First Person

Parents urge Denver schools to end herbicide use

A group of eco-conscious parents on Monday asked members of the Denver school board to rethink the district’s policy of spraying chemical herbicides on school lawns and to instead use less toxic means of killing weeds.

Parents at DPS' Edison Elementary, who planted an organic garden as part of their efforts to go green, want the district to stop spraying school grounds with chemical herbicides.

“I ask you to immediately stop the use of harmful chemicals. There are effective non-harmful chemicals available. We request a fresh start,” said Jennifer Draper Carson, whose son, a second-grader at Edison Elementary, suffers from asthma.

“Every student who runs on the Edison lawn is potentially vulnerable.”

Carson, who has announced she is running for the Denver school board in this November’s election, is a member of the Green Team at Edison. That group has been actively promoting composting, recycling and other green initiatives at the northwest Denver school.

Parents complain about ‘fog of chemicals’

The herbicide issue arose earlier this year when some Edison parents complained that they had been standing outside the school when they were suddenly surrounded by a chemical fog.

“The incident occurred while I was at the school,” said Melissa Knopper, a science writer who taught an after-school creative writing class at Edison. “I was leading my kids out of the school about 5 p.m. The door was locked, so the parents had been standing outside waiting. I opened the door and thought I smelled bug spray. There were parents standing there with toddlers, gasping for breath. They said someone had been spraying the field while the kids were playing soccer.”

Upon investigation, Knopper learned that TruGreen technicians had applied a herbicide containing the chemical 2,4-D to the Edison playing field. 2,4-D is the most widely used herbicide in the world, but its use is controversial. Toxicologists are divided about its potential to harm human health, and while the Environmental Protection Agency has approved its use in this country, it has been banned or restricted in a number of other countries.

But Jennifer Wolf, a former chemist for the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the mother of an Edison third-grader, warned the board that EPA warning labels are based on risk to an adult male.

“That doesn’t take into account the increased risk to children,” she said.

State laws met, state oversight cited

Unlike many states, Colorado law does not prohibit the use of chemical herbicides or pesticides on school property. State law simply requires notices to be posted if such chemicals have been applied.

But many parents don’t think that’s good enough. When the Edison Green Team posted an online petition asking DPS to seek safer options, nearly 1,000 people signed.

The school district’s contract with TruGreen expires on July 1. School officials say they’re happy to ask TruGreen or others interested in submitting a bid to do weed control by other means, but they want to make sure those other means are effective.

“Typically, those chemicals aren’t toxic unless you use them inappropriately, and we have no reason to believe TruGreen wasn’t using them appropriately,” said Trena Deane, executive director of facilities management for DPS. Interviewed last week, Deane said, “We met with TruGreen, and the way they apply the product typically should not create a wave or a fog.”

On the day in question, winds were calm and the herbicide was applied after hours, further decreasing the chances of unhealthy exposure.

Kristen Fefes, representing a number of lawn care companies across the state, acknowledged concerns about the use of pesticides. But she said the industry is strictly regulated by the Colorado Department of Agriculture, and technicians take serious precautions to avoid inappropriate use of chemicals.

“Any company spraying pesticide in the environment must pass strenuous tests just to stay licensed,” she said. She said DPS, along with many other school districts, has embraced a concept of “integrated pest management,” a process in which multiple methods are employed to suppress and control pests, including weeds.

“We’re here tonight to offer our help to the district and any schools in it with a better solution,” Fefes said. “Our members are willing to work with your facilities management to help you find solutions.”

Both sides offer to work toward solution

That’s the same offer the Green Team parents made.

“This is not an easy task for an overnight fix,” said Nicole Bauman, another parent representative. “But a lot of places have eliminated pesticide use. We’d like to offer our support in making this happen.”

DPS officials have acknowledged they don’t know exactly what happened that day at Edison Elementary. And they certainly don’t want to discourage parents from suggesting better ways to make schools less toxic.

Deane said she’s investigating what other school districts use and if equally effective but less toxic substances can be found at a reasonable cost, the district would move in that direction.

The school board took no action on Monday, but simply listened to public comment.

