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’m an Oklahoma educator who had become complacent about funding cuts. Our students will be different.

Teacher Laurel Payne, student Aurora Thomas and teacher Elisha Gallegos work on an art project at the state capitol on April 9, 2018 in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. (Photo by J Pat Carter/Getty Images)

I’ve spent the last 40 years watching the state I love divest in its future. The cuts to education budgets just kept coming. Oklahoma City Public Schools, where I spent the last 10 years working with teachers, had to cut over $30 million in the 2016-17 academic year alone.

Over time, students, teachers, and parents, at times including myself, became complacent. We all did what we could. For me, that meant working with the students and teachers in the most disenfranchised areas of my city.

In the past 18 months, that has also meant working at Generation Citizen, a nonprofit promoting civics education across Oklahoma. We help students deploy “action civics.” Over the course of a semester, students debate what they would change if they were in charge of their school, city, or state, and select one issue to address as a class, which may involve lobbying elected officials or building a coalition.

Their progress has been incredible. But when teachers across the state decided to walk out of their schools and head to the State Capitol to demand additional funding for education, action civics came to life in a huge way. And in addition to galvanizing our teachers, I watched this moment in Oklahoma transform young people.

My takeaway? Over the long term, this walkout will hopefully lead to more funding for our schools. But it will definitely lead to a more engaged youth population in Oklahoma.

These past two weeks have sparked a fire that will not let up anytime soon. With actual schools closed, the Oklahoma State Capitol became a laboratory rich with civic experimentation. Students from Edmond Memorial High School wanted elected officials to personally witness what students and teachers continue to accomplish, and when the walkout started, the students started a “Classroom at the Capitol.” Over 40 students held AP English Literature on the Capitol lawn. Their message: the state might not invest in their classrooms, but classes would go on.

In the first few days of the walkout, the legislature refused to take action. Many wondered if their voices were being heard. That’s when Gabrielle Davis, a senior at Edmond Memorial, worked to rally students to the Capitol for a massive demonstration.

“I want the legislators to put faces to the decisions they’re making,” Gabrielle said.

By Wednesday, the “Classroom at the Capitol” had grown to over 2,000 students. The students were taking effective action: speaking knowledgeably on the funding crisis, with a passion and idealism that only young people can possess.

As students’ numbers grew, so did their confidence. By Wednesday afternoon, I watched as the state Capitol buzzed with students not only protesting, but getting into the nitty-gritty of political change by learning the names and faces of their elected officials.

By Thursday and Friday, students and teachers were no longer operating independently. The collaboration which makes classroom learning most effective was happening in the halls of the Capitol. When students identified the representative holding up a revenue bill, they walked through the line to find students from his home district to lead the charge.

Last Monday, with the walkout still ongoing, the students I saw were armed with talking points and legislative office numbers. After another student rally, they ran off to the offices of their elected officials.

Two students, Bella and Sophie, accompanied by Bella’s mom, made their way to the fourth floor. The girls stood outside the door, took a deep breath, and knocked. State Senator Stephanie Bice was in a meeting. They stepped out to decide their next move and decided to write personal notes to their state senators. With letters written, edited, and delivered, Bella and Sophie were beaming.

“That feels so good,” Sophie said.

A week of direct civic action had turned protesters into savvy advocates.

Until this walkout, most of the participating students had never met their elected officials. But that’s quickly changing. Students have worked collaboratively to demystify the legislative process, understand the policy goals articulated by organizing groups, and advocate for revenue measures that would support a more equitable education system.

Jayke, a student from Choctaw, reflected on this reality. “These last few days at the Capitol I have learned more about life and how to stand up for what I believe.”

That’s no small thing. Over those 14 days, I listened to students use their voices to express their experiences. Many also spoke on behalf of students who were not there. They spoke for the 60 percent of Oklahoma public school students who qualify for free or reduced-price lunch. They rallied for the students at each of their schools who do not have enough food to eat.

Through this conflict, our students are learning the importance, and the mechanics, of political participation. Our young people are becoming powerful in a way that will outlast this funding crisis. It’s everything a civics educator could hope for.

Amy Curran is the Oklahoma site director for Generation Citizen, an education nonprofit.

