First Person

Allergic kids face stigma at school

Youngsters with severe food allergies confront issues that go beyond just avoiding some kid-pleasing foods like pizza, peanuts and cupcakes.

Image of cupcakes
PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Cupcakes are popular with students but pose problems for those with dairy and egg allergies.

Their needs may be forgotten by well-meaning classmates, teachers and parents of classmates. Some are bullied or scapegoated because their allergies impact what foods others may bring into the classroom.

And a few get so focused on avoiding an allergic reaction that they become overly fearful, averse to trying any new foods or unrealistically convinced that exposure will lead to death.

For many food-allergic children, class parties especially become tests of endurance in which they must either accept the physical discomfort of being around trigger foods or feel left out altogether.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. Their parents – many of whom have struggled long and hard to figure out how to feed these children at home – are hoping that by educating teachers and others about food allergies, much itching, hives and nausea, as well as hurt feelings and resentment, can be avoided.

Julie Trone, a mom with a severely allergic son in Fort Collins, last year launched Allergy Free Table, a website with information about food allergies, suggested foods for class parties and information about how to prevent the bullying of allergic children.

“We’ve found a niche,” said Trone. “My hope is that all teachers will embrace this because sooner or later every teacher will have a child with food allergies in their classroom. It can be very difficult, but it can also be very easy.”

Students feel left out of festivities

An estimated one in 25 school children has some form of food allergy, and the incidence has been going up in the past decade.

For more information

Trone’s son, Gavin, has multiple food allergies, including dairy and wheat. At the beginning of the school year, she met with his teacher, Alissa Poduska, to explain Gavin’s predicament and ask her help.

“I asked a lot of questions so I would know everything that’s possible to prevent there being any sort of issue,” said Poduska, who teaches third-graders at Bacon Elementary School in Fort Collins.

“Birthdays are always the biggest issue, and I sent a note out to all parents saying that we had some students with allergies so we couldn’t have the following things, but there are some awesome things that we can have.”

In addition, Poduska keeps a stash of allergy-friendly treats in her desk drawer. If someone brings in goodies for the class that Gavin should not eat, Poduska pulls the boy aside and quietly invites him to pick whatever alternate treat he would like.

But despite all her conscientiousness, even Poduska sometimes fails to recognize when Gavin feels left out. One day, her class won a pizza party.

“It didn’t even cross my mind that Gavin couldn’t eat pizza,” she said. “I was thinking about sugar and wheat. I thought everyone could eat pizza. Later, Gavin’s mom approached me and said Gavin’s feelings were hurt because I hadn’t talked to him about it in advance. I felt horrible.”

The next time pizza was served, Poduska asked Gavin what special treat he would like to have. And while all the other children were eating pizza, Gavin enjoyed a some McDonald’s French fries.

In Poduska’s classroom, Trone has been active in teaching her fellow parents about the needs of food-allergic children and no one has objected to the limitations placed on the students. But elsewhere, that isn’t always the case.

Last month, some parents in the Volusia County school district in DeLand, Fla., picketed the school because they believed their children were spending too much time washing their hands and wiping their faces to protect a classmate with a severe peanut allergy. They carried signs saying “Our Kids Have Rights Too.”

Parents, others not always understanding

Greenwood Village mom Moiria Sangalis said she has never encountered that much hostility in Colorado. But she has felt resistance from school officials to restricting classroom treats, and she once had a heated argument with another mom over some muffins that mother brought to the class.

Sangalis’ son, Nick, has multiple severe allergies, including diary, eggs, tree nuts, shellfish and latex. Nick doesn’t even have to ingest the substances to suffer a reaction. Just being near them can cause him problems.

Nick Sangalis enjoys a special allergen-free birthday cake.
Nick Sangalis, who has severe food allergies, enjoys a specially-made birthday cake.

“From our experience, every school is so different. If the teacher isn’t supportive of you, everything will backfire,” said Sangalis. “Most of the time, they’ll work with you.

“But when Nick was in fourth grade, that’s when I started to feel the pressure from other parents. Maybe they didn’t want their child to be in class with mine. Maybe they felt they had a right to bring in whatever they wanted, whenever they wanted. Why do we even have to have so many parties? But food is such a big part of school. The principal at his school told me that having classroom parties really was part of the culture there.”

Nick, 11, still winces at the memory of yelling at a classmate who wanted to bring in a chocolate fountain to celebrate the completion of state CSAP exams.

