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

Why the phrase ‘with fidelity’ is an affront to good teaching

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

“With fidelity” are some of the most damaging words in education.

Districts spend a ton of money paying people to pick out massively expensive, packaged curriculums, as if every one of a thousand classrooms needs the exact same things. Then officials say, over and over again, that they must be implemented “with fidelity.” What they mean is that teachers better not do anything that would serve their students’ specific needs.

When that curriculum does nothing to increase student achievement, it is not blamed. The district person who found it and purchased it is never blamed. Nope. They say, “Well, the teachers must not have been implementing it with fidelity.”

It keeps happening because admitting that schools are messy and students are human and teaching is both creative and artistic would also mean you have to trust teachers and let them have some power. Also, there are some really crappy teachers out there, and programs for everyone are often meant to push that worst-case-scenario line a little higher.

And if everyone’s doing just what they’re supposed to, we’ll get such good, clean numbers, and isn’t that worth a few thousand more dollars?

I was talking with a friend recently, a teacher at an urban school on the East Coast. He had been called to task by his principal for splitting his kids into groups to offer differentiated math instruction based on students’ needs. “But,” the principal said, “did the pacing guide say to differentiate? You need to trust the system.”

I understand the desire to find out if a curriculum “works.” But I don’t trust anyone who can say “trust the system” without vomiting. Not when the system is so much worse than anything teachers would put together.

Last year, my old district implemented Reading Plus, an online reading program that forces students to read at a pace determined by their scores. The trainers promised, literally promised us, that there wasn’t a single reading selection anywhere in the program that could be considered offensive to anyone. God knows I never learned anything from a book that made me feel uncomfortable!

Oh, and students were supposed to use this program — forced-paced reading of benign material followed by multiple-choice questions and more forced-pace reading — for 90 minutes a week. We heard a lot about fidelity when the program did almost nothing for students (and, I believe quite strongly, did far worse than encouraging independent reading of high-interest books for 90 minutes a week would have done).

At the end of that year, I was handed copies of next year’s great adventure in fidelity. I’m not in that district any longer, but the whole district was all switching over to SpringBoard, another curriculum, in language arts classes. On came the emails about implementing with fidelity and getting everyone on the same page. We were promised flexibility, you know, so long as we also stuck to the pacing guide of the workbook.

I gave it a look, I did, because only idiots turn down potential tools. But man, it seemed custom-built to keep thinking — especially any creative, critical thought from either students or teachers — to a bare minimum.

I just got an email from two students from last year. They said hi, told me they missed creative writing class, and said they hated SpringBoard, the “evil twin of Reading Plus.”

That district ran out of money and had to cut teachers (including me) at the end of the year. But if they hadn’t, I don’t think I would have lasted long if forced to teach from a pacing guide. I’m a good teacher. Good teachers love to be challenged and supported. They take feedback well, but man do we hate mandates for stuff we know isn’t best for the kids in our room.

Because, from inside a classroom full of dynamic, chaotic brilliance;

from a classroom where that kid just shared that thing that broke all of our hearts;

from a classroom where that other kid figured out that idea they’ve been working on for weeks;

from that classroom where that other kid, who doesn’t know enough of the language, hides how hard he works to keep up and still misses things;

and from that classroom where one kid isn’t sure if they trust you yet, and that other kid trusts you too much, too easily, because their bar had been set too low after years of teachers that didn’t care enough;

from inside that classroom, it’s impossible to trust that anyone else has a better idea than I do about what my students need to do for our next 50 minutes.

Tom Rademacher is a teacher living in Minneapolis who was named Minnesota’s Teacher of the Year in 2014. His book, “It Won’t Be Easy: An Exceedingly Honest (and Slightly Unprofessional) Love Letter to Teaching,” was published in April. He can be found on Twitter @mrtomrad and writes on misterrad.tumblr.com, where this post first appeared.

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.