First Person

Aurora schools push 3Rs of physical activity

Chris Strater may look like she’s just hopping around the room, patting various body parts and striking different poses while singing a song about somebody named Tony Chestnut and the people he knows: Eileen, Neil, Pat, Bob, Russell and Skip.

PE teacher Chris Strater, right, coaches some Aurora elementary schoolteachers are ways to get more physical movement into their classrooms.

And she and the Aurora schoolteachers prancing around with her are, in fact, getting a good workout. Their blood is pumping, their arms and legs are moving, and they’re clearing their heads to better concentrate on the academic stuff they’ve been absorbing all morning.

But Strater, a physical education teacher at Clyde Miller P-8 in Aurora and EdNews Parent expert, insists the exercise isn’t just about physical activity. It’s also about homophones – words that are pronounced alike, but have different meanings. So having youngsters act out a song about Tony Chestnut (toe, knee, chest, nut) who knows (nose) Eileen (lean to the left) and Neil (kneel) and Pat (pat your shoulder) and Bob (nod your head up and down) and Russell (wiggle your legs) and Skip (skip) teaches language arts while it gets them moving.

“This is my passion,” said Strater, who has a master’s degree in psychology and counseling. “We’ve got to get more movement into the classroom. It’s how kids learn.”

The 25 teachers spent all day with Strater learning various strategies to not only build movement into classroom activities, but to make that movement tie in to the students’ academic objectives. They, in turn, will go back to their respective schools and share what they’ve learned with their colleagues.

3R Project: Relevancy, Rigor, Relationship

The process – known as “Project 3R (Relevancy, Rigor and Relationship of Physical Activity)” – is being funded through a $20,000 two-year grant to Aurora Public Schools from the Colorado Legacy Foundation, a private organization dedicated to helping schools put health and wellness programs into place.

For more resources for physical activity in the classroom
Learn more about the Tony Chestnut song and its creator, The Learning Station. Learn about the JAM (Just-a-Minute) School program

Spearheading the project is Connie Fenton, healthy schools coordinator for the district, who wrote the grant and recruited the first group of teachers. She confesses that someone else came up with the catchy title – 3R – and that “rigor” may not always be topmost in everyone’s mind. But the other two Rs, “relevancy” and “relationship,” those are totally what this is about.

“We have a huge need to do more ‘brain-gym’ type things,” she said. “This is what makes children learn.”

The original vision was that we would have all the elementary schools in Aurora represented here. That didn’t quite happen,” Fenton said. “But we just got the grant on July 30, so we’ve really been moving. The grant covered the substitute-pay for all these teachers to be out of their classrooms today, and they’ll go back and do more mini-trainings with the other teachers at their schools.”

School district has long list of initiatives

The Aurora school district has been in the forefront among Colorado schools in its efforts to expand health and wellness opportunities for its students and its staff. Among its initiatives in the past couple of years:

  • Opening health clinics at Crawford and Laredo elementary schools, both located in high-poverty neighborhoods.
  • Creating coordinated school health teams
  • Launching the Go, Slow, Whoa! program to encourage students to choose foods more wisely
  • Sponsoring culinary boot camps for school food service workers
  • Adding “Breakfast in the Classroom” programs and bringing salad bars into school lunchrooms
  • Expanding and improving school playgrounds
  • Assessing and tracking third- through 12th-grade students’ fitness levels with the Fitnessgram program

But the district has also faced a number of challenges, not least of which is the limited number of hours in the school day and the need to boost academic seat-time. Just this year, the district became the first in Colorado to eliminate all physical education high school graduation requirements.

Add to that the new state requirements mandating that all Colorado elementary students get a minimum of 150 minutes of physical activity time each week, and schools are left to find creative ways to add activity time to the already-crowded school day.

“APS elementary schools who participate in Project 3R will add minutes of physical activity to the elementary student’s school day without impacting the current allotment of minutes per class,” Fenton said.

And, she says, all Project 3R activities will be “no-cost extensions of current classroom activities.”

‘We’ve become less child-centered’

Carla Muller, a fifth-grade math and science teacher at Aurora’s Arkansas Elementary, sees the emphasis on physical activity in the classroom as a welcome change. That’s why she opted to take part in the training.

“I feel we’ve become less and less child-centered,” she said. “Our objective has been to stuff their heads with as much knowledge as possible, but it’s backfired on us. Our kids are losing focus. It just seems like activity is a way to get them to engage more, and that will boost our test scores in the long run.”

Nick Chapla, a physical education teacher at Aurora’s Vassar Elementary, said he’s hoping the classroom teachers at his school will use him as a resource for these types of activities.

“The data on physical activity and movement and how they can be put to work in a classroom are clear,” he said.

Strater has loads of ideas that she would love to see implemented in classrooms. Like blowing feathers, for example.

