First Person

Exploring the science of recess

AURORA – With 770 students squeezed into a school building designed to accommodate just 425, classroom space at Aurora’s Elkhart Elementary School is at a premium.

Elkhart Elementary's new Peaceful Playground has well-marked areas for structured play.

But Elkhart Principal Katie Hartenbach has started viewing the school’s newly refurbished playground as the most valuable classroom space of all.

The reason: “Recess really allows students to focus for the rest of the day,” said Hartenbach. “It’s very important. They need to get out, get that fresh air, get their wiggles out.”

Beyond offering a place where youngsters can burn off youthful energy, the playground is more and more becoming an extension of physical education class at Elkhart.

Like schools across Colorado concerned about meeting the new state mandates for physical activity time for students, Elkhart is leveraging recess into something more than just a break from academic studies.

Since receiving a $4,800 grant from Lowe’s to install a Peaceful Playground last month, the school has aligned its P.E. curriculum to teach students games and skills they can readily put into practice on the playground during recess.

And thanks to a partnership with nearby Anthem College, the school has tapped college work/study students to act as playground coaches, helping to engage the youngsters in supervised active play.

“Our school is so huge,” Hartenbach said. “Having structure to the games and having defined areas on the playground really helps maintain control. Everyone on recess duty understands what the expectations are. We’ve developed much better playground supervision, and most students are now engaged in active games during recess.”

Local schools kicking up recess a notch

Across the metro area, more and more schools are taking recess up a notch, investing in playground upgrades, bringing in recess coaches, and moving recess to before lunch – so children don’t sacrifice nutritionally necessary lunch time in order to get a few more minutes of play time.

For example, Playworks, a California-based national non-profit organization that sends trained full-time recess coordinators into low-income urban schools, has established programs in 12 metro-area schools and expects to expand into four more by January.

Learning Landscapes, a program of the University of Colorado Denver’s College of Architecture and Planning, will dedicate 11 new playgrounds at DPS schools this fall, raising to 92 the number of playgrounds Learning Landscapes has transformed into colorful, well-designed, kid-friendly havens.

State bucks national trend

While an estimated 40 percent of elementary schools nationwide have eliminated recess, Colorado seems to be moving the opposite direction, embracing recess.

Denver's Cory Elementary is one of the latest to get a Learning Landscape playground.

Terra A. Gillett, of Thornton, serves as “recess advocate” for Colorado for USA IPA, the American affiliate of the International Play Association. The organization, which lobbies across the country for children’s right to play, has appointed such advocates in nearly every state to serve as watchdogs and to help guide parents to protect school recess if it is threatened.

Gillett, a Homeland Security specialist, acknowledges that while the loss of recess is a huge issue in some other states, that’s not the case in Colorado.

“We haven’t had a serious problem with this,” she said. “There was one school in Colorado Springs that was thinking of eliminating recess, but they dropped that idea. Then there was a little bit of an issue in Greeley, but that got remedied.

“I just haven’t heard of anything else going on in Colorado. I don’t know why, but it seems like the East Coast is where recess has been hit really bad.”

Quality of recess still varies widely

Andrea Woolley, executive director of Playworks Denver, said that while most elementary schools in Colorado do retain some form of recess, the quality and quantity of that recess can vary dramatically.

“Recess can be anything from 10 minutes to 40 minutes a day,” she said. “And the outcomes are different.”

Woolley said all the schools who brought in Playworks programs last year experienced a drop in disciplinary complaints, as well as a reduction in injuries sustained on the playground.

“Kids at Playworks schools get an average of 30 minutes of physical activity, but they’re also engaged in games more often, and they’re learning new social skills,” Woolley said.

“They’re learning leadership and empathy. And they’re learning new skills, like how to hit a baseball or how to kick a soccer ball. We make physical activity and games enticing, so instead of gossiping under a tree, the kids are getting engaged.”

Teachers at schools with Playworks programs report getting back roughly 24 hours of extra instruction time each year, she said, because the children come back more focused and ready to learn after they’ve had structured, active recess time.

Various strategies to fund the cost

Playworks can be pricey – $52,000 for a full-time recess coach, half of which the school must fund, while Playworks picks up the other half.

Aurora

“For each school, funding Playworks is a different journey,” Woolley said. “Some have it right in their budget and that’s the end of the conversation. Others pull some of it from other line items and have fund-raisers to cover the rest. At another school, the PTO raised the money. Each school does it differently.”