First Person

What I learned about the limits of school choice in New York City from a mother whose child uses a wheelchair

PHOTO: Patrick Wall

As a researcher interested in the ways online platforms impact learning and educational decision-making, I’ve been trying to understand how New York City parents get the information to make a crucial decision: where to send their children to school.

So for the past six months, I’ve been asking local parents about the data they used to choose among the system’s 1700 or so schools.

I’ve heard all sorts of stories about the factors parents weigh when picking schools. Beyond the usual considerations like test scores and art programs, they also consider the logistics of commuting from the Bronx to the East Village with two children in tow, whether the school can accommodate parents and children who are still learning English, and how much money the parent-teacher association raises to supplement the school’s budget.

But for some families, the choice process begins and ends with the question: Is the building fully accessible?

The federal Americans with Disabilities Act requires public buildings constructed after 1992 to be fully accessible to people in wheelchairs. However, most New York City public school buildings were constructed prior to that law, and high construction costs have limited the number of new, fully accessible buildings.

As a result, a shocking 83 percent of New York City schools have been found non-compliant with the ADA, according to a two-year federal Department of Justice investigation whose findings the city Department of Education largely disputes. Recently, the city’s Office of Space Management has begun surveying buildings for full accessibility, but more work remains to be done.

One parent’s struggle to find a school suitable for her son, who has a physical disability but no cognitive issues, illustrates what a major role accessibility plays in some families’ decision-making.

Melanie Rivera is the mother of two and a native New Yorker living in Ditmas Park in Brooklyn’s District 22 who shared her story with me — and gave me permission to share it with others. Here is what she told me, in her own words:

My son Gabriel is seven years old. He was born with a condition called arthrogryposis, which affects the development of his joints. His hips, knees, and feet are affected and he has joint contractures, so his legs don’t bend and straighten the way most people’s do. In order to get around, he uses a combination of crutches and a wheelchair.

Before I had my differently-abled son, I was working in a preschool for children with special needs. The kids I worked with had cognitive developmental disabilities.

Despite my professional experience, I was overwhelmed when it was my turn to help my child with different abilities navigate the public school system. I can only imagine the students falling by the wayside because their parents don’t have that background.

When I was completing my son’s kindergarten application, I couldn’t even consider the academics of the school. My main priority was to tour the schools and assess their level of accessibility.

There are only a couple of ADA-accessible schools in my district, and there was no way of indicating on my son’s kindergarten application that he needed one. When we got the admissions results, he was assigned to his zoned school – which is not accessible.

I entered lengthy and extensive mediation to get him into an ADA-accessible school. At that point, I knew I would just have to take what I could get. For families whose children have special needs, “school choice” can ring hollow.

The process of finding any accessible school was a challenge. The DOE website allows families to search for ADA-accessible schools. But the site describes most schools as “partially accessible,” leaving it up to parents to call each school and say, “What do you mean by this?”

When I called the schools and asked, “Are you a barrier-free school?” the staff in the office didn’t know what the term meant. They might reply, “Oh yeah, we have a ramp.” I’d have to press further: “But can you get to the office? Can you get to every floor in the building?” The response was often, “Oh, I don’t know.”

Even the office staff didn’t know. But for my son’s sake, I needed to know.

Gabriel deserves the full range of academic and social experiences. So every day I make sure he’s learning in the least-restrictive environment — from the classroom, to phys ed, to field trips.

I believe the Department of Education also wants to make schools accessible and to place students with different abilities in settings where they’ll flourish, but the current system is not equipped to follow through on those good intentions. While I see gradual changes, I still know that if I don’t find the best placement for my son the system definitely won’t.

At the school level, administrators should know the details of their own school’s accessibility. Teachers should learn to include children with different abilities in their classrooms. Such a commitment means recognizing the value of inclusivity — not viewing accessibility as something ADA says you must do.

Before I had Gabriel, I never thought about accessibility. I never looked at street cutouts or thought about how to enter a store with steps. We’re probably all guilty of perpetuating exclusion at one point or another.

Recognizing that will allow us to change the status quo. It will allow every individual with a physical disability to fully participate in the public school system.

