First Person

In Colorado, childhood obesity climbs with poverty

The seeming opposites of hunger and obesity are simply two sides of the same coin – poverty – and America can put an end to both childhood epidemics if we simply find the political will, speakers at the Colorado Children’s Campaign annual luncheon said Wednesday.

The event brought together more than 800 community and business leaders, child advocates and lawmakers for a discussion on childhood hunger, obesity and poverty.

Bill Shore

Gov. John Hickenlooper spoke to the crowd, as did U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colorado, and Chris Watney, Children’s Campaign executive director. But the highlight of the afternoon was a conversation with two nationally-recognized hunger and social justice experts, Bill Shore and Angela Glover Blackwell.

Shore is founder and executive director of Share Our Strength and the author of four books, including his most recent, The Imaginations of Unreasonable Men, the story of social entrepreneurs who achieved things previously thought unattainable.

Blackwell is founder and CEO of PolicyLink, a research and advocacy organization, and a pioneer in new approaches to neighborhood revitalization. She is chair of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Center to Prevent Childhood Obesity.

Angela Glover Blackwell

Colorado stats dismal

In Colorado, the number of children living in poverty has more than doubled since 2000. In 2009, 210,000 children – one of every six in the state – lived in poverty, according to the 2011 Kids Count survey. Meanwhile, the number of children living in “food insecure” households has increased to 20 percent of all Colorado children. That’s slightly higher than the national average of 19 percent.

As poverty rates in Colorado have shot up, so has childhood obesity. While the state had the second-lowest childhood obesity rate in the nation in 2003, Colorado ranked 10th by 2007, with 27 percent of children overweight or obese. That’s the second-fastest rate of increase in the nation.

The link between increasing rates of poverty and increasing rates of obesity is clear. Nationally, 45 percent of children living in poverty are overweight or obese, compared to 22 percent of children who live more comfortably.

And things are only getting worse.

“An undercurrent in this conversation is that poverty is at levels we haven’t seen in this country in a long time,” Shore said, noting that recent estimates show that half of all children today will receive some form of public assistance at some point during their childhood. “People are not really addressing this issue of poverty at a time when income inequality is at its greatest level.”

Dr. Steve Berman, a pediatrician at Children's Hospital Colorado, at left, moderated a conversation with Blackwell and Shore.

Blackwell added: “Let’s not act like we can’t solve this problem. If we had the political will, we could solve it. But just focusing on programs to get more cash into the household won’t be enough. We have to create sustainable pathways out of poverty.”

“Show me a problem, and I can lift up five or six programs to fix it,” she said. “But what I try to get people to really focus on is how to weave those programs into a strategy that is a systematic way to move people out of poverty.”

Shore agreed, noting that it’s not a lack of anti-hunger programs – or even a lack of food – that causes kids to go hungry.

“Kids are hungry and they are obese because they lack access to healthy food,” he said.

Poor neighborhoods lack healthy food options

Often, families living in poor neighborhoods don’t have easy access to full-service grocery stores and must eat what’s available at convenience stores and fast food restaurants. These pockets are the “food deserts” that pockmark the city as well as broad swaths of rural Colorado. Those who do get to a grocery store often don’t make the healthiest selections.

“If you’re getting by on the poverty rate, which is $22,000 for a family of four, you’re not shopping in the vegetable aisle,” said Watney.

Shore promotes such programs as Cooking Matters, a Share Our Strength-sponsored project to teach families shopping and cooking techniques that are both nutritionally sound and budget friendly.

He also bemoaned the fact that Colorado has been slow to take advantage of federal programs designed to ease childhood hunger. Until a recent statewide effort to expand summer feeding programs for children raised the numbers, only 6 percent of Colorado children who qualified for free or reduced-priced lunches during the school year also got federally-funded meals during the summer.

“This is Washington D.C.’s best billion-dollar secret,” Shore said. “Colorado has left $50 million to $100 million in Washington because more kids who are qualified haven’t enrolled in these programs, which could buy milk from local dairy farmers and bread from local bakers.”

Both speakers urged those present to think creatively and to take personal responsibility for creating the political will necessary to solve the twin epidemics of hunger and obesity.

“We have an obligation not to occupy Wall Street, but to occupy ourselves,” Blackwell said.

