First Person

Healthy school snapshot: Coal Creek Canyon K-8

Even the middle schoolers were dancing.

You know a school wellness initiative is working when you see a bunch of 12- to 14-year-olds – boys, no less – of various size and ability jumping around and dancing on a chilly morning in front of the entire student body.

Granted, the entire student body at Coal Creek Canyon K-8 in Jeffco is small, at 145 students. But the school has made health and wellness centerpieces of its culture.

I spent the first day of the school’s annual Health and Wellness Week in the pristine mountain community about a month ago, taken on a tour of the school’s many initiatives by parent advocate Jamie Fanselow, a petit blond whose own athletic career was limited by an injured disk. I now know I can expect to see Fanselow at any number of healthy schools events because that’s the sort of passionate and committed parent she is. (It doesn’t hurt that she’s very soft-spoken and non-confrontational…I imagine her approach works well with parents and teachers who are tired of being lectured).

But one person alone cannot a healthy school make. The health initiatives at Coal Creek Canyon began six years ago, thanks to a small group of parents. Today, the school is heralded by state leaders hoping to put a dent in this alarming childhood obesity epidemic.

Health and Wellness Week

To kick off Health and Wellness Week, the school had lots of events planned to engage students, staff and community. The students began their Monday outside, with a parent volunteer/personal trainer leading them in dance moves. A trainer was also enlisted to offer a free workshop to parents who wanted to get their exercise groove on. There would also be a guest speaker (a dad and ultra-runner) and a fundraising walk for juvenile diabetes.

Later in the morning, all the school’s students and some parents and staff ran or walked the 1/10-mile course around the school grounds as part of the school’s 3-year-old Recess Mileage Club. This year, students are attempting to symbolically summit some of Colorado’s 14ers. If they “summit” one, they get a colorful engraved carabiner.

Mileage club with 100 percent participation

Fanselow is in charge of the mileage club and says it’s the best way to get all students involved in physical activity – even those who don’t have the resources to be involved in organized sports. She noted that some of the mountain school’s students travel 45 minutes by bus.

“For kids growing up in single parent homes or in homes where both parents work, they may not be able to participate in soccer or skiing or some organized sports out there,” Fanselow says. “Anybody can get out there and run or walk a lap. You don’t need equipment, transportation or money. They’re all doing it and having a good time.”

The key to what’s happening at Coal Creek Canyon is that it’s not just a single special event. There’s something happening basically every day – whether it’s “salad day” in the school cafeteria or the Kale Cook Off in January or the media-free week in the spring. The school also just started some indoor gardens. Being at 8,500 feet, it wasn’t realistic to have an outdoor garden. More whole grains, fruits and veggies are also being served to kids at lunch.

“It’s not a single event and it’s over,” Fanselow says.

School staff  have embraced the new programs – even the facilities manager, the bus drivers and the principal’s secretary have been eager participants in the mileage club, for instance, Fanselow says. In fact, there’s 100 percent school participation in the club.

Other health initiatives

The health and wellness committee offers tips to parents in the school’s monthly newsletter, managed to get the PTSA to switch to iced tea and water served at events in lieu of sugary beverages, and provides suggestions for healthy school celebrations.

Health advocates at the school quickly learned not to ban cupcakes outright, but to take a measured approach.

“Health and wellness can be a sensitive topic for people – especially in the areas of food,” Fanselow says. “It’s important to value small steps, not wipe out cupcakes and get everyone running 100 miles. Do small things. Add good things rather than banning or taking away…We add veggie trays or fruit platters to our celebrations.”

Many of these initiatives are paid for through the health and wellness committee’s $1,200 annual budget, some of which comes from the Jeffco Healthy Schools grant, said Fanselow, who co-leads the committee.

Parent Andrea McAdoo likes what her kids are learning at school.

“This is something they will carry through their whole lives no matter what profession, no matter what they end up doing,” McAdoo says. “It’s about knowing how to be healthy and understanding how easy it is to integrate it into your life on a daily basis.”

Principal Scott Thompson, new to Coal Creek Canyon this year, is also enthusiastic – especially about the mileage club.

“It’s a great opportunity for kids to get out and show us what they’re made of,” he says. “If we get kids outside and doing a little exercise, they’re much better academically inside.”

Challenges remain

The challenge remains fitting in physical activity and an emphasis on healthy food when teachers and administrators are so overwhelmed with the basic task of teaching students and producing solid test scores, Fanselow says.

“I understand how teachers and administrators are really limited for time,” says Fanselow, a former teacher. “It feels like one more thing. We try to find ways to integrate (programs) without taking time away from school. Instead of standing in line, get the kids moving. This is an empty space of time. Or, at recess, especially middle schoolers, instead of standing against the wall, get them moving somehow.”