First Person

Let’s solve the right problems for Detroit’s students with disabilities — not recycle old ones

PHOTO: Jessica Glazer

First Person is a standing feature where guest contributors write about pressing issues in public education. Want to contribute? More details here

As Superintendent Nikolai Vitti approaches his first anniversary of leading the struggling Detroit Public Schools Community District, I commend him for his energy and vision. In particular, I applaud his focus on developing a robust curriculum and hiring great teachers, the foundations of any great school district.

However, his recently announced plans to create new specialized programs for students with disabilities are disconcerting to me, given decades of research demonstrating the benefits of inclusion.

Specifically, Vitti has discussed the possibility of creating specialized programs for students with autism, dyslexia, and hearing impairments. The motivation is twofold: to meet students’ needs and to offer distinct programs that will attract parents who have fled Detroit in search of higher quality schools.

I’ve spent 25 years both studying and actively trying to improve schools for students with disabilities, and I can understand why Vitti’s proposal may have appeal. (I’m now the head of the National Center for Special Education in Charter Schools.) But while the specialized programs might fill a critical need immediately, I have seen the downside of creating such segregated programming.

Once the programs are created, parents will seek them out for appearing to be the better than weak programs in inclusive settings. This will reinforce the belief that segregation is the only way to serve students with learning differences well.

This is a problematic mindset that we must continually try to shift. One need only to examine decades of special education case law, or the outcomes of districts designed solely for students with disabilities — such as District 75 in New York City or the Georgia Network for Educational and Therapeutic Support — to see that such segregated settings can become one-way paths to limited access to a robust curriculum, peers without disabilities, or high standards, even when those districts are created with the best of intentions.

While a small proportion of students with the most significant support needs — typically 2-3 percent of students identified for special education — can benefit from more segregated and restrictive settings, the vast majority of students with disabilities can thrive in inclusive settings.

Vitti is clearly committed to ensuring that students with disabilities have access to essential supports and services, especially students with dyslexia. He has spoken passionately about his own experiences growing up with undiagnosed dyslexia as well as watching two of his four children struggle with dyslexia. And Vitti and his wife started a school for students with dyslexia in Jacksonville, Florida.

However, I would urge him to reconsider his approach in favor of exploring strategies to integrate robust supports and services into existing schools. By integrating, rather than separating, Vitti can ensure that all students have access to the general education curriculum and to teachers with demonstrated subject knowledge.

Furthermore, integrated programs ensure that students with disabilities have access to their typically developing peers and, conversely, that these peers have access to special education teachers’ expertise.

I’ve had the pleasure of seeing such inclusive programs in action around the country. For example, at San Diego’s Thrive Public Schools, there is no discernible distinction between students receiving special education services and students who are not. When I visited earlier this year, I saw how special education teachers work alongside general education teachers and share responsibilities for all students, not just those with disabilities.

At Mott Haven Academy in New York, teachers and school leaders preemptively deter behavioral issues and incorporate opportunities for intentional reflection. Students learn in a restorative environment that is safe, stable, structured, and understanding — particularly benefiting students with disabilities.

I’ve also seen programs designed to serve students with learning disabilities benefit many students. Why would we restrict these instructional practices to schools specifically designed only for students with dyslexia, for example?

I’m convinced that separating students based on their learning needs stands to do harm to both groups and reinforce pernicious stereotypes that students with disabilities need to be separated from their peers — a practice that does not prepare any students well to exist in a society that ideally embraces, rather than shuns, differences.

If Vitti cannot create the least restrictive settings for these students with autism, dyslexia, and hearing impairments in the desired timeline, I encourage him to consider an explicitly short-term solution — say, one to three years — with a specific phase-out deadline. This will enable students to receive critical supports and services while Vitti strives to ensure that students with disabilities are able to access high-quality programs in more inclusive settings.

In the long term, Vitti should strive to weave educating the full range of students with learning differences into the DNA of Detroit’s schools.

It is refreshing to hear an urban superintendent explicitly prioritizing the educational needs of students with disabilities. Vitti’s concerns should energize efforts to address the limited capacity, resources, and training for the benefit of all students. That would be truly innovative, and Detroit has the potential to emerge as a leader — an effort for which Vitti could be very proud.

Lauren Morando Rhim is the executive director and co-founder of the National Center for Special Education in Charter Schools.