“I could have handled that better,” he said. “I don’t know what people are thinking sometimes. They could be thinking about the greater good for the greater number of people. But it’s really not the greater good, is it? If one person isn’t having fun, if one person feels left out, then the whole celebration could be brought down because of one person feeling bad.”

Nick is now enrolled at Ricks Center for Gifted Children at the University of Denver, and he’s had no more problems. The school has been very supportive, and his classmates very thoughtful about his special needs.

“This year, we’ve had three or four birthday parties with cupcakes and they all brought me Oreos, which I thought was generous,” Nick said. “I don’t mind if other kids have it, as long as they don’t shove it in my face or touch me.”

For the past eight years, Sangalis has been president of MOSAIC or Mothers of Severely Allergic Infants and Children. The group’s website,, lists resources including non-allergenic recipes kids will like and tips on advocating for school policies that protect allergic children.

In 2009, the Colorado General Assembly enacted legislation requiring every school district to develop a policy to manage the risks posed by food allergies.

Psychological hurdles confront allergic children

Even when schools and classmates are fully supportive, severely allergic children still face psychological hurdles.

Dr. Mary Klinnert, associate professor of pediatrics at Denver’s National Jewish Hospital, is 18 months into a two-year study to determine just what those hurdles are, and how families can help them cope both physically and emotionally with their allergies.

“What we’ve seen is that there really is a broad range of people’s understanding of what they’re dealing with,” Klinnert said. “Some people really understand, and some are kind of vague on some important aspects. And there’s a broad range as far as the lengths to which they will go to avoid allergens.”

Dr. Mary Klinnert at Denver’s National Jewish Hospital seeks food-allergic children ages 6-12 to interview. Contact her at [email protected]

Klinnert said some children are so fearful of having an allergic reaction that it gets in the way of living life.

“Sometimes we see kids who have a lot of food aversion,” she said.

“They don’t like to eat new foods at all. Or maybe they don’t eat enough because of a fear of eating something they might have a reaction to. And we also see kids not wanting to be independent from their parents at an age-appropriate level.”

Klinnert noted that many food-allergic children haven’t had reactions since they were very young, and thus don’t remember what a reaction feels like. They need to be reminded that a reaction usually means an itchy throat or a rash or hives, which isn’t pleasant but neither is it fatal.

“Some kids need help with the idea that having a reaction isn’t the end of the world. Many kids really believe that if they have a reaction they will die,” Klinnert said.

“This is a tough subject for parents, but it’s really important that they know that 99.999 percent of kids who have allergic reactions, they handle it and they’re fine. The chances of them dying only happens if a whole series of things go wrong. We’ve probably talked to kids too much about how life-threatening their food allergies are. For a lot of kids, I think we might have gone overboard.”

First Person

A Chalkbeat roundtable: The promise and perils of charter networks like Success Academy

When we published an essay about the promise and perils of charter schools by our CEO and editor in chief Elizabeth Green last month, we heard from a lot of readers.

Elizabeth’s piece outlined her conclusions after more than a decade of reporting about charter school networks, and more specifically the Success Academy network in New York City. She wrote that charter school networks offer both great advantages — in their ability to provide rare coherence in what is taught across classrooms — and significant danger. Charter networks, she wrote, have changed public education by “extracting it from democracy as we know it.”

Some of our readers saw their own thinking reflected in her conclusions. Others had a very different take.

What was clear was that Elizabeth had kicked off a conversation that many Chalkbeat readers are ready to have, and that, as always, robust and respectful debate is good for everyone’s thinking.

So we reached out to people who engage with big questions about how schools are structured every single day, in their work or personal lives. Today, we’re sharing what they had to say. But we think this is far from the end of the conversation. If you want to add your voice, let us know.



Charter networks’ needs and goals may not be the community’s

By Tim Ware, former executive director of the Achievement Schools managed by the Tennessee Department of Education and founder of Ware Consulting Group

As the founder and former executive director of a high performing public charter middle school in Memphis, Tennessee, I am a firm believer in the promise of well-run charter schools. I also understand the limits of these schools.

A key aspect of public charter legislation is autonomy. This means that public charters decide how to staff their schools, which curriculum to use, how to allocate resources for student support, and how their daily and summer schedules work. However, this legislated autonomy creates issues that thoughtful policymakers need to address.