Peaceful Playgrounds is a less costly, more do-it-yourself alternative.

Rather than investing in actual playground structures and equipment, Peaceful Playgrounds provides blueprints and stencils for creating well-defined play areas such as four-square, hopscotch, Twister and other longstanding recess favorites. And rather than sending in outside recess coaches, Peaceful Playgrounds offers online training and webinars to teach school staff how to play the games and how to teach them to the children.

Elkhart is currently the only school in Aurora to have a fully functional Peaceful Playground, but four others – at Paris, Park Lane, Wheeling and Fulton elementaries – are soon to open. In addition, three outdoor and three indoor Peaceful Playgrounds will be raffled off to other schools soon, APS officials say.

“The kids are absolutely loving it,” said Hartenbach. “It’s very colorful. The first day, you’d have thought we had a brand new playground. We painted lanes for running and we had relay races. It really is spectacular.”

In addition, Elkhart got a supply of jump ropes, tether balls, beanbags, hula hoops, flying discs and other such playground necessities to put the newly stenciled game areas to proper use.

“It’s making our playground a much safer place,” Hartenbach said. “I love how it creates a systematic way to engage the kids in play. Most of all, it’s given me peace of mind, knowing our kids are safe. Because having so many kids out there, that’s our biggest worry as a school. I feel we have a good system for that now.”

First Person

What we’ve learned from leading schools in Denver’s Luminary network — and how we’ve used our financial freedom

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Cole Arts and Science Academy Principal Jennifer Jackson sits with students at a school meeting in November 2015.

First Person is a standing feature where guest contributors write about pressing issues in public education. Want to contribute? More details here

Three years ago, we were among a group of Denver principals who began meeting to tackle an important question: How could we use Colorado’s innovation schools law to take our schools to the next level?

As leaders of innovation schools, we already had the ability to make our own choices around the curriculum, length of school day, and staffing at our campuses. But some of us concluded that by joining forces as an independent network, we could do even more. From those early meetings, the Luminary Learning Network, Denver’s first school innovation zone, was born.

Now, our day-to-day operations are managed by an independent nonprofit, but we’re still ultimately answerable to Denver Public Schools and its board. This arrangement allows us to operate with many of the freedoms of charter schools while remaining within the DPS fold.

Our four-school network is now in its second year trying this new structure. Already, we have learned some valuable lessons.

One is that having more control over our school budget dollars is a powerful way to target our greatest needs. At Cole Arts & Science Academy, we recognized that we could serve our scholars more effectively and thoughtfully if we had more tools for dealing with children experiencing trauma. The budget flexibility provided by the Luminary Learning Network meant we were able to provide staff members with more than 40 hours of specially targeted professional development.

In post-training surveys, 98 percent of our staff members reported the training was effective, and many said it has helped them better manage behavioral issues in the classroom. Since the training, the number of student behavior incidents leading to office referrals has decreased from 545 incidents in 2016 to 54 in 2017.

At Denver Green School, we’ve hired a full-time school psychologist to help meet our students’ social-emotional learning goals. She has proved to be an invaluable resource for our school – a piece we were missing before without even realizing how important it could be. With a full-time person on board, we have been able to employ proactive moves like group and individual counseling, none of which we could do before with only a part-time social worker or school psychologist.

Both of us have also found that having our own executive coaches has helped us grow as school leaders. Having a coach who knows you and your school well allows you to be more open, honest, and vulnerable. This leads to greater professional growth and more effective leadership.

Another lesson: scale matters. As a network, we have developed our own school review process – non-punitive site visits where each school community receives honest, targeted feedback from a team of respected peers. Our teachers participate in a single cross-school teacher council to share common challenges and explore solutions. And because we’re a network of just four schools, both the teacher council and the school reviews are small-scale, educator-driven, and uniquely useful to our schools and our students. (We discuss this more in a recently published case study.)

Finally, the ability to opt out of some district services has freed us from many meetings that used to take us out of our buildings frequently. Having more time to visit classrooms and walk the halls helps us keep our fingers on the pulse of our schools, to support teachers, and to increase student achievement.

We’ve also had to make trade-offs. As part of the district, we still pay for some things (like sports programs) our specific schools don’t use. And since we’re building a new structure, it’s not always clear how all of the pieces fit together best.

