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

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.

First Person

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Grace Tatter covers a press conference at the Tennessee State Capitol in 2015.

For three years, I covered the Statehouse for Chalkbeat Tennessee, reporting on how policies from Nashville trickled down into more than 1,800 public schools across the state.

Now I’m starting back to school myself, pursuing graduate studies aimed at helping me to become a better education journalist. I’m taking with me six things I learned on the job about public education in Tennessee.

1. Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.

I heard from hundreds of parents, educators, and students who were passionate about what’s happening — good and bad — inside of schools. I covered crowded school board meetings and regularly scrambled for an open seat at legislative hearings where parents had filled the room after driving since dawn to beat the opening gavel. Not incidentally, those parents usually came from communities with the “worst” schools and the lowest test scores. While many disagreements exist about the best way to run schools, there is no shortage of people, particularly parents and educators, who care.

2. Tennessee has one of the most fascinating education stories in America.

I’ve had a front-row seat to massive changes in K-12 education under reforms ushered in by Race to the Top — an overhaul being tracked closely well beyond the state’s borders. But the national interest and import doesn’t end with changes stemming from the $500 million federal award. Tennessee is home to some of the nation’s premier education researchers, making its classrooms laboratories for new ideas about pre-K, school turnaround, and literacy instruction, just to name a few. And at the legislature, more lobbyists are devoted to education than to most any other cause. A lot of eyes are on Tennessee schools.

3. The education community is not as divided as it looks.

During the course of just a few years, I watched state lawmakers change their positions on accountability and school vouchers. I witnessed “anti-charter” activists praise charter leaders for their work. I chronicled task force meetings where state leaders who were committed to standardized testing found middle ground with classroom educators concerned that it’s gone too far. In short, a lot of people listened to each other and changed their minds. Watching such consensus-building reminded me that, while there are no simple debates about education, there is a widespread commitment to making it better.

4. Money matters.

Even when stories don’t seem to be about money, they usually are. How much money is being spent on testing, teacher salaries, school discipline reform? How much should be available for wraparound services? Why do some schools have more money than others? Is there enough to go around? Tennessee leaders have steadily upped public education spending, but the state still invests less than most other states, and the disparities among districts are gaping. That’s why more than a handful of school districts are battling with the state in court. Conversations about money are inextricable from conversations about improving schools.

5. Race is a significant education issue, but few leaders are willing to have that conversation.

More than 60 years after Brown v. Board of Education, Tennessee’s schools are largely racially segregated. Yet most policymakers tread lightly, if ever, into conversations about achieving real racial integration. And in many cases — such as a 2011 law enabling mostly white suburban Shelby County towns to secede from the mostly black Memphis district — they’ve actually gone backwards. Then there’s the achievement data. The annual release of test scores unleashes a flurry of conversation around the racial achievement gap. But the other 11 months of the year, I heard little about whether state and local policies are closing those gaps — or contributing to them — or the historical reasons why the gaps exist in the first place. To be sure, state leadership is trying to address some of Tennessee’s shortcomings. For example, the State Department of Education has launched modestly funded initiatives to recruit more teachers of color. But often, race and racism are the elephants in the room.

6. Still, there’s lots to celebrate.

If there were unlimited hours in the day, I could have written thousands of stories about what’s going right in public education. Every day, I received story ideas about collaborations with NASA in Oak Ridge, high school trips to Europe from Memphis, gourmet school lunches in Tullahoma, and learning partnerships with the Nashville Zoo. Even in schools with the steepest challenges, they were stories that inspire happiness and hope. They certainly inspired me.

Grace Tatter graduated from public schools in Winston-Salem, N.C., and received her bachelor’s degree in history from the University of North Carolina. She’s now pursuing a master’s degree in specialized studies at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.