The Other 60 Percent

Boosting movement in the classroom

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:

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

Eileen, Neil, Pat, Bob, Russell and Skip.

And she and the Aurora teachers 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, 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” for 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.

Extra resources

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 other two Rs – “relevancy” and “relationship” – 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 twelfth-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 said, 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.

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

“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.

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.”

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”