First Person

I’m a principal who thinks personalized learning shouldn’t be a debate.

PHOTO: Lisa Epstein
Lisa Epstein, principal of Richard H. Lee Elementary, supports personalized learning

This is the first in what we hope will be a tradition of thoughtful opinion pieces—of all viewpoints—published by Chalkbeat Chicago. Have an idea? Send it to

As personalized learning takes hold throughout the city, Chicago teachers are wondering why a term so appealing has drawn so much criticism.

Until a few years ago, the school that I lead, Richard H. Lee Elementary on the Southwest Side, was on a path toward failing far too many of our students. We crafted curriculum and identified interventions to address gaps in achievement and the shifting sands of accountability. Our teachers were hardworking and committed. But our work seemed woefully disconnected from the demands we knew our students would face once they made the leap to postsecondary education.

We worried that our students were ill-equipped for today’s world of work and tomorrow’s jobs. Yet, we taught using the same model through which we’d been taught: textbook-based direct instruction.

How could we expect our learners to apply new knowledge to evolving facts, without creating opportunities for exploration? Where would they learn to chart their own paths, if we didn’t allow for agency at school? Why should our students engage with content that was disconnected from their experiences, values, and community?

We’ve read articles about a debate over personalized learning centered on Silicon Valley’s “takeover” of our schools. We hear that Trojan Horse technologies are coming for our jobs. But in our school, personalized learning has meant developing lessons informed by the cultural heritage and interests of our students. It has meant providing opportunities to pursue independent projects, and differentiating curriculum, instruction, and assessment to enable our students to progress at their own pace. It has reflected a paradigm shift that is bottom-up and teacher led.

And in a move that might have once seemed incomprehensible, it has meant getting rid of textbooks altogether. We’re not alone.

We are among hundreds of Chicago educators who would welcome critics to visit one of the 120 city schools implementing new models for learning – with and without technology. Because, as it turns out, Chicago is fast becoming a hub for personalized learning. And, it is no coincidence that our academic growth rates are also among the highest in the nation.

Before personalized learning, we designed our classrooms around the educator. Decisions were made based on how educators preferred to teach, where they wanted students to sit, and what subjects they wanted to cover.

Personalized learning looks different in every classroom, but the common thread is that we now make decisions looking at the student. We ask them how they learn best and what subjects strike their passions. We use small group instruction and individual coaching sessions to provide each student with lesson plans tailored to their needs and strengths. We’re reimagining how we use physical space, and the layout of our classrooms. We worry less about students talking with their friends; instead, we ask whether collaboration and socialization will help them learn.

Our emphasis on growth shows in the way students approach each school day. I have, for example, developed a mentorship relationship with one of our middle school students who, despite being diligent and bright, always ended the year with average grades. Last year, when she entered our personalized learning program for eighth grade, I saw her outlook change. She was determined to finish the year with all As.

More than that, she was determined to show that she could master anything her teachers put in front of her. She started coming to me with graded assignments. We’d talk about where she could improve and what skills she should focus on. She was pragmatic about challenges and so proud of her successes. At the end of the year she finished with straight As—and she still wanted more. She wanted to get A-pluses next year. Her outlook had changed from one of complacence to one oriented towards growth.

Rather than undermining the potential of great teachers, personalized learning is creating opportunities for collaboration as teachers band together to leverage team-teaching and capitalize on their strengths and passions. For some classrooms, this means offering units and lessons based on the interests and backgrounds of the class. For a couple of classrooms, it meant literally knocking down walls to combine classes from multiple grade-levels into a single room that offers each student maximum choice over how they learn. For every classroom, it means allowing students to work at their own pace, because teaching to the middle will always fail to push some while leaving others behind.

For many teachers, this change sounded daunting at first. For years, I watched one of my teachers – a woman who thrives off of structure and runs a tight ship – become less and less engaged in her profession. By the time we made the switch to personalized learning, I thought she might be done. We were both worried about whether she would be able to adjust to the flexibility of the new model. But she devised a way to maintain order in her classroom while still providing autonomy. She’s found that trusting students with the responsibility to be engaged and efficient is both more effective and far more rewarding than trying to force them into their roles. She now says that she would never go back to the traditional classroom structure, and has rediscovered her love for teaching. The difference is night and day.

The biggest change, though, is in the relationships between students and teachers. Gone is the traditional, authority-to-subordinate dynamic; instead, students see their teachers as mentors with whom they have a unique and individual connection, separate from the rest of the class. Students are actively involved in designing their learning plans, and are constantly challenged to articulate the skills they want to build and the steps that they must take to get there. They look up to their teachers, they respect their teachers, and, perhaps most important, they know their teachers respect them.

Along the way, we’ve found that students respond favorably when adults treat them as individuals. When teachers make important decisions for them, they see learning as a passive exercise. But, when you make it clear that their needs and opinions will shape each school day, they become invested in the outcome.

