The Other 60 Percent

Young DPS cooks face off in competition

The nutrition challenge confronting 16-year-old Jen Esquibel, a junior at Denver’s Bruce Randolph School, and her classmates is one that would daunt many a seasoned kitchen veteran:

Bruce Randolph EatWell@School contest team members sample their work - chicken Alfredo. Photo by Andrea Burolla

Come up with a menu – a main dish and two sides – that had never been served in the school cafeteria before but potentially could be, would tempt teens to try it, would meet all the federal guidelines for healthy nutrition standards, and could be made for under $1 per meal.

Across the city, four teams of teenagers – more than 30 in all – face the same assignment as they gear up for the second EatWell@School cooking competition.

The competition pits students from Bruce Randolph, Martin Luther King Jr. Early College, Manual High School and KIPP Denver Collegiate High School. The winning team – to be decided Friday night – will get to compete in a national competition next spring in Washington D.C. Last year, the team from Martin Luther King made the trip.

Given the pressure, the hardest thing for Esquibel might come as a surprise to many:

“Learning how to hold the knife,” she said. “But just last week I learned how to julienne.”

Competition, and a healthy dose of nutrition training

The competition, sponsored by LiveWell Colorado, brings together teens with an interest in cooking and volunteer chef mentors who are culinary students at Johnson & Wales University. They meet for 90 minutes after school, one day a week for nine weeks.

One goal is to teach these youngsters kitchen skills that will serve them for a lifetime, while giving them a healthy dose of nutrition training and exposing them to healthy foods they’ve never tried before.

“Our intention is not to give these kids an alternative career path, but it’s morphed into that,” said Becky Grupe, director of community relations at LiveWell. “An important result of this program is to let them know they don’t have to have a four-year college degree in order to have a career. But we’re also giving them the skills for a lifetime to feed their families.”

The curriculum the youngsters follow was designed by Denver chef Shelley Kark, founder of Kitchen Cue, a culinary education company.

“We talk about nutrition, food labels, safety and sanitation, a little bit about costing products. It’s a pretty thorough program for 90 minutes a week for nine weeks,” she said.

Kark is not at all surprised that students are challenged by handling knives.

“Anyone can cut something,” she said. “But can you cut consistently and safely? That’s the question.”

Last week, J&W mentor chef Sami Fuhrman was putting the young cooks through their paces, practicing on the dish they’ll serve at the competition: chicken Alfredo. Gathered in the cooking classroom at Bruce Randolph, some of the girls chopped onions while others sautéed chicken and others strove to turn out perfect al dente pasta.

“From what I’ve noticed, they’ve learned a lot,” said Fuhrman, whose own experiences with ProStart – a national program to mentor teens interested in a professional culinary career – led her to work with the EatWell@School program. “They didn’t come with a huge background of skills.”

Italian an easy choice for Bruce Randolph team

It was Fuhrman who helped them choose their menu items, after encouraging them to browse through cookbooks at home to find something that intrigued them.

Members of the Bruce Randolph cooking team pose with their mentor chef, Johnson and Wales University student Sami Fuhrman, top right. Photo by Andrea Burolla

“They all chose Italian,” she said. “That’s because Italian tends to be easy to make, and they don’t get served a lot of Italian food in school. Plus, it’s something they wanted to see more of on the menu.”

Rules for the competition require teams to prepare and serve a complete school lunch that fulfills U.S. Department of Agriculture requirements for nutrition and that can be made for under $1 per person using only the ingredients typically available in a DPS kitchen. All meals must include at least one locally-produced ingredient.

The meals will be judged on Friday night by a panel of local health and culinary experts.

The EatWell@School program is part of LiveWell Colorado’s campaign to upgrade school food to help prevent childhood obesity by providing children access to healthy, fresh food at school.

Starting young

These 11-year-old Brooklyn students are asking New York City to do something about segregated schools

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Matilda and Eliza Seki, left, and their friends Noa and Benji Weiss, right, collected signatures at a district 15 meeting to discuss middle school integration efforts.

While they learned about the history of segregation, a group of Brooklyn 11-year-olds took a good look around their classrooms and realized their schools weren’t so different from the photos in their textbooks.

So Matilda and Eliza Seki paired up with their friends Noa and Benji Weiss — two sets of twins — and decided to do something about it. They launched a petition on calling on the city to integrate its schools.