But 18 months into the Luminary Learning Network experiment, we are convinced we have devised a strategy that can make a real difference for students, educators, and school leaders.

Watch our results. We are confident that over the next couple of years, they will prove our case.

Jennifer Jackson is the principal of Cole Arts & Science Academy, which serves students from early childhood to grade five with a focus on the arts, science, and literacy. Frank Coyne is a lead partner at Denver Green School, which serves students from early childhood to grade eight with a focus on sustainability.

First Person

Let’s be careful with using ‘grading floors.’ They may lead to lifelong ceilings for our students

PHOTO: Helen H. Richardson, The Denver Post

I am not a teacher. I am not a principal. I am not a school board member. I am not a district administrator (anymore).

What I am is a mother of two, a high-schooler and middle-schooler. I expect them both to do their “personal best” across the board: chores, projects, personal relationships, and yes, school.

That does not mean all As or Bs. We recognize the sometimes arbitrary nature of grades. (For example, what is “class participation” — is it how much you talk, even when your comments are off topic?) We have made it very clear that as long as they do their “personal best,” we are proud.

That doesn’t mean, though, that when someone’s personal best results in a poor grade, we should look away. We have to ask what that grade tells us. Often, it’s something important.

I believe grading floors — the practice (for now, banned in Memphis) of deciding the lowest possible grade to give a student — are a short-sighted solution to a larger issue. If we use grade floors without acknowledging why we feel compelled to do so, we perpetuate the very problem we seek to address.

"If we use grade floors without acknowledging why we feel compelled to do so, we perpetuate the very problem we seek to address."Natalie McKinney
In a recent piece, Marlena Little, an obviously dedicated teacher, cites Superintendent Hopson’s primary drive for grade floors as a desire to avoid “creat[ing] kids who don’t have hope.” I am not without empathy for the toll failing a course may take on a student. But this sentiment focuses on the social-emotional learning aspect of our students’ education only.

Learning a subject builds knowledge. Obtaining an unearned grade only provides a misleading indication of a child’s growth.

This matters because our students depend on us to ensure they will be prepared for opportunities after high school. To do this, our students must possess, at the very least, a foundation in reading, writing and arithmetic. If we mask real academic issues with grade floors year after year, we risk missing a chance to hold everyone — community, parents, the school board, district administration, school leaders, teachers, and students — accountable for rectifying the issue. It also may mean our students will be unable to find employment providing living wages, resulting in the perpetuation of generational poverty.

An accurate grade helps the teacher, parents, and district appropriately respond to the needs of the student. And true compassion lies in how we respond to a student’s F. It should act as an alarm, triggering access to additional work, other intervention from the teacher or school, or the use of a grade recovery program.

Ms. Little also illustrates how important it is to have a shared understanding about what grades should mean. If the fifth-grade boy she refers to who demonstrates mastery of a subject orally but has a problem demonstrating that in a written format, why should he earn a zero (or near-zero) in the class? If we agree that grades should provide an indicator of how well a student knows the subject at hand, I would argue that that fifth-grade boy should earn a passing grade. He knows the work! We don’t need grade floors in that case — we need different ideas about grades themselves.

We should also reconsider the idea that an F is an F. It is not. A zero indicates that the student did not understand any of the work or the student did not do any of the work. A 50 percent could indicate that the student understood the information half the time. That is a distinction with a difference.

Where should we go from here? I have a few ideas, and welcome more:

  1. In the short term, utilize the grade recovery rules that allow a student to use the nine weeks after receiving a failing grade to demonstrate their mastery of a subject — or “personal best” — through monitored and documented additional work.
  2. In the intermediate term, create or allow teachers to create alternative assessments like those used with students with disabilities to accommodate different ways of demonstrating mastery of a subject.
  3. In the long term, in the absence of additional money for the district, redeploy resources in a coordinated and strategic way to help families and teachers support student learning. Invest in the development of a rich, substantive core curriculum and give teachers the training and collaboration time they need.

I, like Ms. Little, do not have all the answers. This is work that requires our collective brilliance and commitment for the sake of our children.

Natalie McKinney is the executive director of Whole Child Strategies, Inc., a Memphis-based nonprofit that provides funding and support for community-driven solutions for addressing attendance and discipline issues that hinder academic success. She previously served as the director of policy for both Shelby County Schools and legacy Memphis City Schools.