For instance, in Memphis, a high-performing public charter network began operating a chronically underperforming middle school as a part of a turnaround intervention effort. Despite significant improvements in learning and school culture, as well as the support of the community, the school grappled with dwindling enrollment and suffocating building maintenance costs. Fewer dollars were available to invest in high quality teaching and learning, social-emotional supports, and extracurricular activities. Ultimately, the charter operator made the difficult decision to cease operating the school.

This example illustrates the limits of public charter schools. The same autonomy that allowed them to create an approach that drove improvement for children also allowed them to decide that they could no longer operate the school. This means that, as long as autonomy exists for public charter schools (and it should), we cannot eliminate traditional districts.

The solution for historically underserved communities will be found by creating strong ecosystems of education. These ecosystems should consist of a healthy mix of traditional schools, optional schools (schools with competitive entry requirements), magnet schools, public charter schools, and private schools. By ensuring that multiple types of schools flourish and are accessible to all, parents will be able to make informed choices and select a school which best meets the needs of their most precious belonging — their child.

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Focusing on charter networks is a mistake. Districts have the same potential

By Josh Thomases, dean of innovation, policy, and research at Bank Street College of Education

Elizabeth Green’s article on Eva Moskowitz misses one important detail – districts have successfully scaled change for students. In this era of attacks on government, it is worth looking closer.

The hundreds of new small high schools opened in New York City between 2000 and 2012 transformed thousands of lives. The research firm MDRC documented that impact, showing a 9.4 percent increased graduation rate and an 8 percent increase in college attendance. Notably, this increase was driven by success with groups that school systems often fail: poorer students, black students, and students with disabilities.

This extraordinary effort happened with district educators and unions, public resources and processes.

I saw this reform inside and out. I helped create a small school in the 1990s and was part of community protests against some of the initial school closures under Chancellor Joel Klein. And, in 2004, I became responsible for the development and support of new schools within the education department.

The new schools work was an example of democracy in action – with all its imperfections. There were legendary protests against the Department of Education and arguments over race, equity and power. And through all of that, the process transformed schools.

Why the success?

  1. The point was to improve teaching and learning. Everything was looked at through this lens.
  2. Educators were the agents of change. The new schools process challenged principals, teachers, community members and parents to reimagine school.
  3. External partners multiplied the power of the changes. These included school development organizations (such as New Visions and CUNY) and local partners ranging from the Brooklyn Cyclones and South Bronx Churches. For the first six years of the reform, the unions were a partner, too.
  4. The district shifted authority towards the principal and school based staff in key areas: hiring, scheduling, budgets, and curriculum.

This is not a story of perfect success; as a district, we made mistakes and they were debated publicly. But the results show that districts can take bold action to change what is happening in schools.

Charters in New York have also demonstrated they can make an important contribution to a district. The task ahead is not to forego government, but to activate its strengths.

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Charter networks are a laboratory for consistent and high-quality instruction

By Seneca Rosenberg, chief academic officer at Valor Collegiate Academies in Nashville, Tennessee

My first year in the classroom, I desperately wanted to be the teacher my fourth graders deserved. A diligent student, I carefully examined California’s standards, the curriculum my district had adopted, new research, and popular trade books. I quickly saw that the approaches they outlined — for how to teach reading, for example — were often in direct conflict.

Veteran teachers advised: have your students fill out the mandated worksheets to avoid scrutiny, then close your door and teach as you want. This would have been good advice if only I had known what to do behind that door to help my students to learn.

Now, as chief academic officer of Valor Collegiate Academies, a small charter school network in Nashville, I reflect daily on how our autonomy and network structure provide crucial, and often unremarked upon, resources for developing coherent systems of teaching and learning.

Like other charter networks, Valor has the flexibility to set our educational vision and then organize our own curriculum, assessments, hiring policies, student and teacher schedules, and culture to realize it. Many of our teachers and school leaders report that our shared systems, while demanding, buffer them from some of the stress that comes with making sense of dissonant policies and practices they more regularly encountered in traditional public schools.

Even more importantly, our infrastructure provides our teachers and leaders with a common framework around which expertise can be developed, shared, and improved.

For example, at Valor, our teaching teams meet frequently to study and plan from our students’ work. We have shared protocols for data analysis and teacher coaching. Each piece has been intentionally developed as part of a system. As a result, teachers have opportunities to learn that far exceed anything I had access to as a teacher — and our students benefit.

I share some of Elizabeth Green’s ambivalence about the potential impact of the rise of charters nationally, though she inflates the extent to which charters “extract” public education from democratic control — at least in states in which authorizing laws are well crafted. I am also skeptical of Moskowitz’s suggestion that perhaps “a public school system consisting principally of charter schools would be an improvement.”

