The Other 60 Percent

Future cloudy for reducing emissions

More than 2,000 aging Colorado school buses have been retrofitted over the past eight years to limit diesel exhaust emissions, which are known to worsen asthma and other lung ailments, especially in children.

At up to $175,000 per bus, on average, cash-strapped school districts have been slow to replace aging buses with newer, less-polluting models.
At up to $175,000 per bus, cash-strapped school districts have been slow to replace aging buses with newer, less-polluting models.

But recently announced federal budget cutbacks have slashed spending for the Environmental Protection Program’s Clean Diesel Program, which pays for the retrofits.

And for every Colorado school bus that has been retrofitted so far, officials estimate there’s at least one more that hasn’t been but ought to be.

Should the federal funding not be restored, officials aren’t sure what will become of state plans to retrofit the remaining buses. It’s possible that other funding sources could be found but there are no guarantees.

“We’ll be retrofitting buses at least through Sept. 30 and probably beyond,” said Lisa Silva, air quality planner for the Air Pollution Control Division of the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment and manager of the Clean Diesel Program for the state.

“We’ve applied for another grant, which could go through 2012. We just have to wait and see what happens after this fiscal year.”

‘Clean Diesel’ retrofitted 2,000 buses

The state-run Clean Diesel Program, launched in 2006, targets school districts outside the metro area. It has retrofitted about 1,000 buses in Pueblo, El Paso, Garfield, Rio Blanco and Weld counties, at a cost of about $3.4 million.

A threat to children
“Students could be breathing this in twice a day, five days a week, nine months a year for 12 years.”
— Greg Davis, EPA

In Denver and its suburbs, a similar program is administered through the Regional Air Quality Council. Launched in 2003, RAQC has retrofitted about 1,000 buses in the seven-county metro area, at a cost of about $3.5 million.

Later this year, buses in Gunnison, Cotopaxi, Dolores Re-2 and Bayfield school districts are due for retrofits but at least a dozen other school districts have requested assistance. Silva estimates there may be 3,000 buses still running on Colorado roads that are needlessly belching toxins into the air – and likely into the lungs of their passengers.

“Researchers at National Jewish tell us they see a lot more asthma attacks that are very likely induced by school bus rides on diesel school buses that are not retrofitted,” Silva said. “That’s an immediate effect. Long-term, there have been studies that show exposure to mobile source air toxins can do permanent damage to the lungs by the time a child is 18.”

Rural riders particularly at risk

The problem is particularly acute in the state’s rural areas, where students may spend upwards of two to three hours a day on board buses. That doesn’t count time spent traveling to and from sporting events, which can add additional hours of bus travel.

Buses by the numbers
  • Nationwide, an estimated 24 million children ride school buses every day.
  • Almost 400,000 diesel school buses are in use – their average age is 10 years old.
  • More than 75,000 buses have been on the road since before 1990.
  • 20-year-old buses are estimated to emit six times the number of toxic particles as buses built before 2004 – and as much as 60 times more than buses built since 2007.
  • But at a cost of $125,000 to $175,000 per bus, school districts are slow to replace old buses with new ones.

The emissions seep in through the doors opening and closing at stops, but also come in from under the hood. The exposure to these toxins is greatest inside the school buses, but non-riders can be exposed while waiting with children at bus stops or stopping behind an idling bus.

Children are at greater risk than adults because their lungs are smaller and because their respiration rate is faster. While adults average 12 to18 breaths per minute, young children may inhale 20 to 40 times per minute. And with each breath they could be inhaling carbon, formaldehyde, and other toxic chemicals found in diesel exhaust fumes.

“Students could be breathing this in twice a day, five days a week, nine months a year for 12 years,” said Greg Davis, Mobile Sources Program Manager for the EPA in Denver, which oversees the Clean Diesel grants. “With each $1 you put into reducing pollutants, you get more than $1 back in reduced health care costs.”

Buses built before 2007 – the year emission control devices became standard on new buses – are eligible for the retrofits, which involve up to three pieces of equipment:

  • Diesel oxidation catalysts, which replace the existing bus mufflers and which decrease tailpipe emissions by 50 percent for hydrocarbons and 20 percent of particulate matter.
  • Crankcase filtration units, which collect burnt oil particles and other emissions that sweep in from under the hood, and reduce them by 95 percent.
  • Engine pre-heaters, small motors that reduce idling by reducing the time buses need to warm up in the morning. Pre-heaters can save 1 gallon per bus per day of diesel fuel.

The cost to retrofit a bus with all three pieces of equipment averages about $3,500, though not all buses have received all three.