Claire Fontaine is a researcher at Data & Society, a research institute in New York City focused on social, cultural, and ethical issues arising from technological development. Kinjal Dave is a research assistant at Data & Society. You can read more about their project, which seeks to better understand the ways in which diverse New York City parents draw on school performance data, online dashboards, and school review websites when researching schools for their children.

First Person

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Grace Tatter covers a press conference at the Tennessee State Capitol in 2015.

For three years, I covered the Statehouse for Chalkbeat Tennessee, reporting on how policies from Nashville trickled down into more than 1,800 public schools across the state.

Now I’m starting back to school myself, pursuing graduate studies aimed at helping me to become a better education journalist. I’m taking with me six things I learned on the job about public education in Tennessee.

1. Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.

I heard from hundreds of parents, educators, and students who were passionate about what’s happening — good and bad — inside of schools. I covered crowded school board meetings and regularly scrambled for an open seat at legislative hearings where parents had filled the room after driving since dawn to beat the opening gavel. Not incidentally, those parents usually came from communities with the “worst” schools and the lowest test scores. While many disagreements exist about the best way to run schools, there is no shortage of people, particularly parents and educators, who care.

2. Tennessee has one of the most fascinating education stories in America.

I’ve had a front-row seat to massive changes in K-12 education under reforms ushered in by Race to the Top — an overhaul being tracked closely well beyond the state’s borders. But the national interest and import doesn’t end with changes stemming from the $500 million federal award. Tennessee is home to some of the nation’s premier education researchers, making its classrooms laboratories for new ideas about pre-K, school turnaround, and literacy instruction, just to name a few. And at the legislature, more lobbyists are devoted to education than to most any other cause. A lot of eyes are on Tennessee schools.

3. The education community is not as divided as it looks.

During the course of just a few years, I watched state lawmakers change their positions on accountability and school vouchers. I witnessed “anti-charter” activists praise charter leaders for their work. I chronicled task force meetings where state leaders who were committed to standardized testing found middle ground with classroom educators concerned that it’s gone too far. In short, a lot of people listened to each other and changed their minds. Watching such consensus-building reminded me that, while there are no simple debates about education, there is a widespread commitment to making it better.

4. Money matters.

Even when stories don’t seem to be about money, they usually are. How much money is being spent on testing, teacher salaries, school discipline reform? How much should be available for wraparound services? Why do some schools have more money than others? Is there enough to go around? Tennessee leaders have steadily upped public education spending, but the state still invests less than most other states, and the disparities among districts are gaping. That’s why more than a handful of school districts are battling with the state in court. Conversations about money are inextricable from conversations about improving schools.

5. Race is a significant education issue, but few leaders are willing to have that conversation.

More than 60 years after Brown v. Board of Education, Tennessee’s schools are largely racially segregated. Yet most policymakers tread lightly, if ever, into conversations about achieving real racial integration. And in many cases — such as a 2011 law enabling mostly white suburban Shelby County towns to secede from the mostly black Memphis district — they’ve actually gone backwards. Then there’s the achievement data. The annual release of test scores unleashes a flurry of conversation around the racial achievement gap. But the other 11 months of the year, I heard little about whether state and local policies are closing those gaps — or contributing to them — or the historical reasons why the gaps exist in the first place. To be sure, state leadership is trying to address some of Tennessee’s shortcomings. For example, the State Department of Education has launched modestly funded initiatives to recruit more teachers of color. But often, race and racism are the elephants in the room.

6. Still, there’s lots to celebrate.

If there were unlimited hours in the day, I could have written thousands of stories about what’s going right in public education. Every day, I received story ideas about collaborations with NASA in Oak Ridge, high school trips to Europe from Memphis, gourmet school lunches in Tullahoma, and learning partnerships with the Nashville Zoo. Even in schools with the steepest challenges, they were stories that inspire happiness and hope. They certainly inspired me.

Grace Tatter graduated from public schools in Winston-Salem, N.C., and received her bachelor’s degree in history from the University of North Carolina. She’s now pursuing a master’s degree in specialized studies at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.