Betsy Aker, left, and Julie Wilson, classroom teachers at Aurora Frontier K-8, get a quick workout blowing feathers to each other.

Strater taught the teachers to form into pairs, then place brightly colored feathers in their palms. They had to blow their feather to their partner, then do a fast physical activity – turning around, clapping hands, touching their elbows – before catching the feather blown toward them.

“What did you hear?” she asked the teachers after the exercise. “I heard lots of laughter. That makes your synapses fire better. And I saw lots of movement.”

She also preaches the value of simple spinning.

“Spinning and swinging your arms is very good. It helps the brain from the inside out,” she said. “Twenty years ago, when kindergarteners came into my class spinning around, I’d tell them ‘Sit still!’ But no more. Now spinning is part of every class I teach. Adults don’t like it much. It makes us sick. But kids love spinning and it’s good for them.”

terms of the deal

Aurora school board approves contract for district’s first DSST campus

Students at a campus of DSST, a charter network that is a big piece of Denver's "portfolio" approach to school management. (Denver Post file)

The Aurora school board on Tuesday night — in its last vote before new board members are sworn in — approved a contract with DSST Public Schools for the charter network’s first school outside of Denver.

The contract spells out enrollment and performance expectations, and upon request from Aurora school board members, ensures DSST will have representation from an Aurora resident on their own network governing board.

In June, the board approved DSST’s application to open four schools — two middle and two high schools — starting with one of each in the fall of 2019. The contract approved Tuesday is only for the first campus of a middle and high school.

During public comment, teachers, some parents and union leaders spoke to the board, as they have in past meetings, speaking against the DSST contract.

Among the speakers Tuesday was Debbie Gerkin, one of the newly elected school board members. Gerkin cited concerns with the plan to allow DSST to hire teachers who don’t yet have certifications, echoing a common criticism of charter schools.

“I appreciate there’s been so much hard work put into the DSST contact,” Gerkin said. “I ask that we continue to think about this.”

Board member Cathy Wildman asked the board if they would consider delaying the vote until the new board members are seated at the end of the month. A majority of current board members said they would not support a delay, noting they’ve spent more than a year working on learning about the DSST application and contract.

The school board first discussed the contract details at a meeting in October. At that time, board members asked district staff to go back to discussions with DSST to suggest that they commit to having someone from Aurora on their board of directors.

School board members asked questions about the details of the enrollment process such as whether there would be a preference for siblings, how student vacancies would be filled and whether the guidelines would really make the school demographics integrated.

According to the contract, DSST will give students in the surrounding neighborhoods, those served by elementary schools Rocky Mountain Prep, Paris, Crawford and Montview, first preference for half of the school’s open seats.

The remaining half will first go to any other Aurora students, but if seats are still available after that, students outside the district may enroll.

Enrollment numbers discussed in a separate presentation at the October board meeting show that the target area for the school, in northwest Aurora, is also the area with the largest declining enrollment. Schools in those neighborhoods have been near capacity, but not overcrowded like other schools in the district.

DSST will have a cap of enrolling no more than 450 students. An enrollment cap for charter schools in Aurora is standard, said Lamont Browne, the director of autonomous schools. In the first year, since the school will start with just sixth graders, the school anticipates enrolling 150 students. By April 1, DSST leaders must show the district that they’ve already enrolled at least 75 of those students.

A large section of the DSST contract spells out the district and school’s responsibilities in serving any students with special needs that may want to enroll at DSST.

The contract also includes a section that gives the district a right to close the school or deny a charter renewal if DSST earns a priority improvement rating from the state and doesn’t improve it after one year.

Recent contracts the Aurora school board approved for other charter schools also have requirements for performance, but not as stringent. The contract for The Academy of Advanced Learning, for instance, requires that school to improve after one year of earning a turnaround rating from the state. The turnaround rating is the lowest a school can get.

DSST has similar performance requirements in its contracts with Denver Public Schools allowing for a nonrenewal of a contract if a school has low ratings, but none of the Denver DSST schools have dropped to the lowest two categories of ratings. DSST schools, in fact, consistently are some of the state’s highest performing on state tests.

What the contract still doesn’t detail is a possible new name for Aurora’s DSST schools (the school originally was called the Denver School of Science and Technology) or how the district and the charter will split the cost of the building.

When Superintendent Rico Munn invited DSST to apply to open a school in Aurora, he offered to pay for half the cost of a new building for the charter school.

The bond voters approved in 2016 included money to pay for a new building for the charter school. The contract reiterates earlier commitments that both the district and the charter network must identify the money for a building by March 30.

A contract for the second 6-12 campus would be negotiated at a later time if the charter school meets performance requirements to move forward with opening the third and fourth schools.

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.