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.”

Knock knock

House call: One struggling Aurora high school has moved parent-teacher conferences to family homes

A social studies teacher gives a class to freshman at Aurora Central High School in April 2017. (Photo by Yesenia Robles, Chalkbeat)

When Aurora Central High School held traditional parent-teacher conference nights, fewer than 75 parents showed up.

This year, by taking the conferences to students’ homes, principal Gerardo De La Garza says the school has already logged more than 400 meetings with parents.

“This is something a lot of our families wanted,” De La Garza said. “We decided we wanted to add home visits as a way to build relationships with our community. The attendance at the traditional conferences was not where we wanted it to be.”

The home visits aren’t meant to reach every single student, though — the school has more than 2,000 enrolled this year. Instead, teams of teachers serving the same grade of students work together to identify students who need additional help or are having some issues. On Fridays, when the school lets out early, teachers are to go out and meet with those families. In some cases, they also schedule visits during other times.

Some parents and students say they weren’t made aware about the change and questioned if it was a good idea, while others welcomed the different approach.

“I felt when we go home that’s kind of our space, so I wasn’t comfortable with it,” said Akolda Redgebol, a senior at Aurora Central. Her family hasn’t had a home visit. “My parents, they thought it was a little odd, too.”

A father of another Aurora Central senior spoke to the school board about the change at a meeting earlier this month.

“There’s been a lot of changes over all these years, but one thing we could always count on was the opportunity to sit down with our child’s teachers during parent teacher conferences,” he said. “I hope this new program works, I really do, but why stop holding parent teacher conference nights at the high school? I haven’t had a single meeting. I haven’t met any of his teachers this year. Also why weren’t the parents told? I got two text messages, an email, and a phone call to let me know about a coffee meeting, but not a single notice about cancelling parent teacher conferences.”

Research examining the value of parent-teacher conferences is limited, but researchers do say that increased parent engagement can help lift student achievement. This year, the struggling Commerce City-based school district of Adams 14 also eliminated traditional parent-teacher conference nights from their calendar as a way to make more use of time. But after significant pushback from parents and teachers, the district announced it will return to the traditional approach next year.

Aurora Central High School is one of five in Aurora Public Schools’ “innovation zone,” one of Superintendent Rico Munn’s signature strategies for turning around struggling schools.

The school reached a limit of low performance ratings from the state and last year was put on a state-ordered improvement plan. That plan allowed the school to press on with its innovation plan, which was approved in 2016 and grants it some autonomy for decisions on its budget, school calendar, and school model.

As part of the school’s engagement with parents, the school in the last few years has hired a family liaison, though there’s been some turnover with that position. The school also hosts monthly parent coffee nights, as has become common across many Aurora schools.

As part of the innovation plan, school and community leaders also included plans to increase home visits.

Home visits have also become popular across many school districts as another way to better connect with families. Often, teachers are taught to use the visit as a time to build relationships, not to discuss academic performance or student behavior issues.

That’s not the case at Aurora Central. Principal De La Garza said it is just about taking the parent-teacher conference to the parent’s home. And teachers have been trained on how to have those conversations, he said.

The innovation plan didn’t mention removing conference nights, however.

De La Garza said that’s because parent-teacher conferences are still an option. If parents want to request a conference, or drop by on Fridays to talk to teachers, they still can.

Those Fridays when students end classes early are also the days teachers are expected to make house calls to contact families.

Teachers are expected to reach a certain number of families each Friday, though school and district staff could not provide that exact number.

Bruce Wilcox, the president of the Aurora teachers union, said that it’s important to better engage families, but that balance is needed so not all of the responsibility is put on teachers who are already busy.

Wilcox said he would also worry about teachers having less access to resources, such as translators, during home meetings.

Maria Chavez, a mother of a freshman at Aurora Central, just had a home visit last week. She learned about the school’s strategy when she was called about setting up the visit.

Another, older daughter, was the interpreter during the home meeting with three teachers.

“For me, it was a nice experience,” Chavez said. “As parents, and even the kids, we feel more trust with the teachers.”

Chavez said she goes to parent-teacher conferences with her elementary-aged daughter, but doesn’t always have time for conferences with her high-school-aged daughter, so the home visit was convenient. Chavez also said she was able to ask questions, and said the teachers were able to answer her concerns.

“Maybe I wouldn’t say this should be how every conference happens,” she said, “but it is a good idea.”

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.