First Person

Colorado's killer sun poses challenge to schools

Colorado isn’t sweltering the way the eastern U.S. is this summer, but in the long run, the state’s elevation actually makes the sun more dangerous.

Smiling girl with sunscreen.A 2004 survey found almost half of white adults in Colorado had at least one sunburn in the past year, and sunburns are a significant risk factor for skin cancer. Diagnoses of melanoma, responsible for 75 percent of skin cancer deaths, are 15 percent higher in Colorado than in the rest of the country.

That’s why a number of Colorado schools and school districts – aided by state and local health departments – are beginning to adopt sun safety policies and be more intentional about introducing sun protection information into classrooms.

Sun Safe Toolkits provide multiple resources

Just this spring, Tri-County Health Department distributed “sun safe toolkits” to all 15 school districts in Adams, Arapahoe and Douglas counties, in hopes the districts will adopt some of the suggested sun safety strategies.

“We can’t really say how it’s going yet, because we just distributed them,” said Stacy Weinberg, director of epidemiology, planning and communication for Tri-County. “Our plan is to evaluate it next spring, but our goal is to disseminate the various strategies the superintendents deem appropriate, and look at strategies that can focus on policy change or systems change to increase sun safety.”

Included in the tool kit:

  • Various Sun Safe classroom curricula, including the Sunny Days Healthy Ways curriculum developed in Colorado by Klein Buendel, a small health education and communication research business in Lakewood, and the Environmental Protection Agency’s Sun Wise curriculum.
  • Model sun safety policies developed by Sun Safe Colorado. Resources for designing and funding playground shade structures.
  • Assistance in training faculty and staff in sun safety measures.

State policies matter little to local districts

Researchers from Klein Buendel, which launched the Sun Safe Colorado program five years ago with a grant from the Colorado Department of Health, recently partnered with the National Cancer Institute to study what it takes to get schools to adopt sun safe policies. Targeted in the study were 112 districts in Colorado and in California.

Findings of the study won’t be made public until they are published later this summer in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine. But some differences between the two states became clear, said Ilima Kane, program manager of Klein Buendel.

“I can tell you, anecdotally, that Colorado is much more of a local control state than California is,” Kane said. “In California, policy comes from the top down. If the state says something is a good idea, most districts will adopt it much more easily than in Colorado. Here, the attitudes around state policy are quite different.”

Colorado schools ahead in the game

But even without state sun safety policies to guide them, many Colorado schools and school districts are far ahead of the game compared to schools nationwide, Kane said.

“We’re doing well with schools,” she said. “Probably only six or seven states in the nation are really targeting sun safety, and Colorado is one of those. Unfortunately, we also have some of the fastest-increasing skin cancer rates in the country, due to the elevation, the number of sunny days and the Colorado outdoor lifestyle.”

Rural schools districts have been especially receptive to adopting sun safety procedures.

“It’s a big issue among our farmer populations,” she said.

Districts try a variety of strategies

Around the state, different districts and individual schools are taking a variety of steps to address sun safety. Among them:

  • In Steamboat Springs, dermatologist Dr. Sandi Eivins started a safety program at the Christian Heritage School this spring, including educating students about skin cancer and ultraviolet exposure. She also provided broad-rimmed sun-protective hats for all the students. When classes resume in the fall, the school will encourage all teachers and students to wear hats and sunscreen.
  • La Junta Intermediate School in La Junta got grant money to buy educational materials, a supply of sunscreen and lip balm for students, and a UV meter. It also built a shade structure on the school playground.
  • Students at Jefferson County’s Conifer High School researched, wrote, filmed and edited and sun safety awareness movie, which was distributed school-wide on DVD, and the school bought sunscreen and lip balm for student use.
  • In Greeley, students at Northridge High School staged a Sun Safe Pre-prom fashion show, to encourage others not to try and tan before the prom.
  • Adams County District 14 in Commerce City has adopted a district-wide sun safety policy that includes encouraging students to wear sunscreen and protective clothing when outside, and shade trees and shade structures are being added in three school gardens. “One of the challenges we’ve come up against is that we’re a high poverty district,” said Rainey Wikstrom, wellness coordinator for the district. “Requiring parents to provide sunscreen and hats isn’t something we feel we can require. That’s just not feasible. But we do encourage sun safe behavior for our students.”
  • Highland Middle School in Ault obtained a grant to order a sun safety curriculum, and sent its staff to a sun safety presentation. It also built a shade structure outside. Haxton Elementary/Junior High School in Phillips County hosted a field day that included sunscreen, sunglasses and hats for everybody.

“I don’t think you’ll see a super lot of schools adding sun safety to their health curriculum,” Kane said. “But sun safety education can really be contextual. You’ll see more and more doing something before big field days or as part of a PE class. It will be in places where students can immediately put what they learn into practice.”

Sun safety a two-edged sword

Still, encouraging students to wear sunscreen is not without problems, educators acknowledge. In some districts, sunscreen is considered an over-the-counter medication and must be accompanied by a doctor’s note and must be administered by the appropriate school personnel. In some classrooms, certain sunscreens irritate allergic students. And teachers of young students are sometimes discouraged from helping them to apply sunscreen.

The Sun Safe Colorado campaign provides recent skin cancer research, sample district policies, sun safety curricula and sun safety programs for schools.

“It’s a touching issue,” Kane said. “I can understand that. It can be tricky. But things are much less restrictive now than they were six or seven years ago.”

Equally troubling is the fear that too many warnings about the dangers of sun exposure will discourage children from playing outside. No one wants that to happen.

“From a wellness perspective, we’re always trying to strike a balance between making sure kids get outside to play and not getting too much sun,” said Wikstrom. “We know our population of students really needs to be active. And getting some amount of sun is important for good health.”

Colorado currently has no state laws that address sun safety for children, but Kane said the Sun Safe Colorado campaign hopes to work with legislators to introduce a bill to restrict tanning salon use to adults only.

Until then, slather up.

Sun safety resources for schools

Tri County Health Department’s Sun Safety Toolkit for schools

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Guidelines for School Programs to Prevent Skin Cancer

Sunny Days Healthy Ways curriculum

EPA’s Sun Wise program for schools

American Academy of Dermatology Shade Structure Grant Program for schools

Sample sun safety policies for schools

First Person

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

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes, it was,” he insisted.

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

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

“It wasn’t me.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

First Person

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

The author at her school.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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