continuing issue, felt no remediation was necessary.

Unfortunately, the state doesn’t know just what happened in those other 222 schools. Nor does it know what happened in the 241 schools that say they tested but don’t have the results on file. Nor in the 111 schools who didn’t answer the question about whether their test results were on file. Nor in the 306 schools who didn’t complete the survey at all.

“To me, that is something we cannot ignore,” said Jim Burkhart, chairman of the Department of Physics and Energy Science at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs and a member of the RAC.

“My contention has been all along that the problem isn’t that schools are bad, but that the original legislation simply called for a snapshot: Let’s see what’s going on and see if we have a great enough problem to address. But now I think it’s time that the Colorado legislation be changed to have those other two components, follow-up testing and mitigation.”

Kelley says she knows that many schools are retesting, some because they can’t find the 20-year-old paperwork and others because they’re just not comfortable with 20-year-old data.

“I don’t know what every school is thinking,” she said. “I’ve never talked to individual schools unless they’ve called and asked me for assistance. I would really like to see all the schools given the opportunity to explain why they said what they said. A lot of schools are re-evaluating old tests now.”

She wishes she had the time to delve more deeply into the survey data to determine if the schools who never did the tests or didn’t follow through with remediation are in poorer school districts or in areas where radon is not as big a problem. She also wishes she knew why some schools only report testing one room, which doesn’t make for a valid sample, since radon can be highly concentrated in one part of a building and completely absent in another part.

Denver: Disturbing findings in the past

A year ago, Channel 7 reporter Tony Kovaleski obtained some preliminary results of the RAC survey and reported some disturbing findings, particularly in Denver. At that time, Denver Public Schools had failed to test more than a dozen new schools built after 1991, had failed to remediate high radon levels found in 76 older schools, and was able to find mitigation records for only one district building, a caretaker’s house at Balarat Outdoor Education Center.

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Since then, DPS has either re-tested each of the district’s 160 buildings or is in the process of doing so, said Joni Rix, the district’s environmental project manager.

“We did the ones that hadn’t been tested at all first,” she said. “We’re in the midst of doing long-term testing in 27 schools who had initial results over (EPA recommended levels) to find out where they are. And we have eight schools that I will put some remediation in this summer. So it’s a moving target. I’d say overall, maybe 10 to 15 percent of the rooms tested – and that’s in the thousands – will need some kind of remediation.”

The cost of testing in DPS has run over $100,000, Rix said. The cost to remediate a room averages $1,500 to $2,500. The district has applied for a BEST grant to help with mitigation efforts at some schools. But even if DPS fails to get the state assistance, the mitigation will proceed: “If we had to do tons of rooms, that would be a problem,” she said. She expects the total process to take two to three more years to complete.

Remediation needn’t be costly or complicated, experts say. It can be as simple as sealing cracks in the foundation or expansion joints or making adjustments to ventilation systems to bring more fresh air into a room. Newer building codes that require better ventilation have dramatically lowered the incidence of elevated radon levels. So have upgrades to aging systems. When old systems have been replaced, radon levels went down, even in older buildings.

Colorado Springs: Fixes still working, 20 years later

And even 20-year-old fixes may still be doing the job they were designed to do. That’s what Dan Moors, environmental specialist for Colorado Springs District 11 schools, found. When Moors was hired in 2005, he was told one of his jobs would be overseeing the district’s radon program.

“At the time, I didn’t know a lot about radon so I wrote it down on my ‘things to do’ list,” Moors said. Twenty years ago, the district found five schools with elevated radon levels, which required seven different mitigation projects. Moors went to those schools and looked at the systems put in place in 1991. At one site, he found a sticker with the installer’s name and phone number on it. He called.

Radon fan controller
During his monthly inspections, D-11 environmental specialist Dan Moors powers down radon fans for about a minute, then turns them back on. If something is wrong with the system, the needle will indicate trouble.

The installer was Doug Kladder, one of the foremost radon mitigation experts in the state.

“He walked me through what radon was, what the regulation meant to schools, and why I needed to be concerned,” Moors said. “I asked him if he would go back through all our mitigated buildings and inspect the systems, just to make sure they were still intact, to retest the schools, duplicate the ’91 follow-up test and tell me what he thought. That was my starting point in the radon world, and as far as I know, that was the only thing District 11 had ever done.”