But charter networks’ unique conditions do provide a useful laboratory. Critics who dismiss our high-performing charter networks’ many successes risk missing what we are learning from this critical innovation — coherent instructional systems — and how that might contribute to new possibilities for American education.

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In my city, no schools have it figured out

By Bernita Bradley, parent advocate and blogger at Detroit School Talk (and a Chalkbeat Reader Advisory Board Member)

Take all kids out of charter schools, they say. Close them down and require those students to attend their closest public school, no matter how far, how full the classrooms, and how low-performing. Hop on a bus more than 25 minutes to attend the closest high school near you and sit at the back of the class on the floor. After all, public schools were perfect before charter schools came along, and in order for them to be perfect again, we need everyone on board.

Don’t talk bad about public schools, they say. Don’t draw attention to the fact that we are still figuring out how to improve public schools and need your help. The city of Detroit must unite, be of one mind, and let all charter school leaders know that we are only supporting traditional public schools.

These arguments won’t work. I fight for quality public schools and fought for us to not lose more of them. However, if you strip parents of choice, you prove that you are not committed to providing children with what they need.

To be clear, I am an advocate for both sides. Parents don’t care about this war — we just want good schools that will educate all children equally. Can we have that conversation?

Let’s tell the truth about how, here in Detroit, both sides cherry-pick students and “counsel out” parents. Public schools just suspend students indefinitely until parents leave to find a charter school. Let’s tell the truth about how teaching to the test has affected both charter and public school teachers’ ability to make sure student academic growth is more robust.

Both sides could do better. My children have attended both kinds of schools. I’ve bused my kids 15 miles away. I’ve sent my kids to the top charter and public schools in the city. And no one — including charter schools — has this figured out.

I can’t think of a person would say they are totally happy with their child’s educational experience here in Detroit. We have come to the point where, while we’ve made friends in both charters and public schools, this is a journey full of struggles and broken promises that we would not wish on any parent.

Believe me, if we had our way there would be no need to choose. The school on the corner would be full and alive with students, parents, and teachers who have one common goal, to educate all kids.

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The rise of networks hurts the charter movement

By Steve Zimmerman, Coalition of Community Charter Schools

In the ongoing saga of Eva Moskowitz and her war against the the educational status quo, two key issues are overlooked. The first is that the rise of Success Academy has come at significant cost to the charter school movement and the democratic values that were at its genesis.

The rigidly top-down managerial approach of the Success network is the antithesis of the original idea of chartering: to free schools from district-imposed conformity so they have autonomy to innovate. There is no autonomy or innovation in a franchise. Franchisees follow the script.

The second issue is that Success Academy schools, for all intents and purposes, turn teachers into technicians. They are trained in a rigid model of classroom management with a relentless focus on student outcomes. As Elizabeth Green and others point out, the effectiveness of this system, at least in terms of test scores, is well documented and ostensibly justifies the orthodoxy of “no excuses” education reform.

Relentlessness, however, comes at a cost. Just as legendary as its record-high test scores is Success Academy’s teacher attrition. Success Academy appears to welcome an increasing number of bright young people to learn and execute the scripts, and then watch as they move on to their real careers after they burn out in three years. The consequences of this trend are chilling to imagine.

If we believe the purpose of public education to be the development of exceptional test takers, then Eva Moskowitz has clearly pointed the way to the promised land. If, however, we believe the purpose is the betterment of society and the development of the whole child, there are better models to emulate.

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Coherence is important, but charter networks aren’t necessary to achieve it

Andy Snyder, social studies teacher at Harvest Collegiate High School in New York City

Who should decide what students learn in school? Families or individual teachers? District and charter school leaders, elected officials, or panels of professors?

Elizabeth Green’s recent essay focuses our attention on this huge question. She points out that many other countries provide “a clear sense of what students need to learn, the basic materials necessary to help them learn it (such as a curriculum).” And she argues that some charter school networks, enabled by their anti-democratic powers, are developing coherent and meaningful ideas of what to prioritize and how to teach it well.

When I began student teaching, I was shown stacks of textbooks and boxes of transparencies, quizzes, tests, homework — corporate-branded, filled with facts, empty of meaning. I switched to another mentor and recreated the trial of John Brown. Later I left one innovative public school where administrators were attempting to bend my courses into more traditional shapes for another where the interview includes, “Describe a dream course that you would love to teach” and where we teach those courses every day.