By the Numbers: Colorado’s Children and Poverty

  • The number of Colorado children in poverty has more than doubled since 2000. In 2009, 210,000 children – or one of every six in the state – lived in poverty.
  • The number of Colorado children living in “food insecure” households has increased to 20 percent – slightly higher than the national average of 19 percent.
  • Colorado had the second-lowest childhood obesity rate in the nation in 2003. By 2007, Colorado ranked 10th, with 27 percent of children overweight or obese – the country’s second-fastest rate of increase.
  • Nationally, 45 percent of children living in poverty are overweight or obese, compared to 22 percent of children who live more comfortably.

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First Person

Why the phrase ‘with fidelity’ is an affront to good teaching

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

“With fidelity” are some of the most damaging words in education.

Districts spend a ton of money paying people to pick out massively expensive, packaged curriculums, as if every one of a thousand classrooms needs the exact same things. Then officials say, over and over again, that they must be implemented “with fidelity.” What they mean is that teachers better not do anything that would serve their students’ specific needs.

When that curriculum does nothing to increase student achievement, it is not blamed. The district person who found it and purchased it is never blamed. Nope. They say, “Well, the teachers must not have been implementing it with fidelity.”

It keeps happening because admitting that schools are messy and students are human and teaching is both creative and artistic would also mean you have to trust teachers and let them have some power. Also, there are some really crappy teachers out there, and programs for everyone are often meant to push that worst-case-scenario line a little higher.

And if everyone’s doing just what they’re supposed to, we’ll get such good, clean numbers, and isn’t that worth a few thousand more dollars?

I was talking with a friend recently, a teacher at an urban school on the East Coast. He had been called to task by his principal for splitting his kids into groups to offer differentiated math instruction based on students’ needs. “But,” the principal said, “did the pacing guide say to differentiate? You need to trust the system.”

I understand the desire to find out if a curriculum “works.” But I don’t trust anyone who can say “trust the system” without vomiting. Not when the system is so much worse than anything teachers would put together.

Last year, my old district implemented Reading Plus, an online reading program that forces students to read at a pace determined by their scores. The trainers promised, literally promised us, that there wasn’t a single reading selection anywhere in the program that could be considered offensive to anyone. God knows I never learned anything from a book that made me feel uncomfortable!

Oh, and students were supposed to use this program — forced-paced reading of benign material followed by multiple-choice questions and more forced-pace reading — for 90 minutes a week. We heard a lot about fidelity when the program did almost nothing for students (and, I believe quite strongly, did far worse than encouraging independent reading of high-interest books for 90 minutes a week would have done).

At the end of that year, I was handed copies of next year’s great adventure in fidelity. I’m not in that district any longer, but the whole district was all switching over to SpringBoard, another curriculum, in language arts classes. On came the emails about implementing with fidelity and getting everyone on the same page. We were promised flexibility, you know, so long as we also stuck to the pacing guide of the workbook.

I gave it a look, I did, because only idiots turn down potential tools. But man, it seemed custom-built to keep thinking — especially any creative, critical thought from either students or teachers — to a bare minimum.

I just got an email from two students from last year. They said hi, told me they missed creative writing class, and said they hated SpringBoard, the “evil twin of Reading Plus.”

That district ran out of money and had to cut teachers (including me) at the end of the year. But if they hadn’t, I don’t think I would have lasted long if forced to teach from a pacing guide. I’m a good teacher. Good teachers love to be challenged and supported. They take feedback well, but man do we hate mandates for stuff we know isn’t best for the kids in our room.

Because, from inside a classroom full of dynamic, chaotic brilliance;

from a classroom where that kid just shared that thing that broke all of our hearts;

from a classroom where that other kid figured out that idea they’ve been working on for weeks;

from that classroom where that other kid, who doesn’t know enough of the language, hides how hard he works to keep up and still misses things;

and from that classroom where one kid isn’t sure if they trust you yet, and that other kid trusts you too much, too easily, because their bar had been set too low after years of teachers that didn’t care enough;

from inside that classroom, it’s impossible to trust that anyone else has a better idea than I do about what my students need to do for our next 50 minutes.

Tom Rademacher is a teacher living in Minneapolis who was named Minnesota’s Teacher of the Year in 2014. His book, “It Won’t Be Easy: An Exceedingly Honest (and Slightly Unprofessional) Love Letter to Teaching,” was published in April. He can be found on Twitter @mrtomrad and writes on, where this post first appeared.

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.