The Other 60 Percent

Running clubs multiplying across state

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.

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.”

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.

Elsewhere, 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.

Schools turn to running clubs to increase physical activity

“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.”

Parent Rachel Levi serves as the running coach for the Northridge Elementary running club.

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” 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.”

Not just for kids – Denver teachers, parents join club 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.”

In Colorado Springs, parents start and lead running club

In Colorado Springs, the venerable Landsharks running club is entering its twelfth 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.

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. They 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.

In Larimer County, from shoes for the disadvantaged to full-scale coaching

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.”

making moves

In New York, a new focus on housing could also spur more diversity in schools

PHOTO: Christina Veiga/Chalkbeat
In 2016, the Community Education Council in Manhattan's District 3 approved a controversial school rezoning aimed in part at integrating schools.

On a recent morning in Brooklyn, principals, parents, and education leaders from across the state gathered to drill into the root causes of school segregation and develop plans to spur more diversity. Joining the discussion was someone unexpected: a representative from the state’s Fair and Equitable Housing Office.

“We want to see within your districts, what your challenges are, what your ideas are,” said Nadya Salcedo, the office’s director. “You can’t talk about integration and segregation without talking about housing.”

It is often taken as a given that schools are segregated because neighborhoods are. Yet the twin challenges of integrating where children live and learn are rarely tackled in tandem. In New York, two recent moves have the potential to address both.

The first: State education leaders who are working with local districts to craft school integration plans are also inviting housing officials to the table early on — and plan to include them throughout the process.

The second: In New York City, housing officials have launched a tiny pilot program to help low-income renters move into neighborhoods that offer more opportunities, defined partly by school performance. The initiative isn’t meant to tackle school segregation directly, but if it grows, it could result in more diverse classrooms.

Both are small and unconnected, involving officials from different agencies. Details about both the state and city efforts are scant, for now. But taken together, they suggest a new energy toward tackling housing issues that are often a barrier to more integrated schools.

“There have been some ripples of hope out there,” said Fred Freiberg, executive director of the Fair Housing Justice Center. “But we still have a long ways to go.”

The meeting in Brooklyn brought together school district leaders who have been armed with a state grant to help improve schools by integrating them. Now, housing officials have been looped into that work to brainstorm how to collaborate.

The housing department “is working to help desegregate communities,” spokeswoman Charni Sochet wrote in an email. “This includes working with our federal, State and local partners.”

Similarly, the city began its housing pilot this summer but didn’t share details until this week, when the Wall Street Journal profiled the program. The 45 families in the program’s first phase are getting assistance searching for a new home — including rent vouchers that are worth more in wealthier neighborhoods, financial counseling to help them afford a move, and support navigating the intimidating New York City housing market.

“The mayor’s education and housing plans take dead aim at achievement and economic gaps decades in the making,” Jaclyn Rothenberg, a city spokeswoman, wrote in an email. “All students benefit from diverse classrooms. Neighborhoods benefit from a diverse community.”

The pilot is striking given what Mayor Bill de Blasio has said about housing in the city in the past. When asked how he plans to tackle school segregation, he has often argued that the city’s power is limited because schools reflect entrenched housing patterns and private choices by families about where to live. “We cannot change the basic reality of housing in New York City,” he said in 2017.

Families with rental vouchers often find it difficult to move out of segregated neighborhoods where schools tend to struggle under the weight of concentrated poverty. The city’s pilot could tackle those issues.

“At least now I’ll have a chance to apply to some of these apartments,” one participant, the mother of a 10- and 12-year-old, told the Wall Street Journal. “I’m moving to a better school district, and nothing else matters.”

In places such as Baltimore, similar “mobility” programs have included a sharp focus on helping families move to areas with better schools, and making sure that students adjust well to their new classrooms. On a wide scale, such efforts could create more diverse neighborhoods and learning environments, since income tracks closely with race and ethnicity — and schools with high test scores are often filled with white students and those from more affluent families.

It could also have profound effects on how children perform academically and later in life. Moving to a neighborhood with lower poverty rates can boost college attendance and future earnings, according to some of the most influential research on the topic.

Montgomery County, Maryland offers another example, where the housing commission randomly assigned families to public housing instead of letting them choose where to live. There, children in public housing who went to “advantaged” schools in less impoverished neighborhoods did better in math and reading than their peers who lived in public housing but attended the district’s least-advantaged schools, according to a report by the Century Foundation, a progressive think tank.