Kladder retested all the schools involved and found that, while the numbers weren’t identical to those found after remediation in 1991, they were close.

“We found the fans were doing their job,” Moors said. “Ironically, the fans that power the systems that suck the radon out of the basements started to fail, one by one, soon after that. It’s a good thing we looked at them when we did. Otherwise, we wouldn’t have known. Now we have brand-new fans that hopefully will run another 20 years.”

Today, Moors inspects the radon mitigation systems every month, just to be safe. “It takes me 2½ hours one day a month, so it’s not a great time investment. But if I didn’t look at those for another 20 years and they failed for whatever reason, and we let radon levels go up, well, from a moral standpoint, I’m not going to let that happen. I feel it’s my job to make sure kids are safe at all times.”

Health officials advise parents who have concerns about radon levels at a child’s school to talk to their local school board. Members of the RAC also want to recruit teachers, who spend more time in schools than youngsters do, to be a lobbying force to insist that their classrooms be tested and that remediation steps be taken if needed.

But beyond that, they suggest that homeowners should test and mitigate, since most people spend the majority of their time at home.

What radon is, and how it kills

  • Radon is a colorless, odorless, tasteless, naturally-occurring radioactive gas. It is the second-leading cause of lung cancer in the United States. While it is found in all 50 states, it is especially problematic in Colorado, where 53 of 64 counties report high levels of the gas.
  • It originates in uranium-bearing granite deposits underground and seeps into buildings through cracks in the foundation, spaces under basement slabs, through openings around drains and into well water.
  • It’s not an immediate threat to life, the way carbon monoxide is, but long-term exposure to the gas is believed responsible for 21,000 lung cancer deaths each year, including 500 in Colorado.
  • State health officials estimate that fully half of the homes in Colorado have radon levels in excess of 4.0 picoCuries per liter of air, the level above which the Environmental Protection Agency considers unsafe.

Colorado law on radon testing in schools

  • Each school shall have completed radon tests by March 1, 1991. Schools constructed after the effective date of these rules and regulations shall complete radon tests within nineteen months of the date of occupancy. Schools remodeled after the effective date of these rules and regulations shall notify the department of such remodeling in order that the department may assess the need for any additional radon testing. Radon tests shall be conducted pursuant to the procedures described in the Environmental Protection Agency’s, Radon Measurements in Schools, Revised Edition July 1993 (EPA Documents #402-RO-92-014). The results of these tests shall be on file at each school and available for review.

For more information

  • Read a briefing paper on radon in the schools, prepared by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.
  • Learn about the Environmental Protection Agency’s IAG Tools for Schools program, a comprehensive package of resources for helping schools maintain healthy indoor air quality.

raising the curtain

Aurora high school students started rehearsing a musical about an earlier time — and discovered ‘harsh truths’ about today

Ebony Nash, left, sings during a rehearsal of Ragtime at Hinkley High School. (Photo by Yesenia Robles, Chalkbeat)

Nine weeks ago, more than 50 theater and choir students at Aurora’s Hinkley High School came together to begin work on a musical set in turn-of-the-20th-century New York.

At first, the kids did what high school students often do — cluster into familiar cliques, or self-segregate by race. Then the students started immersing themselves in the material.

The musical, “Ragtime,” intertwines the stories of a white family, a Jewish immigrant family and an African-American couple to spotlight differences and commonalities in the American experience.

At the urging of their teachers and directors, the Hinkley students began to use the plot and characters to examine their own actions, prejudice and biases. About 92 percent of Hinkley’s more than 2,100 students are students of color, the vast majority of them Latino.

The cliques and segregation slipped away. The production began taking shape.

“Ragtime” gets its Hinkley High School debut on Thursday and will be performed again on Friday and Saturday.

Chalkbeat sat down with a group of students involved in the production as they were in final preparations to learn about what their experience had taught them. The following is a portion of that conversation, slightly condensed and rearranged for clarity:

Janelle Douglas, a 17-year-old senior who portrays a friend of one of the story’s main characters, said the first time she saw and read through Ragtime, “it was intense.” She often cries as she rehearses her solo, sung during a funeral.

