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’m a principal who thinks personalized learning shouldn’t be a debate.

PHOTO: Lisa Epstein
Lisa Epstein, principal of Richard H. Lee Elementary, supports personalized learning

This is the first in what we hope will be a tradition of thoughtful opinion pieces—of all viewpoints—published by Chalkbeat Chicago. Have an idea? Send it to

As personalized learning takes hold throughout the city, Chicago teachers are wondering why a term so appealing has drawn so much criticism.

Until a few years ago, the school that I lead, Richard H. Lee Elementary on the Southwest Side, was on a path toward failing far too many of our students. We crafted curriculum and identified interventions to address gaps in achievement and the shifting sands of accountability. Our teachers were hardworking and committed. But our work seemed woefully disconnected from the demands we knew our students would face once they made the leap to postsecondary education.

We worried that our students were ill-equipped for today’s world of work and tomorrow’s jobs. Yet, we taught using the same model through which we’d been taught: textbook-based direct instruction.

How could we expect our learners to apply new knowledge to evolving facts, without creating opportunities for exploration? Where would they learn to chart their own paths, if we didn’t allow for agency at school? Why should our students engage with content that was disconnected from their experiences, values, and community?

We’ve read articles about a debate over personalized learning centered on Silicon Valley’s “takeover” of our schools. We hear that Trojan Horse technologies are coming for our jobs. But in our school, personalized learning has meant developing lessons informed by the cultural heritage and interests of our students. It has meant providing opportunities to pursue independent projects, and differentiating curriculum, instruction, and assessment to enable our students to progress at their own pace. It has reflected a paradigm shift that is bottom-up and teacher led.

And in a move that might have once seemed incomprehensible, it has meant getting rid of textbooks altogether. We’re not alone.

We are among hundreds of Chicago educators who would welcome critics to visit one of the 120 city schools implementing new models for learning – with and without technology. Because, as it turns out, Chicago is fast becoming a hub for personalized learning. And, it is no coincidence that our academic growth rates are also among the highest in the nation.

Before personalized learning, we designed our classrooms around the educator. Decisions were made based on how educators preferred to teach, where they wanted students to sit, and what subjects they wanted to cover.

Personalized learning looks different in every classroom, but the common thread is that we now make decisions looking at the student. We ask them how they learn best and what subjects strike their passions. We use small group instruction and individual coaching sessions to provide each student with lesson plans tailored to their needs and strengths. We’re reimagining how we use physical space, and the layout of our classrooms. We worry less about students talking with their friends; instead, we ask whether collaboration and socialization will help them learn.

Our emphasis on growth shows in the way students approach each school day. I have, for example, developed a mentorship relationship with one of our middle school students who, despite being diligent and bright, always ended the year with average grades. Last year, when she entered our personalized learning program for eighth grade, I saw her outlook change. She was determined to finish the year with all As.

More than that, she was determined to show that she could master anything her teachers put in front of her. She started coming to me with graded assignments. We’d talk about where she could improve and what skills she should focus on. She was pragmatic about challenges and so proud of her successes. At the end of the year she finished with straight As—and she still wanted more. She wanted to get A-pluses next year. Her outlook had changed from one of complacence to one oriented towards growth.

Rather than undermining the potential of great teachers, personalized learning is creating opportunities for collaboration as teachers band together to leverage team-teaching and capitalize on their strengths and passions. For some classrooms, this means offering units and lessons based on the interests and backgrounds of the class. For a couple of classrooms, it meant literally knocking down walls to combine classes from multiple grade-levels into a single room that offers each student maximum choice over how they learn. For every classroom, it means allowing students to work at their own pace, because teaching to the middle will always fail to push some while leaving others behind.

For many teachers, this change sounded daunting at first. For years, I watched one of my teachers – a woman who thrives off of structure and runs a tight ship – become less and less engaged in her profession. By the time we made the switch to personalized learning, I thought she might be done. We were both worried about whether she would be able to adjust to the flexibility of the new model. But she devised a way to maintain order in her classroom while still providing autonomy. She’s found that trusting students with the responsibility to be engaged and efficient is both more effective and far more rewarding than trying to force them into their roles. She now says that she would never go back to the traditional classroom structure, and has rediscovered her love for teaching. The difference is night and day.

The biggest change, though, is in the relationships between students and teachers. Gone is the traditional, authority-to-subordinate dynamic; instead, students see their teachers as mentors with whom they have a unique and individual connection, separate from the rest of the class. Students are actively involved in designing their learning plans, and are constantly challenged to articulate the skills they want to build and the steps that they must take to get there. They look up to their teachers, they respect their teachers, and, perhaps most important, they know their teachers respect them.

