First Person

Running clubs: A cheap, fun option for kids

Christine Crabb used to be a runner. But the Highlands Ranch mother admits she’s more of a walker these days.

Students at Northridge Elementary School in Highlands Ranch warm up before running laps around the school baseball field. They're part of the before-school Kids Running American running club.

Now, at least two mornings a week, she’s also a cheerleader.

“Come on, Olivia! Keep running!” yelled Crabb, as her 6-year-old daughter circled the baseball field at Northridge Elementary at a healthy trot, in the company of a dozen other youngsters.

Six times around equals one mile, and Olivia’s goal is to get in enough laps to equal a marathon over the course of the next few weeks. Olivia’s mom was there to walk her to school, to offer encouragement and to hold stuff while she ran during the half hour before classes begin at 8:30 a.m.

“She likes it, and I wanted to encourage her to start running at a young age,” said Crabb. “Just this morning, she was telling me she thinks running has made her legs stronger.”

Running clubs take off

Olivia is one of 40 kids on the Northridge Kids Running America team. It’s one of nearly three dozen parent-organized Kids Running America teams at elementary schools around the metro area.

kids running clubElsewhere, the Landsharks running club, based in Colorado Springs, has spread to more than 60 schools, including one in Boulder. And the Girls Gotta Run program is introducing fifth-grade girls throughout Larimer County to the joys of running. Still other schools are starting their own unaffiliated running clubs as a cheap, fun, effective way to get kids moving.

“Five years ago, our executive director found a need for more physical education in the school district,” said Rachel Levi, program director for Kids Running America – and the running coach at the twice-weekly Northridge run. “She grabbed 72 kids and started this program in Parker.”

Some 1,500 children are expected to participate in the Kids Running America "Final Mile Event" at Elitch Gardens next month.

Since then, more than 7,000 elementary-age children have participated in Kids Running America events. The incremental running program, which operates over the course of eight-to-twelve weeks in the spring and the fall, gives kids the chance to take part in organized fun runs, plus play training games, logging miles as they go.

The Final Mile

The “Final Mile” event this fall will be Saturday, Oct. 8, when young runners from around the metro area will converge on Elitch Gardens to run their 26th mile together. About 1,500 are expected to participate. In the spring, the KRA runners do their final mile at the Denver Marathon.

“I try not to be a drill sergeant – at least not in the beginning,” said Levi, as she shouted encouragement to the youngsters, reminding them to “pace, not race.”

As they progress through the running drills, she’ll provide them with training incentives such as water bottles and hats. She also assigns “homework miles,” in hopes the kids will get their parents to go running with them.

“If the families get involved, the kids have a greater likelihood of staying with it,” Levi said.

While it’s not an official school team, school officials are very supportive of before-school and after-school running clubs.

“It’s a great way to start the day,” Levi said. “The teachers love it. When they finish running, the kids are bright-eyed and bushy-tailed.”

Parents love it, too.

“I love that he’s out here, being active,” said Lynne Hight, whose 8-year-old son, Rylan, is in the running club at Northridge. “He lives for it now. He wants to make sure he gets here on time on the running days. And he has a better day at school on the days he’s run.”

Teachers join in, too

The program isn’t targeted just at athletic youngsters. Far from it. Last spring, 275 students – plus their teachers – at Johnson Elementary School, in Denver’s Harvey Park neighborhood, took part in the school’s Kids Running America program.

“Seven laps around the school track is a mile,” said Annie Vassallo, the assistant program coordinator for the Beacon Neighborhood Center, which provides after-school enrichment programming at Johnson. “We worked closely with the gym teacher, and every lap they made, they got a popsicle stick. They could run during recess, or they could run during our Tuesday/Thursday fun club program. Running wasn’t mandatory, but we definitely promoted it.”

“Some of the kids couldn’t quite make seven laps, and that’s OK,” Vassallo said. “Some had to walk partway, and that was OK. They still got popsicle sticks. And some kids were so excited they ran 14 laps.”

The goal, Vassallo said, was not necessarily weight loss, even though Johnson students share in the growing childhood obesity epidemic. But the Body Mass Index measures for some of the participating students definitely went down, she said.

