The Other 60 Percent

Poverty’s bottom line hits waistline too

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

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.

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.

Poverty and obesity
“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.”
— Chris 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.

Where to get more information

Frequently asked

There are lots of ways schools teach English learners. Here’s how it works.

PHOTO: Andy Cross/The Denver Post
Lindsey Erisman works with 6-year-old students in an English Language Acquisition class at Denver's Cole Arts & Science Academy.

School district officials in Westminster this year signed an agreement with federal officials to change how they educate students who are learning English as a second language.

Similar agreements have also shaped how districts in Denver, Aurora, Adams 14, and Adams 12 educate their English language learner students. But many people, including parents and district insiders, may still have questions about the various complicated programs and requirements.

Although many of the language-education agreements are years old, most of the issues haven’t been resolved. In Adams 14, for instance, parents and advocates have protested a district decision to stop biliteracy programming, and have questioned the district’s compliance with its agreement to better serve English learners. District officials have pointed out that their obligation is teaching students English, not making them bilingual.

Now at least one charter school, KIPP, is looking to fill in that programming gap. Many other states have had a number of biliteracy and other bilingual programs at various schools for years, but Colorado has only more recently started to follow those trends.

So what’s the difference between the various language programs and services? And what is required by law and what isn’t? The following questions and answers might help clarify some of those questions as you follow the news around these issues.

Which students are designated as English language learners? Do parents get to decide, or do schools decide?

Federal guidance requires school districts have some way to identify English learners. Most commonly, districts survey all parents at school registration about their home language and the student’s first language. If that survey finds there might be an influence of another language at home, the student must be assessed to determine fluency in English. While the district has to identify all students who aren’t fluent in English as language learners, parents in Colorado can choose to waive the federally required services for their children. If so, the district doesn’t have to provide special services, but would still be required to monitor that the student is making progress toward acquiring English.

What educational rights do English language learners have?

English language learners have specific rights under the Lau v. Nichols Supreme Court case from 1974 and the subsequent Castañeda standards released in 1981. State laws also outline some requirements for school districts. Specifically, school districts must provide programs for all identified language learners to give them the opportunity to learn English and to access a comprehensive curriculum. The government does not state what that program should be, but provides some standards requiring that any program is theoretically sound and has a research base to support it. The program has to have qualified teachers, and a way to demonstrate that students are making progress in learning English and their academic content. While the civil rights officials consider many details to verify compliance, simply put, school districts have the legal obligation to identify students, serve them in a sound program, and monitor their progress.

What is the difference between bilingual education and “ELL services?”

Bilingual education (which is the program that has the most support for efficacy from the research community) offers students opportunities to learn in their native language while they are learning English. Bilingual programs can vary from short-term, or early-exit programs, to more longer-term developmental programs.

English language learner services do not need to provide opportunities for students to learn in the native language. Most commonly these services only offer English language development classes (generally 45 minutes per day). All other content instruction is offered only in English. ELL services are not bilingual.

What is English language development?

English language development must be a part of any program or model a district or school adopts. It is the class time when students are taught the English language. The government wants to see that English learners are given a dedicated time to learn English, when they are not competing with native English speakers. That means, often, English language development is offered as a time when students are pulled out of class to practice English, or as a special elective period students must take without their English-speaking peers.

The structure of this time period, who has access to it, or who teaches it, are areas commonly cited as problems by the federal Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights.

Do students who are identified as English language learners retain that designation forever? What does it mean to be an “exited ELL?”

They’re not supposed to. Students who are English learners should be tested at least once a year to determine their English proficiency. When a student reaches a high enough level, school staff must determine if the student is now fluent in English. If so, the student becomes an “exited ELL.” The law requires districts to monitor for two years students who have exited and are no longer receiving services. There are, however, students who do not reach English fluency before graduating or leaving school.

What is the difference between being bilingual and being biliterate?

Bilingual generally refers to oral language in that bilingual people can understand and speak two languages but may not be able to read and write in those languages. Biliterate refers to being able to understand, speak, read, and write in two languages. Many people are bilingual but not biliterate. Biliteracy is considered to be a higher form of bilingualism.

What is the difference between dual language and biliteracy models?

Dual language and biliteracy models share many common components. Both models usually have biliteracy as their end goal for students. Dual language models may be “one-way” or “two-way.” One-way programs generally serve students who are designated as English language learners (also sometimes called emerging bilinguals). Two-way dual language programs include students who are native English speakers. The only major difference is that biliteracy models focus on using two languages in the language arts or literacy classes (reading and writing in two languages) whereas dual language focuses on using two languages across the entire school day’s curriculum.

What is an immersion model?

Immersion models traditionally are thought of as referring to programs primarily intended for students from the dominant language population to learn a second language. This is different from programs meant to teach English.

While native English students can choose whether or not to learn a second language, students who are English language learners do not have a choice in learning English.

What is sheltered instruction?

This type of instruction takes place in non-dual language schools, during regular content classes (such as math or science), and it’s one way schools try to make the content understandable to students who aren’t yet fluent in English.

