First Person

This week's healthy schools highlights

Reading, writing and roasting: Schools bring cooking back to the classroom

Lots of kids have tried lentils. But what about Ethiopian-style lentils, accompanied by injera bread, couscous and cucumber salad?

Fourth graders in Santa Fe, N.M. prepared this lunch feast themselves as part of a nutrition education program called Cooking with Kids. And nutrition experts say programs like this one are not just about expanding timid kids’ palates. Listen to this NPR report.

Colorado’s first school farm delivers organic produce to cafeteria

Sprout City Farms is a non‐profit urban agriculture organization located in Denver that has the unique distinction of creating and managing the first large‐scale farm on Denver Public School property. In partnership with the Denver Green School, Denver Urban Gardens, and DPS, Sprout City Farms recently signed an agreement – the first of its kind – with DPS Food and Nutrition Services to provide local, organically‐grown food direct to the school cafeteria.

This unique arrangement is the result of months of conversations between SCF and FNS, with support from the Denver Department of Environmental Health: Public Health Inspections Division, the Colorado Department of Agriculture, and Colorado State University Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition: Food Safety Specialists.

In addition to Denver Green School, McGlone Elementary and Bradley International School also have school farms through local farmer Quint Redmond’s company, Agriburbia. McGlone’s will be harvested this fall, while Bradley’s farm will be planted for the first time this spring.

Since Sept. 8, Sprout City Farms has delivered more than 250 pounds of fresh and super‐local vegetables direct to Denver Green School’s cafeteria. The 1‐acre farm is located on school grounds less than 200 yards from the cafeteria door.

Sprout City Farms is currently fundraising to support the long‐term sustainability of its efforts, including the Farm‐to‐Cafeteria program.

Pro chef wows Iowa Elementary School students

Chef Jorge de la Torre, dean of culinary education at Johnson & Wales University, recently visited Iowa Elementary School in Aurora to share his tips on good nutrition and great tasting food.  Students eagerly watched as Chef Jorge prepared nutritious snacks.  They learned about food safety and later got to taste a sampling of cucumbers prepared with chili powder and lime.

Students also received a J&W cookbook so that they could prepare the snacks at home with their families.

Chef De la Torre’s visit was part of Iowa’s Project G.R.O.W.L. (Getting Ready for Outstanding Wellness Learning). Chef Jorge has partnered with Iowa in Michelle Obama’s Chefs Move to Schools program. He will be returning to Iowa over the course of the year to give more demos.

Project G.R.O.W.L. also includes the garden that was started last spring and a Food/Garden Club sponsored by the PTSA and run by parent volunteer Laurie Schneyer.  “Miss Laurie” wants the kids at Iowa to understand where their food comes from, how to grow their own, and then how to create nutritious meals from it.

The garden and food/garden club are partially sponsored by Slow Food Denver’s Seed to Table program.

Boulder Valley schools team up with FoodPlay

Students at 10 elementary schools throughout Boulder Valley School District will get to see FoodPlay in school assemblies next week, thanks to grants from the USDA and Colorado Health Foundation. FoodPlay is a national award-winning theater show that promotes healthy eating and exercise habits.

During the fun-filled performance, children follow the antics of Johnny Junkfood, whose dream is to become a national juggling star, but he keeps dropping the balls. The problem – his poor eating habits! With the help of the “Coach” of the National Junior Juggling Team and the audience of enthusiastic elementary school children, Johnny learns how to juggle the foods he eats to wind up with a balanced diet. The show helps children learn how to see through TV commercials, decipher food labels, and make choices that are good for their health and good for the health of the planet. As the children walk away to the beat of “Treat Your Body Right!” FoodPlay’s message comes in loud and clear – feed healthy foods to your body, positive messages to your mind, and have fun being active every day.

“We have to fight fire with fire,” says FoodPlay creator and Executive Director Barbara Storper, MS, RD.

“We need to use the same techniques advertisers use in order to get kids excited about healthy foods and healthy practices. And, schools are the perfect setting to model healthy behaviors and educate students on how to make their choices healthy ones. Once kids get the facts, they become the most effective health advocates, bringing the message back home.”

(Read a story about the FoodPlay program in the Broomfield Enterprise.)

There will also be a Rainbow Day during lunch time at each of the schools on the day of their assembly. Called the “Make a Rainbow on Your Tray” campaign, this initiative challenges students to create colorful creations from the salad bar. Interns, volunteers, and parents stationed at the school encourage the students, take pictures of great looking salads and hand out “I made a Rainbow at the Salad Bar Today” stickers after students have proved that they not only put colorful foods on their tray, but ate them as well.