“We learned about separate and equal in the civil rights movement, and that it was not equal,” Eliza said, referring to the “separate but equal” legal doctrine once used to justify segregation. “And since there are schools with people of only one race, and it’s all separated, it cannot be equal.”

Matilda and Eliza are in the sixth grade at M.S. 839, and Noa and Benji are fifth-graders at P.S. 10. They already have a bit of experience in activism, having joined the Women’s March in D.C., and helping to lead environmental clubs at their school. They hold sophisticated views for kids their age, and are aware of the hurdles ingrained in addressing school segregation.

Describing how housing patterns can tie into school quality, Benji began his thoughts by saying: “Let’s say you’re from a different culture or race and you don’t have as much money as other people do — because we still live in a racist country — and you’re in an area where the housing is cheaper but you don’t have as good schools.”

Across New York City, adults have debated how to spur integration in the country’s largest school system — and one of the most segregated. According to one recent analysis, the city’s most selective high schools enroll 84 percent white and Asian students, even though those groups make up only 30 percent of the city’s student enrollment.

But student-organized groups have also been at the forefront of a grassroots movement for more diverse schools. The work of budding advocates Matilda, Eliza, Noa and Benji caught the attention of some those groups, and they’ve now joined the ranks of Teens Take Charge and IntegrateNYC as some of the youngest members. The changes they’d like to see go beyond admissions policies, but also include a push for additional resources for underserved schools, hiring more teachers of color and curricula that reflects all students and cultures.

“We decided it was an important issue and we wanted to help fix it,” Noa said.

Matilda added: “Our schools should look like our city.”

Their schools are in District 15, where 81 percent of white students are concentrated in just three of the district’s most selective middle schools, according to an analysis by parents. The city has launched a series of public workshops to craft a new admissions model to integrate middle schools there, but these kids already have their own ideas for how to do that.

Benji, who is heading to middle school next year, said it would be “pretty good” if schools stopped picking students based on criteria such as class grades and attendance. Such “screening” contributes to segregation because of a number of factors — from which elementary schools students attend, to their parents’ ability to navigate the complicated admissions process.  

“It’s… important to learn about different peoples’ backgrounds, and religions, and cultures,” he said. “And also to make sure that all kids, no matter their race, religion or where they live can get the same, good education.”

Raised Voices

Balloons, hearts, and ‘die-ins’: How Colorado students marked National Walkout Day

Students gather at the Colorado State Capitol to protest gun violence. (Melanie Asmar)

Thousands of students across Colorado poured out of their schools Wednesday to protest gun violence and to remember 17 victims of last month’s deadly shooting in Florida. Chalkbeat’s Melanie Asmar walked with students from East High School to the Colorado State Capitol, where Gov. John Hickenlooper and Speaker of the House Cristanta Duran urged them to remain politically active.

The protests took different forms at other schools – and not everyone wanted the event to be political. There were balloon releases, voter registration drives, and public “die-ins” at major intersections. And in one Denver area school district, a surge of threats cast a pall over events.

Here’s a look at #NationalWalkoutDay from around the region.

Students at Skinner Middle School in northwest Denver marched in silent solidarity.

In Colorado, teenagers can register to vote before their 18th birthday.

At schools in the Adams 12 district north of Denver, a big uptick in threats the night before – and a warning letter from the superintendent – led many students to skip school altogether.

Students at McAuliffe International School in northeast Denver spoke with their shirts. Instead of “Thoughts & Prayers,” they asked for “Policy & Change.”

But their event was not all about politics. They formed a heart with their bodies and read the names of the dead.

At Jefferson Jr./Sr. High School, students promised to work to change school culture.

Many schools released balloons to honor the victims and found other ways to advocate for change.

Unlike some Colorado districts, St. Vrain didn’t officially condone the walkouts, but students at Longmont schools walked out anyway.

Students at Denver’s South High School have been vocal about gun violence. In a recent visit from U.S. Rep. Diana DeGette, they rejected the idea that armed teachers would make them safer and demanded that lawmakers do more.

Students from one of Colorado’s KIPP charter schools used their bodies to send a message at a major intersection in west Denver.

Students of color in Denver reminded the public that gun violence is not limited to mass shootings.

Students aren’t just marching. They’re also writing their representatives. State Rep. Faith Winter, a Westminster Democrat, tweeted a picture of her inbox full of emails from students.

Colorado carries the legacy of the 1999 mass shooting at Columbine High School, where a memorial asks urgently as ever: “How have things changed; what have we learned?”