Metro districts further along than rest of state

In the Denver metro area, nearly all eligible buses have been retrofitted to reduce tailpipe emissions and many have been fitted with the engine pre-heaters. But fewer have received the crankcase filtration units.

PHOTO: Marc Piscotty
Luke Howe-Kerr, a student at Pueblo's Cedar Ridge Elementary School, watches while technician John Schmidt works to retrofit a Pueblo District 70 school bus. EPA photo.

“Done is relative,” said Steve McCannon, mobile sources program manager for RAQC. “The work will never be done. But we’ve definitely made more progress in the metro area than in the rest of the state.”

He said a lot of metro area school districts have also moved to install GPS systems on their buses. His office has provided 350 of those.

“The benefits to GPS are great. The first piece is knowing where the buses are. We can tell what buses are out there and not moving. We can see if a bus driver is wasting money just sitting in a parking lot. We can also do route optimization,” McCannon said.

The CDPHE and RAQC programs have excelled at getting federal funds, particularly federal stimulus dollars, to pay for these programs. But in February, President Obama’s proposed budget eliminated funding for the Clean Diesel Program, which has proven hugely popular and has bipartisan support.

Nationwide, an estimated 24 million children ride school buses every day and almost 400,000 diesel school buses are in use. Their average age is 10 years old, and more than 75,000 have been on the road since before 1990. Twenty-year-old buses are estimated to emit six times the number of toxic particles that buses built since 2004 emit, and as much as 60 times more than buses built since 2007. But at a cost of $125,000 to $175,000 per bus, on average, cash-strapped school districts are slow to replace old buses with new ones.

That’s why the retrofitting program has been so popular: Relatively speaking, it’s an expensive way to dramatically curb emissions without buying a whole new bus.

“This seems like kind of a no-brainer,” said Lauri Smock, transportation coordinator for the Gunnison Watershed School District, which has been waiting for two years for the state to retrofit its 19 buses.

“We’ve been trying, unless it’s stupid cold, to turn our buses off when they get to the schools and not keep them idling, because schools say they know when buses pull up because they can smell the fumes. The other thing is, in the winter we have our buses plugged in all the time,” she said.

“Those are big engines that have to stay warm. We’re using a lot of money on electricity keeping the buses warm so they’ll start when it’s 20 below outside. But with the pre-heater, it’s timed, it will come on a couple of hours before the driver gets there in the morning and the driver won’t have to plug the bus in, so it will cost us less. It will be just a wonderful program for us.”

GPS tracking touted for bus use

In the Adams County Five Star School District, all 160 buses are now equipped with the latest emissions equipment.

For more information

Transportation director David Anderson said that district is exploring all the ways in which even fancier bells and whistles – like GPS – can be used to curb pollution and boost fuel efficiency.

“GPS has been an amazing tool,” Anderson said. “We know where every bus is at a given moment. I can tell you how long the engine has been running, how long it’s been idling. I never thought it would be as wonderful as it is. At my fingertips, I get instant reports if a vehicle has been idling more than 10 minutes. Think how much fuel that can save.”

Cost to install GPS is $600 per bus. Anderson said he recouped the cost within the first year.

Last year, the district also installed card readers on all its buses, which automatically track when individual students get on and get off. That information helps district officials keep track of ridership, and lets them reconfigure bus routes to avoid empty seats and increase fuel economy.

It also is a student safety tool.

“I don’t think a day goes by when we don’t have a lost elementary kid,” Anderson said. “They get on the wrong bus or get off at the wrong stop. The little ones get easily disoriented. Now, if a first-grader gets lost, I can tell he got off at 1st and Main at 3:20. In the past, it was just a guess. Now I have true documentation that’s instantaneous.”

Frequently asked

There are lots of ways schools teach English learners. Here’s how it works.

PHOTO: Andy Cross/The Denver Post
Lindsey Erisman works with 6-year-old students in an English Language Acquisition class at Denver's Cole Arts & Science Academy.

School district officials in Westminster this year signed an agreement with federal officials to change how they educate students who are learning English as a second language.

Similar agreements have also shaped how districts in Denver, Aurora, Adams 14, and Adams 12 educate their English language learner students. But many people, including parents and district insiders, may still have questions about the various complicated programs and requirements.

Although many of the language-education agreements are years old, most of the issues haven’t been resolved. In Adams 14, for instance, parents and advocates have protested a district decision to stop biliteracy programming, and have questioned the district’s compliance with its agreement to better serve English learners. District officials have pointed out that their obligation is teaching students English, not making them bilingual.