This is especially common in schools where English learners speak a variety of languages. Crawford Elementary in Aurora, for instance, has had up to 35 different languages represented among its approximately 560 students. If there aren’t enough students who speak a common first language and also a teacher who speaks the same language as those students, then schools must teach through English, while making the English as accessible as possible.

In practice, this means an English-speaking teacher would use sheltered instruction techniques to help all children understand the lessons such as, physical props, a focus on building vocabulary, and sentence stems.

Denver designates schools as TNLI schools. What does that mean?

Denver created the TNLI label in 1999 to set the district apart from other bilingual program models. TNLI stands for Transitional Native Language Instruction. The Denver TNLI program is a transitional bilingual education program model with a label created just for Denver. It’s a model where instruction in Spanish is used to help students learn while they’re acquiring English, but still has a goal of making students fluent in English as soon as possible, at which point students move into mainstream English classrooms.

Is one of these models best suited for English learners?

Among researchers, it is commonly accepted that dual language or biliteracy models are the most effective to put English learners on par with their native speaking peers, in the long run.

Why do teachers have to be trained specifically to teach this population of students? What are teachers learning?

Educators and researchers say that teachers need to learn the differences and similarities between learning in one language and learning bilingually. Teachers need to learn about literacy methodology and how teaching literacy in Spanish (for example) is the same and different as teaching literacy in English. They have to learn how to teach English language development to students who are beginning to learn English (it is different than just teaching in English). These trainings also help teachers learn about cultural similarities and differences and about sources of culture conflict. Teachers need to be able to teach children English; how to use English to learn; and how the English language works. In bilingual settings teachers need to learn those three things for two languages. In short, the training needed to be a bilingual teacher is quite different. Colorado will soon require some of this training for all teachers.

What are the challenges districts have in offering these different programs? How do schools decide which type of model to offer?

The demographics of a district’s student population, and district politics play a large part in helping a district decide what model or program to use. Resources can also be a factor in deciding how to structure services or what programs to offer. In Adams 14, when the district leadership decided to pause the roll out of a biliteracy program, the district cited a lack of qualified bilingual teachers, among other things.

In Westminster, the school district’s unique competency-based approach, which removes grade levels and seeks to personalize instruction, was cited as a reason why the district had structured its English language development the way it had before the investigation by the Office for Civil Rights sought to change it.

Does Colorado provide guidance or oversight for how districts are doing this work?

The Colorado Department of Education offers some guidance for districts, but oversight of the districts’ compliance with what is required is limited. In practice, when parents suspect their children aren’t educated well, they have filed complaints with the federal government. In Denver, the complaints went through the Department of Justice. Investigations of most other metro-area districts have been conducted by the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights.

task force

Jeffco takes collaborative approach as it considers later school start times

File photo of Wheat Ridge High School students. (Photo by Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

The Jeffco school district is weighing pushing back start times at its middle and high schools, and the community task force set up to offer recommendations is asking for public input.

Nearby school districts, such as those in Cherry Creek and Greeley, have rolled out later start times, and Jeffco — the second largest school district in Colorado — in December announced its decision to study the issue.

Thompson and Brighton’s 27J school districts are pushing back start times at their secondary schools this fall.

The 50-person Jeffco task force has until January to present their recommendations to the district.

Supporters of the idea to start the school day later cite research showing that teenagers benefit from sleeping in and often do better in school as a result.

Jeffco is considering changing start times after parents and community members began pressing superintendent Jason Glass to look at the issue. Middle and high schools in the Jeffco district currently start at around 7:30 a.m.

The task force is inviting community members to offer their feedback this summer on the group’s website, its Facebook page, or the district’s form, and to come to its meetings in the fall.

Katie Winner, a Jeffco parent of two and one of three chairs of the start times task force, said she’s excited about how collaborative the work is this year.

“It’s a little shocking,” Winner said. “It’s really hard to convey to people that Jeffco schools wants your feedback. But I can say [definitively], I don’t believe this is a waste of time.”

The task force is currently split into three committees focusing on reviewing research on school start times, considering outcomes in other districts that have changed start times, and gathering community input. The group as a whole will also consider how schedule changes could affect transportation, sports and other after school activities, student employment, and district budgets.

Members of the task force are not appointed by the district, as has been typical in district decision-making in years past. Instead, as a way to try to generate the most community engagement, everyone who expressed interest was accepted into the group. Meetings are open to the public, and people can still join the task force.

“These groups are short-term work groups, not school board advisory committees. They are targeting some current issues that our families are interested in,” said Diana Wilson, the district’s chief communications officer. “Since the topics likely have a broad range of perspectives, gathering people that (hopefully) represent those perspectives to look at options seems like a good way to find some solutions or ideas for positive/constructive changes.”

How such a large group will reach a consensus remains to be seen. Winner knows the prospect could appear daunting, but “it’s actually a challenge to the group to say: be inclusive.”

For now the group is seeking recommendations that won’t require the district to spend more money. But Winner said the group will keep a close eye on potential tax measures that could give the district new funds after November. If some measure were to pass, it could give the group more flexibility in its recommendations.