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 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 cburke@chalkbeat.org

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.