“Obviously that didn’t happen for everybody,” she said. “We had some extremely lean and naturally athletic students already. For them, running all day was a natural thing. But we definitely saw changes in some children’s body weight.”

Johnson will again field a Kids Running America team this spring. But Vassallo hopes that the lessons learned last spring will endure.

“So often, physical fitness just falls off the radar in many families,” she said. “By giving these students this opportunity, we tried to influence their parents too. Parents would come out and run with them. We saw students in need of physical fitness really commit to this idea. It’s hard to run every single day, but we saw students doing that.”

Happy feet in Colorado Springs

In Colorado Springs, the venerable Landsharks running club is entering its 12th year. The after-school running program involves five to six weeks of cross-country runs during fall and track in the spring. Participants gather at their schools twice a week to work out with a parent-coach, in preparation for Monday night races.

The Landsharks Running Club for children began a dozen years ago in Colorado Springs.

“Practices aren’t just running laps,” said former Olympic athlete Kathy Rex, who, along with her husband, Steve, founded Landsharks when her son wanted to join a running club. It’s named for an old Saturday Night Live skit. “They’re mostly games where the kids just run a lot, but don’t realize they’re running. We don’t want them to feel it’s drudgery. But they’ll get to where they can run a mile and a half, and it’s no big deal.”

Landsharks is for children ages 5 to 12, but those who want to may continue on to participate in a junior Olympic program, Rex said.

“The kids love it. Our philosophy is, every kid’s a winner. They compete against themselves to improve each week. And those who want to take it to the next level can go on to the junior Olympics.”

Many have done so. And many have gone on to earn college athletic scholarships, in running and in other sports.

Kids’ running programs

Kids Running America
Landsharks Running Club
Girls Gotta Run
Run For Your Life Colorado

Larimer County rocks it, too

Girls Gotta Run, an eight-week program at schools and community centers in Larimer County, is geared toward fifth-graders, and the goal is improving self-esteem at a critical time in girls’ development.

“The idea is, each day they meet, they have a lesson on a topic appropriate for the girls,” said Anne Genson, community health educator with Poudre Valley Healthy System, which sponsors Girls Gotta Run, through its Healthy Kids Club. “So it could be on dieting or body image or fast food – things we know girls that age need to hear.”

One day a week, they run. The other day, they do something else – maybe tai bo or Pilates or yoga. The hope isn’t that they become runners, but that they find something they can maintain activity-wise.

Another Larimer County kids running program – Run For Your Life Colorado – began two years ago as a way simply to get good running shoes on the feet of disadvantaged children. It’s grown from there into a full-scale eight-week coaching program.

Founder Paul Higgins launched the non-profit to collect used running shoes. He washed them, refurbished them with new footbeds and laces, and gave them children who could never afford high-priced running shoes. So far, nearly 100 children have received refurbished running shoes for free.

“The kids who got them pledged they would be more active, but at first we really didn’t do anything to keep up with them,” said Spencer Dries, interim executive director of Run For Your Life Colorado. “But we realized we needed to be more pro-active than that.”

RFYL launched a running program last spring at Lopez Elementary in Fort Collins, and 25 kids committed to 60  to 90 minutes of after-school running practice, two days a week. The goal is to get them to participate in a season-ending 5K race, with shorter fun runs leading up to that. This fall, the program will expand to three schools, and Dries hopes the growth will continue.

“We’re more than just running coaches,” said Dries, himself an accomplished tri-athlete. “We become their friends. Some of the kids are already athletic, and we encourage them. But we try to get the less-active kids to be more active. We try to get them as active as they feel comfortable being. Some excel. Some strive to do more than others. But we take them on an individual basis.”

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.

First Person

I was an attorney representing school districts in contract talks. Here’s why I hope the Supreme Court doesn’t weaken teachers unions.

PHOTO: Creative Commons / supermac1961

Many so-called education reformers argue that collective bargaining — and unions — are obstacles to real change in education. It’s common to hear assertions about how “restrictive” contracts and “recalcitrant” unions put adult interests over children’s.