That result hews to a growing body of research that has found that students benefit from attending schools that are integrated by race and socioeconomic class.

How the city implements its pilot will matter if students and schools are to benefit most. Although some studies have found that housing programs can improve affected students’ academic performance, the effect can be modest and vary greatly depending on where families relocate and which schools their children attend.

New York City presents some additional challenges. With a vast system of school choice and programs that selectively sort students based on their past academic performance, students and neighborhoods aren’t as closely linked here as they are in other cities.

Recent research found New York City schools might be slightly less segregated if students actually stayed in their neighborhood schools. And simply living near a school does not guarantee access in cases where competitive entrance criteria are used to admit students — a process called screening that critics say contributes to segregation. School attendance boundaries can also separate students by race and class even when they live side by side, a dynamic exemplified by recent rezoning battles on the Upper West Side and in gentrifying Brooklyn neighborhoods.

In New York, the scale of the challenge is huge: The city has one of the most segregated school systems in the country, an ignominious superlative that also applies to neighborhoods. The politics of unraveling these issues can be explosive. Many advocates for both fair housing and more diverse schools caution that policies should work both ways, giving low-income families and people of color the chance to leave under-resourced schools and neighborhoods, while also boosting investments in classrooms and communities that have been historically neglected.

“It shouldn’t be an either-or,” said Freiberg, the Fair Housing Justice Center director. “You’re going to have to do both.”

Though conversations seem to just be getting started, integration advocates and housing experts are heartened by the small steps already taken.

“This is a dream come true for people in the housing world,” said Vicki Been, a former city housing official who is now faculty director at the New York University Furman Center. “We have always been looking for ways to get families into neighborhoods that have better schools, lower crimes, better job opportunities.”

Reema Amin contributed reporting. 

money matters

Haven’t heard of participatory budgeting? Voters approved it on Tuesday — and here’s how it can bring millions to New York City schools.

PHOTO: Christina Veiga/Chalkbeat
Sunset Park Prep Principal Jennifer Spalding, left, and Assistant Principal Lauren Scott, right, sit in the school auditorium, which was renovated with funds won through participatory budgeting.

When a city councilman told Laura Espinoza she could win thousands of dollars for her local schools through a process called participatory budgeting, the mother of four was skeptical it could be true.  

Then she thought about a recent experience volunteering in her daughter’s Sunset Park school, where she watched the deep disappointment of a boy who lost a class project on an outdated laptop that abruptly died.

Espinoza decided to put together a proposal, working with teachers and administrators, to fund technology upgrades for P.S. 24, as well as other schools in the district, including her son’s middle school at the time, Sunset Park Prep. She was amazed when her son’s assistant principal called to say their project had won a share of almost $700,000 to be divided among schools.

“I said, ‘Wow! That’s what we were able to do?’” Espinoza remembers.

More New York City parents could have similar experiences at their schools after voters on Tuesday passed a ballot referendum that calls for participatory budgeting to expand to every council district. It’s a concept many New Yorkers may never have heard of but allows everyday parents and even students to steer millions of dollars to their communities, including their schools.

As it stands now, council members choose to participate in the process, dedicating at least $1 million of their discretionary budgets for the public to spend. Residents gather ideas through a formal process, and the proposals are put to a vote. Children as young as 11, or those who are in at least the sixth grade, can cast ballots — as well as anyone else who lives in the district. Projects with the most votes get funded.

Participatory budgeting has been a lifeline for Sunset Park Prep, a school that serves mostly children from low-income families and is nestled on a few floors of a 100-year old building. Principal Jennifer Spalding estimates the process has pumped $1.8 million into her school over the past five years.

“There’s no single source of money I can think of that would replace that amount,” she said. “It’s allowed us to do projects I never thought would be possible.” 

Since her first foray into the process, Espinoza has dedicated countless hours to drum up ideas and voters to support projects for schools in her community. She’s not alone in council District 38, which is overseen by Councilman Carlos Menchaca. Spanning immigrant enclaves such as Sunset Park, Red Hook, and other Brooklyn neighborhoods, the district last year tallied the most votes for participatory budgeting projects.