Now at least one charter school, KIPP, is looking to fill in that programming gap. Many other states have had a number of biliteracy and other bilingual programs at various schools for years, but Colorado has only more recently started to follow those trends.

So what’s the difference between the various language programs and services? And what is required by law and what isn’t? The following questions and answers might help clarify some of those questions as you follow the news around these issues.

Which students are designated as English language learners? Do parents get to decide, or do schools decide?

Federal guidance requires school districts have some way to identify English learners. Most commonly, districts survey all parents at school registration about their home language and the student’s first language. If that survey finds there might be an influence of another language at home, the student must be assessed to determine fluency in English. While the district has to identify all students who aren’t fluent in English as language learners, parents in Colorado can choose to waive the federally required services for their children. If so, the district doesn’t have to provide special services, but would still be required to monitor that the student is making progress toward acquiring English.

What educational rights do English language learners have?

English language learners have specific rights under the Lau v. Nichols Supreme Court case from 1974 and the subsequent Castañeda standards released in 1981. State laws also outline some requirements for school districts. Specifically, school districts must provide programs for all identified language learners to give them the opportunity to learn English and to access a comprehensive curriculum. The government does not state what that program should be, but provides some standards requiring that any program is theoretically sound and has a research base to support it. The program has to have qualified teachers, and a way to demonstrate that students are making progress in learning English and their academic content. While the civil rights officials consider many details to verify compliance, simply put, school districts have the legal obligation to identify students, serve them in a sound program, and monitor their progress.

What is the difference between bilingual education and “ELL services?”

Bilingual education (which is the program that has the most support for efficacy from the research community) offers students opportunities to learn in their native language while they are learning English. Bilingual programs can vary from short-term, or early-exit programs, to more longer-term developmental programs.

English language learner services do not need to provide opportunities for students to learn in the native language. Most commonly these services only offer English language development classes (generally 45 minutes per day). All other content instruction is offered only in English. ELL services are not bilingual.

What is English language development?

English language development must be a part of any program or model a district or school adopts. It is the class time when students are taught the English language. The government wants to see that English learners are given a dedicated time to learn English, when they are not competing with native English speakers. That means, often, English language development is offered as a time when students are pulled out of class to practice English, or as a special elective period students must take without their English-speaking peers.

The structure of this time period, who has access to it, or who teaches it, are areas commonly cited as problems by the federal Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights.

Do students who are identified as English language learners retain that designation forever? What does it mean to be an “exited ELL?”

They’re not supposed to. Students who are English learners should be tested at least once a year to determine their English proficiency. When a student reaches a high enough level, school staff must determine if the student is now fluent in English. If so, the student becomes an “exited ELL.” The law requires districts to monitor for two years students who have exited and are no longer receiving services. There are, however, students who do not reach English fluency before graduating or leaving school.

What is the difference between being bilingual and being biliterate?

Bilingual generally refers to oral language in that bilingual people can understand and speak two languages but may not be able to read and write in those languages. Biliterate refers to being able to understand, speak, read, and write in two languages. Many people are bilingual but not biliterate. Biliteracy is considered to be a higher form of bilingualism.

What is the difference between dual language and biliteracy models?

Dual language and biliteracy models share many common components. Both models usually have biliteracy as their end goal for students. Dual language models may be “one-way” or “two-way.” One-way programs generally serve students who are designated as English language learners (also sometimes called emerging bilinguals). Two-way dual language programs include students who are native English speakers. The only major difference is that biliteracy models focus on using two languages in the language arts or literacy classes (reading and writing in two languages) whereas dual language focuses on using two languages across the entire school day’s curriculum.

What is an immersion model?

Immersion models traditionally are thought of as referring to programs primarily intended for students from the dominant language population to learn a second language. This is different from programs meant to teach English.

While native English students can choose whether or not to learn a second language, students who are English language learners do not have a choice in learning English.

What is sheltered instruction?

This type of instruction takes place in non-dual language schools, during regular content classes (such as math or science), and it’s one way schools try to make the content understandable to students who aren’t yet fluent in English.

This is especially common in schools where English learners speak a variety of languages. Crawford Elementary in Aurora, for instance, has had up to 35 different languages represented among its approximately 560 students. If there aren’t enough students who speak a common first language and also a teacher who speaks the same language as those students, then schools must teach through English, while making the English as accessible as possible.

In practice, this means an English-speaking teacher would use sheltered instruction techniques to help all children understand the lessons such as, physical props, a focus on building vocabulary, and sentence stems.

Denver designates schools as TNLI schools. What does that mean?