The underlying message: if union power were minimized and collective bargaining rights weakened or eliminated, school leaders would be able to enact sweeping changes that could disrupt public education’s status quo.

Those that subscribe to this view are eagerly awaiting the Supreme Court’s decision in the case of Janus v. American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees. At issue is the constitutionality of “agency” or “fair share” fees — employee payroll deductions that go to local unions, meant to cover the costs of negotiating and implementing a bargaining agreement.

In states that permit agency fees (there are about 20), a teacher may decline to be part of a union but must still pay those fees. If the Supreme Court rules that those agency fees are unconstitutional, and many teachers do not voluntarily pay, local unions will be deprived of resources needed to negotiate and enforce bargaining agreements.

Based on my experience as an attorney representing school districts in bargaining and contract issues, I have this to say to those hoping the Court will strike down these fees: be careful what you wish for.

Eliminating fair share fees (and trying to weaken unions) represents a misguided assumption about bargaining — that the process weakens school quality. To the contrary, strong relationships with unions, built through negotiations, can help create the conditions for student and school success. Indeed, in my experience, the best superintendents and school boards seized bargaining as an opportunity to advance their agenda, and engaged unions as partners whenever possible.

Why, and how, can this work? For one, the process of negotiations provides a forum for school leaders and teachers to hear one another’s concerns and goals. In my experience, this is most effective in districts that adopt “interest-based bargaining,” which encourages problem-solving as starting point for discussions as opposed to viewing bargaining as a zero-sum game.

Interest-based bargaining begins with both sides listing their major concerns and brainstorming solutions. The touchstone for a solution to be adopted in a bargaining agreement: Is the proposal in the best interests of children? This important question, if embedded in the process, forces both sides to carefully consider their shared mission.

For example, some districts I worked with paid teachers less than comparable neighboring districts did. It would have been unreasonable for unions to insist that their pay be increased enough to even that difference out, because that would mean reducing investments in other items of importance to children, like technology or infrastructure. At the same time, it would have been untenable for management to play “hard ball” and deny the problem, because to do so would likely lead to a disgruntled workforce.

Instead, both sides were forced to “own” the issue and collaboratively craft plausible solutions. That made unions more agreeable to proposals that demonstrated some commitment by the district to addressing the issue of pay, and districts open to other things that they could provide without breaking the budget (like more early release days for professional development).

To be sure, many school administrators could get frustrated with the process of bargaining or having to consult the negotiated agreement when they want to make a change. Some districts would very much like to adopt an extended school day, for example, but they know that they must first consult and negotiate such an idea with the union.

Yet, in districts where school administrators had built a reservoir of goodwill through collective bargaining, disagreement does not come at the cost of operating schools efficiently. Both sides come to recognize that while they inevitably will disagree on some things, they can also seek agreement — and often do on high-stakes matters, like teacher evaluations.

How does this relate to the Supreme Court’s pending decision? Without fees from some teachers, unions may lack the resources to ensure that contract negotiations and enforcement are robust and done well. This could create a vicious cycle: teachers who voluntarily pay fees for bargaining in a post-Janus world, assuming the court rules against the unions, will view such payments as not delivering any return on investment. In turn, they will stop contributing voluntarily, further degrading the quality of the union’s services.

Even more troubling, if fair share fees are prohibited, resentment and internal strife will arise between those who continue to pay the fees and those who refuse. This would undercut a primary benefit of bargaining — labor peace and a sense of shared purpose.

Speaking as a parent, this raises a serious concern: who wants to send their child to a school where there is an undercurrent of bitterness between teachers and administrators that will certainly carry over into the classroom?

It is easy to see the appeal of those opposing agency fees. No one wants to see more money going out of their paycheck. The union-as-bogeyman mentality is pervasive. Moreover, in my experience, some teachers (especially the newer ones) do not recognize the hidden benefits to bargaining contracts.

But, obvious or not, agency fees help promote a stable workplace that allows teachers to concentrate on their primary responsibility: their students. Removing the key ingredient threatens this balance.

Mark Paige is a former school teacher and school law attorney who represented school districts in New England. He is currently an associate professor of public policy at the University of Massachusetts – Dartmouth.