But I’ve seen in Germany the effects of a thoughtful curriculum — classes connect between disciplines and spiral powerfully between grades, and teachers adapt rather than invent.  Improvised individual efforts often produce a worse result than a strong system. That’s why I commute in New York by subway, not bicycle.

The systemic approach can break down too. Today we curse the defunding of our transit agency, and we saw what happened to the Common Core. How can charter schools develop truly excellent curriculum when their priority seems to be preparing students to win against bad bubble tests?

Students, no matter what kind of school they attend, deserve lessons crafted by well-trained practitioners who draw from the best ideas of the profession.

In the best future I can imagine, each school or district adapts curriculum from one of several coherent curriculum packages developed over years with millions of dollars and genius and honest sweat. Teachers trained in that tradition lead students in cultivating the deep questions and necessary knowledge, and students graduate with a sense of how it all adds up and what they can bring with them into the world.

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First Person

I’m a teacher in Memphis, and I know ‘grading floors’ aren’t a cheat — they’re a key motivator

PHOTO: Creative Commons / Shelly

Growing up, my father used to tell me not to come to him with a problem unless I had a solution.

That meant I learned quickly what kinds of solutions wouldn’t go over well — like ones involving my father and his money. His policy also meant that I had to weigh pros and cons, thinking about what I was able to do, what I wasn’t, and whom I needed help from in order to make things happen.

I sometimes wish decision-makers in Memphis had a father like mine. Because more often than not, it seems we are talking about the problems void of a solution or even possible solutions to vet.

Right now, the issue in Memphis and Shelby County Schools is the “grading floor,” or the policy of setting a lowest possible grade a teacher can assign a student. They have been temporarily banned after a controversy over high-school grade changing.

Grading floors aren’t new to teachers in Memphis, or to me, a fifth-grade teacher. I have taught and still teach students who are at least two grade levels behind. This was true when I taught fourth grade and when I taught sixth grade. Honestly, as the grade level increased, so did the gaps I saw.

More often than not, these students have been failed by a school, teacher, leader or system that did not adequately prepare them for the next grade. Meanwhile, in my classroom, I have a responsibility to teach grade-level material — adjusting it for individual students — and to grade their work accordingly.

That’s where “grading floors” come in. Without a grading floor, all of my current students would have grades below a 65 percent.

Can you imagine seeing the face of a fifth-grade boy who tried his hardest on your test, who answered all the questions you gave orally, who made connections to the text through auditory comprehension, only to receive a 0 on his paper?

I don’t have to imagine – I see similar reactions multiple times a day. Whether it’s a 65 percent or a 14 percent, it’s still an F, which signals to them “failure.” The difference between the two was summed up by Superintendent Hopson, who stated, “With a zero, it’s impossible to pass a course. It creates kids who don’t have hope, disciplinary issues; that creates a really bad scenario.”

I know that as years go by and a student’s proficiency gap increases, confidence decreases, too. With a lowered confidence comes a lower level of self-efficacy — the belief that they can do what they need to do to succeed. This, to me, is the argument for the grading floor.

In completing research for my master’s degree, I studied the correlation between reading comprehension scores and the use of a motivational curriculum. There was, as might have guessed, an increase in reading scores for students who received this additional curriculum.

So every day, I speak life into my students, who see Fs far too often in their daily lives. It is not my job as their teacher to eradicate their confidence, stifle their effort, and diminish their confidence by giving them “true” Fs.

“This is not an indication of your hard work, son. Yet, the reality is, we have to work harder,” I tell students. “We have to grind in order to make up what we’ve missed and I’m the best coach you have this year.”

In education, there are no absolutes, so I don’t propose implementing grading floors across the board. But I do understand their potential — not to make students appear more skilled than they are, or to make schools appear to be better than they are, but to keep students motivated enough to stay on track, even when it’s difficult.

If it is implemented, a grade floor must be coupled with data and other reports that provide parents, teachers, and other stakeholders with information that accurately highlights where a student is, both within the district and nationally. Parents shouldn’t see their child’s progress through rose-colored glasses, or be slapped by reality when options for their child are limited during and after high school.

But without hope, effort and attainment are impossible. If we can’t give hope to our kids, what are we here for?

I don’t have all the answers, but in the spirit of my father, don’t come with a problem unless you have a solution.

Marlena Little is a fifth-grade teacher in Memphis. A version of this piece first appeared on Memphis K-12, a blog for parents and students.