Denver created the TNLI label in 1999 to set the district apart from other bilingual program models. TNLI stands for Transitional Native Language Instruction. The Denver TNLI program is a transitional bilingual education program model with a label created just for Denver. It’s a model where instruction in Spanish is used to help students learn while they’re acquiring English, but still has a goal of making students fluent in English as soon as possible, at which point students move into mainstream English classrooms.

Is one of these models best suited for English learners?

Among researchers, it is commonly accepted that dual language or biliteracy models are the most effective to put English learners on par with their native speaking peers, in the long run.

Why do teachers have to be trained specifically to teach this population of students? What are teachers learning?

Educators and researchers say that teachers need to learn the differences and similarities between learning in one language and learning bilingually. Teachers need to learn about literacy methodology and how teaching literacy in Spanish (for example) is the same and different as teaching literacy in English. They have to learn how to teach English language development to students who are beginning to learn English (it is different than just teaching in English). These trainings also help teachers learn about cultural similarities and differences and about sources of culture conflict. Teachers need to be able to teach children English; how to use English to learn; and how the English language works. In bilingual settings teachers need to learn those three things for two languages. In short, the training needed to be a bilingual teacher is quite different. Colorado will soon require some of this training for all teachers.

What are the challenges districts have in offering these different programs? How do schools decide which type of model to offer?

The demographics of a district’s student population, and district politics play a large part in helping a district decide what model or program to use. Resources can also be a factor in deciding how to structure services or what programs to offer. In Adams 14, when the district leadership decided to pause the roll out of a biliteracy program, the district cited a lack of qualified bilingual teachers, among other things.

In Westminster, the school district’s unique competency-based approach, which removes grade levels and seeks to personalize instruction, was cited as a reason why the district had structured its English language development the way it had before the investigation by the Office for Civil Rights sought to change it.

Does Colorado provide guidance or oversight for how districts are doing this work?

The Colorado Department of Education offers some guidance for districts, but oversight of the districts’ compliance with what is required is limited. In practice, when parents suspect their children aren’t educated well, they have filed complaints with the federal government. In Denver, the complaints went through the Department of Justice. Investigations of most other metro-area districts have been conducted by the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights.

task force

Jeffco takes collaborative approach as it considers later school start times

File photo of Wheat Ridge High School students. (Photo by Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

The Jeffco school district is weighing pushing back start times at its middle and high schools, and the community task force set up to offer recommendations is asking for public input.

Nearby school districts, such as those in Cherry Creek and Greeley, have rolled out later start times, and Jeffco — the second largest school district in Colorado — in December announced its decision to study the issue.

Thompson and Brighton’s 27J school districts are pushing back start times at their secondary schools this fall.

The 50-person Jeffco task force has until January to present their recommendations to the district.

Supporters of the idea to start the school day later cite research showing that teenagers benefit from sleeping in and often do better in school as a result.

Jeffco is considering changing start times after parents and community members began pressing superintendent Jason Glass to look at the issue. Middle and high schools in the Jeffco district currently start at around 7:30 a.m.

The task force is inviting community members to offer their feedback this summer on the group’s website, its Facebook page, or the district’s form, and to come to its meetings in the fall.

Katie Winner, a Jeffco parent of two and one of three chairs of the start times task force, said she’s excited about how collaborative the work is this year.

“It’s a little shocking,” Winner said. “It’s really hard to convey to people that Jeffco schools wants your feedback. But I can say [definitively], I don’t believe this is a waste of time.”

The task force is currently split into three committees focusing on reviewing research on school start times, considering outcomes in other districts that have changed start times, and gathering community input. The group as a whole will also consider how schedule changes could affect transportation, sports and other after school activities, student employment, and district budgets.

Members of the task force are not appointed by the district, as has been typical in district decision-making in years past. Instead, as a way to try to generate the most community engagement, everyone who expressed interest was accepted into the group. Meetings are open to the public, and people can still join the task force.

“These groups are short-term work groups, not school board advisory committees. They are targeting some current issues that our families are interested in,” said Diana Wilson, the district’s chief communications officer. “Since the topics likely have a broad range of perspectives, gathering people that (hopefully) represent those perspectives to look at options seems like a good way to find some solutions or ideas for positive/constructive changes.”

How such a large group will reach a consensus remains to be seen. Winner knows the prospect could appear daunting, but “it’s actually a challenge to the group to say: be inclusive.”

For now the group is seeking recommendations that won’t require the district to spend more money. But Winner said the group will keep a close eye on potential tax measures that could give the district new funds after November. If some measure were to pass, it could give the group more flexibility in its recommendations.