Aurora students learn about nutrition and healthy lifestyles

Students at Aurora Frontier K-8 were “treated” to a Love Grown Foods yogurt parfait and gained knowledge and understanding about how nutrition can promote a healthy lifestyle thanks to a collaboration between community business and schools. Maddy D’Amato, Chief Love Officer, of Love Grown Foods spent the day with students K-8 sharing expertise on nutrition, health, and food choices.

“Food should have ingredients you can pronounce because then you know what they are made of and what you are putting in your body.”

That is the basis of Love Grown Foods, a local company in North Denver. P.E. Teacher, Jennifer Handy, thought it would be a great idea to show kids real people in the community that are advocating for health. “When kids understand more about food, they can make better choices,” states Mrs. Handy.

Throughout the session students moved like brooms, emulating how fiber cleans out the digestive system. They learned how eating a healthy breakfast makes you smarter. They saw firsthand the positive and negative effects food choices can have on the human body.

In the end, not only did students leave with a healthy snack to share with friends and family, they will take with them information that will guide their choices for life. Empowering children to make healthy decisions is a huge responsibility that should be fostered by home, school, and the community. “This just warms my heart,” said Maddy as the kids crowded around her and thanked her for her expertise and sharing it with them.

School soda bans don’t stop sugary-drink consumption, study says

Teens between age 14 and 18 get more calories from soda than any other single food or drink, research shows, and kids who drink soda and other sugar-sweetened beverages are more likely to be overweight or obese. So health experts who would like to reverse the rise in childhood obesity often focus on reducing kids’ access to these sugary drinks. But a new study has some discouraging news: Students in schools that limited sales of soda and other sugary beverages on campus consumed just as many of the drinks, overall, as students in schools without any such restrictions. Read more in the Los Angeles Times.

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.

First Person

I’m a Houston geography teacher. This is my plan for our first day back — as soon as it arrives

PHOTO: Creative Commons / Texas Military Department
Texas National Guard soldiers arrive in Houston, Texas to aid citizens in heavily flooded areas from the storms of Hurricane Harvey.

Hurricane Harvey has upended so many things here in Houston, where I am starting my third year as a teacher. One of them is the lesson I am planning for the first day of school — as soon as it arrives.

This upheaval is nothing compared to what people across the city have faced, including my students, who have been sending me photos of evacuation boats going past their houses.

But it is fundamental to the task of being a teacher at a time of crisis. As an A.P. Human Geography teacher, my job is to help students make connections between the geography concepts we are learning in class and their real lives: Does Houston look like the models of urban development we study? Does their family history include a migration?

Before the storm, my thinking went like this: I am white and was born in England and most of my students are Hispanic, many with parents who were born in other countries. I was excited for us to share and compare our different stories. My students last year were shocked and fascinated when they discovered that my white, middle-aged father who is a university professor was applying for a green card, just as many of their family members were.

Now, Hurricane Harvey has underlined for me the importance of those real-world connections. As I looked at the photos from my students, I was struck by how geography concepts can affect us in very real — even life-threatening — ways.

I had planned to teach a lesson at the end of the year about how urbanization affects the environment. The lesson looks at how urbanization can exacerbate flooding: for example, how paving over grassy areas can increase the speed with which rain reaches the bayous, causing the water levels to rise faster. I would then have students evaluate different policies cities can adopt to mitigate that risk, such as encouraging the building on brownfield rather than greenfield sites and passing laws to protect farmland — options that have significant benefits but also significant costs.

I have decided to move this lesson up in the curriculum and teach it when we have school again. School is scheduled to start again on Tuesday, though at this stage everything is provisional, as each hour we find out about more families that have had their homes destroyed by the rising waters. It is still unclear how all our staff, let alone students, will get to school.

I am worried that the lesson could re-traumatize students who have experienced so much trauma in the past few days. I know I will need to make an active effort to make students feel comfortable stepping into the hall if they are feeling overwhelmed. However, my experiences with the recent presidential election make me think that this lesson is exactly what some students might need.

After the election, many students were genuinely confused about what had happened. One question in particular was on their minds: How you can you win the popular vote but not the election? We talked through the Electoral College together, and having clarity about what had happened and why it happened seemed to give them a firmer foundation to build on as they processed their emotions. I am hopeful that teaching about flooding will help ground them in a similar way.

This lesson about flooding was once simply another lesson in the curriculum, but now it has taken on a new urgency. In moments of disaster, it is easy to feel powerless; I certainly could not help the people I saw posting on Facebook that they were been on hold with 911 for hours while standing on their roofs.

Yet teachers have a unique power — the power to shape the minds of future generations to solve the problems that we face. Houston’s location means that it will always be susceptible to flooding. But by teaching about the flood I hope I can play a small role in helping our city avoid repeating some of the tragic scenes I witnessed this week.

Alex McNaughton teaches history and geography at YES Prep Southeast in Houston.

Looking to help? YES Prep is collecting donations to support its students and their families. Houston ISD and KIPP Houston are also soliciting donations for their students.