As our students take ownership over their learning, they earn autonomy, which means they know their teachers trust them. They see growth as the goal, so they no longer finish assignments just to be done; they finish assignments to get better. And it shows in their attendance rates – and test scores.

Lisa Epstein is the principal of Richard H. Lee Elementary School, a public school in Chicago’s West Lawn neighborhood serving 860 students from pre-kindergarten through eighth grade.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect that Richard H. Lee Elementary School serves 860 students, not 760 students.

First Person

I’ve spent years studying the link between SHSAT scores and student success. The test doesn’t tell you as much as you might think.

PHOTO: Photo by Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images

Proponents of New York City’s specialized high school exam, the test the mayor wants to scrap in favor of a new admissions system, defend it as meritocratic. Opponents contend that when used without consideration of school grades or other factors, it’s an inappropriate metric.

One thing that’s been clear for decades about the exam, now used to admit students to eight top high schools, is that it matters a great deal.

Students admitted may not only receive a superior education, but also access to elite colleges and eventually to better employment. That system has also led to an under-representation of Hispanic students, black students, and girls.

As a doctoral student at The Graduate Center of the City University of New York in 2015, and in the years after I received my Ph.D., I have tried to understand how meritocratic the process really is.

First, that requires defining merit. Only New York City defines it as the score on a single test — other cities’ selective high schools use multiple measures, as do top colleges. There are certainly other potential criteria, such as artistic achievement or citizenship.

However, when merit is defined as achievement in school, the question of whether the test is meritocratic is an empirical question that can be answered with data.

To do that, I used SHSAT scores for nearly 28,000 students and school grades for all public school students in the city. (To be clear, the city changed the SHSAT itself somewhat last year; my analysis used scores on the earlier version.)

My analysis makes clear that the SHSAT does measure an ability that contributes to some extent to success in high school. Specifically, a SHSAT score predicts 20 percent of the variability in freshman grade-point average among all public school students who took the exam. Students with extremely high SHSAT scores (greater than 650) generally also had high grades when they reached a specialized school.

However, for the vast majority of students who were admitted with lower SHSAT scores, from 486 to 600, freshman grade point averages ranged widely — from around 50 to 100. That indicates that the SHSAT was a very imprecise predictor of future success for students who scored near the cutoffs.

Course grades earned in the seventh grade, in contrast, predicted 44 percent of the variability in freshman year grades, making it a far better admissions criterion than SHSAT score, at least for students near the score cutoffs.

It’s not surprising that a standardized test does not predict as well as past school performance. The SHSAT represents a two and a half hour sample of a limited range of skills and knowledge. In contrast, middle-school grades reflect a full year of student performance across the full range of academic subjects.

Furthermore, an exam which relies almost exclusively on one method of assessment, multiple choice questions, may fail to measure abilities that are revealed by the variety of assessment methods that go into course grades. Additionally, middle school grades may capture something important that the SHSAT fails to capture: long-term motivation.

Based on his current plan, Mayor de Blasio seems to be pointed in the right direction. His focus on middle school grades and the Discovery Program, which admits students with scores below the cutoff, is well supported by the data.

In the cohort I looked at, five of the eight schools admitted some students with scores below the cutoff. The sample sizes were too small at four of them to make meaningful comparisons with regularly admitted students. But at Brooklyn Technical High School, the performance of the 35 Discovery Program students was equal to that of other students. Freshman year grade point averages for the two groups were essentially identical: 86.6 versus 86.7.

My research leads me to believe that it might be reasonable to admit a certain percentage of the students with extremely high SHSAT scores — over 600, where the exam is a good predictor —and admit the remainder using a combined index of seventh grade GPA and SHSAT scores.

When I used that formula to simulate admissions, diversity increased, somewhat. An additional 40 black students, 209 Hispanic students, and 205 white students would have been admitted, as well as an additional 716 girls. It’s worth pointing out that in my simulation, Asian students would still constitute the largest segment of students (49 percent) and would be admitted in numbers far exceeding their proportion of applicants.

Because middle school grades are better than test scores at predicting high school achievement, their use in the admissions process should not in any way dilute the quality of the admitted class, and could not be seen as discriminating against Asian students.

The success of the Discovery students should allay some of the concerns about the ability of students with SHSAT scores below the cutoffs. There is no guarantee that similar results would be achieved in an expanded Discovery Program. But this finding certainly warrants larger-scale trials.

With consideration of additional criteria, it may be possible to select a group of students who will be more representative of the community the school system serves — and the pool of students who apply — without sacrificing the quality for which New York City’s specialized high schools are so justifiably famous.

Jon Taylor is a research analyst at Hunter College analyzing student success and retention.