First Person

This week's healthy schools highlights

School lunches get first overhaul in 15 years

Kids can expect more fruits and vegetables, less fat and salt, and more whole grains than in the past.

The new school-meal standards announced by the U.S. Department of Agriculture Wednesday are the first changes to the standards in more than 15 years, and are a major component of the Healthy Hunger Free Kids Act passed last year. Read more in the Christian Science Monitor. 

Obama pushes salad in schools at $3 billion cost to states

teen girl at salad barAn overhaul of U.S. school meal standards that replaces breaded patties and canned fruit with fresh tomatoes and chef salad will cost $3.2 billion over five years, less than half of what was initially proposed by the Obama administration. Read more in Bloomberg. 

Cook for America swaps mystery meat for homemade meat sauce

In an era when many school cafeterias have long ago traded in fresh baked goods for re-heated, pre-packaged meals, two lady chefs travel across the country on a mission to revolutionize the dreaded school lunch one school district at a time. Check out this ABC News report.

Getting the family involved may help obese kids lose weight

Childhood obesity is a complex issue with no simple solutions, but involving the entire family in weight loss and health may help kids achieve their goals, a report finds.

A scientific statement released Monday in Circulation: Journal of the American Heart Assn. reviews strategies shown to be successful in helping kids slim down. Some studies find that obese children can have symptoms normally associated with adult obesity, such as high blood pressure and cholesterol. Others suggest that overweight kids often turn into overweight adults. Read more in the Los Angeles Times. 

Got salad? Students at Windsor High do, thanks to one student’s initiative

Long after Amanda Ricketson graduates from Windsor High School, she’ll have left a healthy legacy in the lunch room.

Amanda, a 16-year-old Windsor sophomore with a 4.0 grade-point average, was instrumental in getting a salad bar in the high school cafeteria.

As a freshman last year, Amanda did a PowerPoint presentation about the importance of having a salad bar in the school lunch room. She also put together a video where she interviewed several students about their thoughts regarding salad bars. Read more in My Windsor Now.

School lunches from around the world

Jazz up your child’s lunch by thinking outside lunch box staples and choosing foods from different parts of the world instead. The essential building blocks of these dishes — rice, beans, noodles, and chicken — can be prepared ahead (and served for dinner the night before) then transformed into wraps, rolls, flatbreads, soups, or salads for lunch. Get some ideas from Great Schools. 

Food TED talks: The 8 best lectures on eating and food policy

On Saturday, TEDx Manhattan, an unofficial offshoot of the non-profit TED, will be hosting a series of lectures on the theme “Changing The Way We Eat.” Boulder’s own “renegade lunch lady” and EdNews Parent expert Ann Cooper is among them. The talks are going to be live-streamed at viewing parties across the country. But if you’re busy Saturday – or just want to get a sense of the types of issues that might be discussed – there’s no need to despair. There have been dozens of official TED Talks about food in past years. Read more in the Huffington Post. 

School obesity programs may promote worrisome eating behaviors 

In a new poll, 30 percent of parents report at least one worrisome behavior in their children that could be associated with the development of eating disorders

A new report from the C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital National Poll on Children’s Health examines the possible association between school-based childhood obesity prevention programs and an increase in eating disorders among young children and adolescents. Learn more from the University of Michigan. 

Fort Collins school’s climbing wall gives students confidence and exercise

Johnson Elementary third-grader Lilli Blakeslee was all smiles as she grabbed her last hand hold, reached the top of her route on the climbing wall and rang the bell of success.

“I can’t believe I got to the very top!” said an excited Lilli. “That’s my first time all year!”

Every Tuesday morning as many as 30 Johnson Elementary students meet before school to participate in the Climbing Club, an extra-curricular enrichment opportunity for third- through fifth-graders. Students equip themselves with harnesses and choose one of the Rock Climbing Wall routes, which range in difficulty and are all manned by adult volunteer belayers. Fun hand and foot holds like ice-cream cones and letters that spell the name of the school help the climbers as they maneuver themselves to the top. Learn more through the Poudre School District. 

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.