DOUGLAS: “I thought, this is powerful. This is overwhelming. This is amazing.”

Pamela Arzate, 17, plays the role of Evelyn Nesbit, a real model and actress who is incorporated into the fictional story and accused of being shallow.

ARZATE: “It’s very eye-opening because you look at it and it’s just a simple musical, but if you take a step back and go to the real world, it’s the exact same thing that’s going on today.”

Hodaly Sotelo, 17, plays the role of Mother, a woman whose attitudes toward her identity as a wife and woman evolve throughout the story.

SOTELO: “It reminds me of when I was younger and I was like, ‘Oh yeah, we’re over all that racism.’ But now, I look back and I think, what the heck? This stuff is still going on and we thought it was way over.”

Brianna Mauricio-Perez, 17, is one of two student directors.

MAURICIO-PEREZ: “It talks about all of the harsh truths that no one wants to talk about.”

DOUGLAS: “I think it’s safe to say it shows the true colors of our history.”

MAURICIO-PEREZ: “Even within our cast we did have to have a talk about how we were so separated because we were at the very beginning. Everyone was in their little groups and with their friends. You just want to keep to yourself.”

DOUGLAS: “It was literally ‘Ragtime.’”

MAURICIO-PEREZ: “We had a big talk with everybody. Things have gotten so much better. By the end of Act Two, we were all mixed up.”

Brenda Castellanos, 17, plays the role of Emma Goldman, drawn from a real-life political activist and anarchist.

CASTELLANOS: “Now that we’re closer, now that we’re all comfortable, we put in more effort.”

After nearly every rehearsal, teachers and directors give students a talk, urging them to immerse themselves in the feelings of their characters, relating to them if necessary through their parents, grandparents or ancestors who were immigrants, or through current events.

“What if you saw someone beaten, and bloodied and killed in front of you?” one director asked.

They also remind students of why the play should be impactful. “You have to figure out how for two-and-a-half hours you can give hope to that audience,” Marie Hayden, Hinkley’s choir director told students last week.

CASTELLANOS: “I think it it helps us. Every day, we get more into it and more into it until we actually believe it. You actually feel it — like how Janelle feels when she’s singing and she starts crying and makes everybody cry. We all feel connected.”

Students say they have different scenes that impact them the most, but they don’t hesitate to find how the scenes relate to their life despite the story being set in the first decade of the 1900s. Hayden’s class and the practice for the musical are safe places where they can discuss those parallels, they said.

Shavaun Mar, 16, is a junior who plays the main character of Coalhouse Walker Jr., a ragtime piano player who is the target of racial attacks and struggles with revenge and forgiveness.

MAR: “I feel like that is crucial that we give people those opportunities to talk because a lot of people have very valid things to say but they just don’t have a way to get it out.”

CASTELLANOS: “The shootings.”

ARZATE: “The racism. They help us discuss it because there’s so many things that are going on. Pretty much everyday there’s a tragedy going on. And so, in a way, we can use that sentiment, that emotion that we feel with the real world and convey it when we’re doing this show. We use those feelings and we try to think about it in that way. To display that emotion. To display it to everyone else. And not directly represent what’s going on today but just to give them that ‘aha’ moment, like ‘wow.’”

Ebony Nash, 17, plays the character of Sarah, an innocent girl who wants to help her boyfriend settle his problems.

NASH: “It just makes us want justice in real life because these things are still going on even though it’s not out there. It just makes us want justice for our community. This musical showed me that I need to become better within myself because I’m not perfect.”

SOTELO: “It opened my eyes a lot more for sure. This kind of just makes me realize the problems I have. It makes me realize yea, I’m having immigration issues with my father right now, but that also my friends, you know, they’re going through the same thing too. This DACA stuff or this coming out stuff. I became more accepting of what other people might be going through and how I can help.”

MAR: “The past few years, I have been in a bit of a shell. So putting myself in this situation and pushing myself to be this other person has really shown me what I’m capable of and it’s helping me break out of that shell and realize who I am as a person.”

NASH: “Basically, this is our getaway from real life because we get to come on stage and be somebody else. It also makes us want to put the story out right so people can understand. So people can feel what we want them to feel.”

CASTELLANOS: “That there’s hope after all this corruption that’s going on.”