Many of those voters are school parents like Espinoza, who have turned to the process to fill resource gaps in their children’s classrooms — raising the kind of money that would be the envy of PTAs in more well-off schools but also challenging stereotypes about how involved immigrant parents and those of more modest means are in their neighborhood schools. Across the city, surveys show that participatory budget voters are more likely to be among the very poor, Hispanic, or come from communities who can’t participate in regular elections.  

“For me participatory budgeting, as a Hispanic, as an immigrant, as someone who feels like she doesn’t have a voice in this country, changed my life,” Espinoza said. “Though we can’t vote, though we can’t give money that families and professionals in Park Slope can, we can give something too — and it’s not a small thing. They are things that change the lives of children.”

Principal Jennifer Spalding speaks fondly of the century-old building that houses Sunset Park Prep middle school, which features long windows and soaring ceilings. But with age comes plenty of capital needs — and not always the kind that are a top priority in a city where the average school building was constructed in 1948.

Rich red curtains hang in the auditorium, where the sound system will soon get a makeover. The gym sports a shiny wood floor and freshly painted walls. In science classrooms, there are brand new cabinets and the sinks now work. A metal cart houses dozens of sleek MacBook Air laptops in a multimedia room stuffed with new tables and a smart board. All were paid for through participatory budgeting.

The process is especially important for schools like Spalding’s, where the parent organization is focused more on building community than raising dollars. The school relies on $3 tickets to dances to help fund field trips, while other nearby schools throw fancy galas and pull in hundreds of thousands of dollars. (A new city council bill will track those disparities by requiring the education department to collect and report PTA fundraising.)

For Spalding, the value of these badly-needed infusions goes beyond dollars. Students get their first taste of civic engagement by participating in voting during a school day. They feel a sense of empowerment when their school benefits. And they see the tangible benefits of their votes — and that they’re worth investing in.

“It adds so much value to our students’ lives,” she said. It sends a message that, “this is a place worth being, and a place of value.”

Not everyone supported expanding the process — at least not in the way the city ballot measure calls for. It creates a commission that would oversee voter initiatives, including a wider roll-out of participatory budgeting. A majority of members will be appointed by the mayor, prompting some to call the initiative an unnecessary expansion of mayoral power. Others have cautioned that participatory budgeting may not be as inclusive as it appears.

After seeing its power in his own district, Menchaca lent his support to the ballot initiative.

Before Menchaca was a city councilman, he worked in the Brooklyn borough president’s office managing capital projects. Though he saw many positive improvements being made, he was confounded by how opaque the process was, and how removed projects often seemed from what people really wanted. Then he became a city councilman.

“Participatory budgeting was like this ‘aha’ moment —  this eureka moment where it shifts the balance of power,” Menchaca said.

He made the process the centerpiece of how he does city business. When Menchaca meets a new constituent, he starts the conversation with participatory budgeting: “Do you have an idea about how to make your community better? Great,” he says.

His open invitation was met by organized and motivated parents who saw deep needs in local schools, but sometimes lacked the ability to give from their own pockets. Through countless public meetings, with steady translation services to reach the many Chinese and Spanish speakers in the district, parents were quickly won over.

“This was the first time parents had an idea for a concept and could fund it themselves,” Menchaca said.

Last year, more people voted for participatory budgeting projects than they did in the district’s primary election. Menchaca dedicated $2.5 million to the process last year — and often ends up spending most of his discretionary budget on other ideas that just missed the cut.

But the process is also a reminder of the scale of need that parents see in their neighborhood schools. It’s a challenge the district will have to overcome if a new school integration plan is to succeed. Approved in September, the plan changes the way students are admitted to middle schools in District 15, which overlaps Menchaca’s district. Advocates say the diversity push will have to go beyond attempts to simply move students around, and also to tackle inequities that continue to exist within individual schools.

While many in his district see participatory budgeting as a game-changer for schools, it can only go so far to fill resource gaps. The process only divvies up money for capital projects like building repairs and park renovations. It can’t pay for programming like an arts class or after-school robotics club or fund salaries for extra helpers in the classroom.

Those are the kinds of holes that Espinoza says will need to be filled if the district is to meet its integration goals. The city is dedicating $500,000 to implement the plan, part of which will go towards new resources for schools. Advocates also called for an analysis of available programming.

“We’ve been alleviated a little with these projects,” Espinoza said. “But more is needed”