Along the way, we’ve found that students respond favorably when adults treat them as individuals. When teachers make important decisions for them, they see learning as a passive exercise. But, when you make it clear that their needs and opinions will shape each school day, they become invested in the outcome.

As our students take ownership over their learning, they earn autonomy, which means they know their teachers trust them. They see growth as the goal, so they no longer finish assignments just to be done; they finish assignments to get better. And it shows in their attendance rates – and test scores.

Lisa Epstein is the principal of Richard H. Lee Elementary School, a public school in Chicago’s West Lawn neighborhood serving 860 students from pre-kindergarten through eighth grade.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect that Richard H. Lee Elementary School serves 860 students, not 760 students.

First Person

I’ve spent years studying the link between SHSAT scores and student success. The test doesn’t tell you as much as you might think.

PHOTO: Photo by Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images

Proponents of New York City’s specialized high school exam, the test the mayor wants to scrap in favor of a new admissions system, defend it as meritocratic. Opponents contend that when used without consideration of school grades or other factors, it’s an inappropriate metric.

One thing that’s been clear for decades about the exam, now used to admit students to eight top high schools, is that it matters a great deal.

Students admitted may not only receive a superior education, but also access to elite colleges and eventually to better employment. That system has also led to an under-representation of Hispanic students, black students, and girls.

As a doctoral student at The Graduate Center of the City University of New York in 2015, and in the years after I received my Ph.D., I have tried to understand how meritocratic the process really is.

First, that requires defining merit. Only New York City defines it as the score on a single test — other cities’ selective high schools use multiple measures, as do top colleges. There are certainly other potential criteria, such as artistic achievement or citizenship.

However, when merit is defined as achievement in school, the question of whether the test is meritocratic is an empirical question that can be answered with data.

To do that, I used SHSAT scores for nearly 28,000 students and school grades for all public school students in the city. (To be clear, the city changed the SHSAT itself somewhat last year; my analysis used scores on the earlier version.)

My analysis makes clear that the SHSAT does measure an ability that contributes to some extent to success in high school. Specifically, a SHSAT score predicts 20 percent of the variability in freshman grade-point average among all public school students who took the exam. Students with extremely high SHSAT scores (greater than 650) generally also had high grades when they reached a specialized school.

However, for the vast majority of students who were admitted with lower SHSAT scores, from 486 to 600, freshman grade point averages ranged widely — from around 50 to 100. That indicates that the SHSAT was a very imprecise predictor of future success for students who scored near the cutoffs.

Course grades earned in the seventh grade, in contrast, predicted 44 percent of the variability in freshman year grades, making it a far better admissions criterion than SHSAT score, at least for students near the score cutoffs.

It’s not surprising that a standardized test does not predict as well as past school performance. The SHSAT represents a two and a half hour sample of a limited range of skills and knowledge. In contrast, middle-school grades reflect a full year of student performance across the full range of academic subjects.

Furthermore, an exam which relies almost exclusively on one method of assessment, multiple choice questions, may fail to measure abilities that are revealed by the variety of assessment methods that go into course grades. Additionally, middle school grades may capture something important that the SHSAT fails to capture: long-term motivation.

Based on his current plan, Mayor de Blasio seems to be pointed in the right direction. His focus on middle school grades and the Discovery Program, which admits students with scores below the cutoff, is well supported by the data.

In the cohort I looked at, five of the eight schools admitted some students with scores below the cutoff. The sample sizes were too small at four of them to make meaningful comparisons with regularly admitted students. But at Brooklyn Technical High School, the performance of the 35 Discovery Program students was equal to that of other students. Freshman year grade point averages for the two groups were essentially identical: 86.6 versus 86.7.

My research leads me to believe that it might be reasonable to admit a certain percentage of the students with extremely high SHSAT scores — over 600, where the exam is a good predictor —and admit the remainder using a combined index of seventh grade GPA and SHSAT scores.

When I used that formula to simulate admissions, diversity increased, somewhat. An additional 40 black students, 209 Hispanic students, and 205 white students would have been admitted, as well as an additional 716 girls. It’s worth pointing out that in my simulation, Asian students would still constitute the largest segment of students (49 percent) and would be admitted in numbers far exceeding their proportion of applicants.

Because middle school grades are better than test scores at predicting high school achievement, their use in the admissions process should not in any way dilute the quality of the admitted class, and could not be seen as discriminating against Asian students.

The success of the Discovery students should allay some of the concerns about the ability of students with SHSAT scores below the cutoffs. There is no guarantee that similar results would be achieved in an expanded Discovery Program. But this finding certainly warrants larger-scale trials.

With consideration of additional criteria, it may be possible to select a group of students who will be more representative of the community the school system serves — and the pool of students who apply — without sacrificing the quality for which New York City’s specialized high schools are so justifiably famous.

Jon Taylor is a research analyst at Hunter College analyzing student success and retention.