DOUGLAS: “That even in your bad times you can still laugh, cry, dance.”

NASH: “What I want people to get from this is change. To learn how to change and learn how to forgive and learn how to come together as a community and just, like their worth.”

SOTELO: “And to be strong. To stand up for what’s right.”

ARZATE: “And it might sound weird, but I feel like they should feel a certain level of uncomfort because that means that they’re going to look at themselves while seeing the musical. Maybe they’ll go ‘I’m uncomfortable because I do that’ or ‘I have that prejudice’ or ‘I feel that certain way,’ so if they come out and they feel uncomfortable and then at the end they’re like, ‘Wow. There’s that hope for change.’ Hopefully that like…”

DOUGLAS: “… It inspires them to do better.”

ARZATE: “Like, you can do it.”

SOTELO: “It’s kind of like a water droplet. One small move can domino-effect to something bigger.”


Taking attendance

Want to make middle school admissions more fair? Stop looking at this measure, parents say

PHOTO: Monica Disare
Middle school students write their names down at a high school fair in Brooklyn.

Parents across New York City have pushed for changes in the way selective middle schools pick their students, saying the process is unfair.

Now, a group of Manhattan parents has come up with a novel solution: Stop looking at students’ attendance records.

The parent council in District 2 — where about 70 percent of middle schools admit students based on their academic records — points to research showing that students from low-income families are far more likely to miss school. Those children are at a distinct disadvantage in the competition for the district’s top middle school seats, the council argues, even though factors beyond the control of any fourth-grader — especially family homelessness — often account for poor attendance and tardiness.

“This outsized focus on attendance disproportionately impacts students who don’t have secure housing and may not have secure healthcare, and that is troubling to me,” said Eric Goldberg, a member of the community education council in District 2, which includes stretches of Lower Manhattan and the Upper East Side. “There are many factors that should not impact a student’s educational opportunities — and the way the system is set up, it does.”

Eighteen of the district’s 24 middle schools are “screened,” meaning they rank applicants based on factors including test scores, grades, and interviews. Of those, all but one school also considers how often students were late or absent in fourth grade, according to the parent council.

Most of the schools assign points to each factor they consider. Some give absences 10 times more weight than science or social studies grades, the council found, while others penalize students for even a single absence or instance of tardiness.

Disadvantaged students are especially likely to miss school.

A recent report by the city’s Independent Budget Office found that homeless students are more likely than other students to be chronically absent — typically defined as missing about 10 percent of the school year.

Schools with the highest chronic absenteeism are in communities in “deep poverty,” which have the highest rates of unemployment and family involvement with the child-welfare system, according to a 2014 report by the New School at the Center for New York City Affairs.

“We can use chronic absenteeism as a good guess of all the other things kids are dealing with,” said Nicole Mader, a senior research fellow at the New School and a co-author of the report. “If these middle schools are using absenteeism to weed kids out, that means they’re going to automatically weed out those kids who have the most barriers to academic success already.”

The attendance requirement can put pressure on any family, regardless of their financial status or housing situation.

Banghee Chi, a parent of two children in District 2, said she sometimes sent her younger daughter to school with a fever when she was in fourth grade rather than have her marked absent.

Her daughter would show up to class only to be sent to the school’s health clinic — which would call Chi to pick her up. Chi was thinking ahead to middle school, when a missed day of class could hurt her chances of getting into the most sought-after schools.

“It was something I was really conscious and aware of during my child’s fourth-grade year,” she said. “I think it’s unfair.”

The education council’s resolution, which will be put to vote in December, is nonbinding because middle schools set their own admissions criteria. But a show of support from parents could lead to action from the education department, which has been prodded by integration advocates to make other changes in high school and middle school admissions.

This summer, the department announced it would end the practice of “revealed rankings,” which allowed middle schools to select only those students who listed them first or second on their applications. The city is also appointing a committee of parents, educators, and community leaders in Brooklyn’s District 15 to come up with a proposal for making that district’s middle school applications process more fair.

“We’re collaborating with communities across the city to make school admissions more equitable and inclusive, including in District 2,” said department spokesman Will Mantell in an email. The department looks forward “to further conversations about this resolution and other efforts to improve middle school admissions in District 2.”