Healthy Schools

Breakfast more common in classrooms

Fourteen-year-old Leticia Berez ate breakfast at her school on Friday morning, just as she normally does, downing breakfast burritos and milk. The ninth-grader is pretty sure that having a good breakfast every morning helps her keep her 4.0 GPA.

Noel Community Arts School ninth-grader Leticia Berez with Gov. John Hickenlooper and Denver Bronco Eric Decker.

“By eating healthy, it helps you make better grades,” Leticia insisted. “It keeps your mind going.”

But Friday’s breakfast at Leticia’s school, Noel Community Arts School in Denver’s Montbello neighborhood, wasn’t exactly like it always is. It’s not every day that the governor of Colorado and a Denver Bronco deliver the food, as they did on this day, rolling the breakfast carts into the school cafeteria to the cheers of students.

“Well, typically we deliver the breakfast right to the classroom,” said Bob Gorman, DPS area supervisor for nutrition services. “That way it allows each child to have a free breakfast to start the day.”

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Gov. John Hickenlooper and Denver wide receiver Eric Decker – accompanied by some Denver Broncos cheerleaders and DPS Chief Operating Officer David Suppes – came to Noel on Friday, breakfast carts in tow, to kick off this week’s National School Breakfast Week and Fuel Up to Play 60, a National Dairy Council program that stresses healthy eating and physical activity for students.

“I have to admit, I was one of those weird kids who had about six milks at lunch, getting a double lunch, because I knew it was very important,” Decker told the cheering students.

Leticia knows too. She wrote a prize-winning essay on the importance of school breakfast that won her an autographed jersey from Decker – and a hug.

Breakfast has increasingly become a focus for school nutritionists, both as a means to provide one more meal to low-income students whose families may not have adequate food in the house and to ensure that all students, regardless of family income, don’t start the day hungry. At schools that have breakfast in the classroom, as Noel and 26 other DPS schools do, breakfast is free for everyone.

Studies show that children who eat breakfast perform better on standardized tests and make fewer mistakes in math.

A recent Share Our Strength survey found that one in five children in Colorado are at risk of hunger, and the state’s rate of children in poverty is the fastest-growing in the nation.

By the numbers
  • One in five children in Colorado are at risk of hunger
  • Of the 217,000 children who ate federally subsidized lunches in Colorado in 2010, only 87,000 also ate breakfast
  • Between 2009-10 and 2010-11, the number of breakfasts served in Colorado schools grew from an average of 97,540 daily to 108,509, an 11 percent increase
  • Hunger Free Colorado’s goal is to have 130,000 breakfasts served in school by 2015.

Yet of the 217,000 low-income children who ate free or reduced-price lunches in Colorado schools in 2010, only 87,000 participated in a school breakfast program. So expanding the program so that more schools participate has become a top priority for Hunger Free Colorado.

Last year, the organization partnered with the state to launch the School Breakfast Challenge to encourage schools to get more eligible children to participate in school breakfast. Between the 2009-10 school year and 2010-11, the number of breakfasts served in Colorado schools rose from an average of 97,540 daily to 108,509, an 11 percent increase. The percentage of students eating school breakfast grew from 12.15 to 13.35 during that same time.

Hunger Free Colorado’s goal is to have 130,000 breakfasts served in the state’s schools by 2015.

In January, winners of the School Breakfast Challenge were announced. All the winners switched from serving a traditional breakfast in the school cafeteria to a breakfast in the classroom model, which lets students eat at their desks, making it part of their instructional time.

Katherine Moos, public affairs and development manager at Hunger Free Colorado, said there are good reasons to switch from breakfast served in the cafeteria to breakfast served in the classroom.

“Sometimes it’s only the noticeably poor who participate, so some children might need it, but it’s not emotionally comfortable for them to eat in the cafeteria before school. It’s stigmatizing.”

“We’ve found in many schools, when breakfast is served in cafeteria before school, it’s difficult to access,” she said. “Even though the staff is there, they’ve prepared a meal to eat, but the kids don’t get there, or buses get there late, or there’s pressure to hang out with kids on the playground.

“Sometimes it’s only the noticeably poor who participate, so some children might need it, but it’s not emotionally comfortable for them to eat in the cafeteria before school. It’s stigmatizing.”

Clayton Elementary in Aurora, the winner in the Breakfast Challenge, moved to a breakfast in the classroom model and boosted its participation rate 72 percent.

At present, DPS serves about 20,000 free breakfasts every day to students, including breakfast in the classroom in 27 schools. That’s nearly double the number of schools that participated in the breakfast in the classroom program last year.

A governor, a Bronco and some cheerleaders kick off National School Breakfast Week

Not long for this world

Denver teen pregnancy prevention organization to close its doors at the end of the year


A Denver-based nonprofit focused on teen pregnancy prevention and youth sexual health will close its doors at the end of 2017 after losing two major grants.

Andrea Miller, executive director of Colorado Youth Matter, announced the news in an email to supporters Monday afternoon.

The organization, begun in the 1980s as a volunteer-run group, provides teacher training and assistance in picking sex education curricula for 10 to 25 Colorado school district a year.

Miller said she’s hopeful other organizations will pick up where Colorado Youth Matter leaves off — possibly RMC Health, the Responsible Sex Education Institute of Planned Parenthood of the Rocky Mountains or the state-run Colorado Sexual Health Initiative.

Colorado Youth Matter’s biggest financial hit came in July when federal officials announced the end of a major teen pregnancy prevention grant mid-way through the five-year grant cycle. That funding made up three-quarters of Colorado Youth Matter’s $1 million annual budget.

“It feels like we’re getting cut off at the knees,” Miller said.

About the same time, the organization lost a family foundation grant that made up another 10 percent of its budget.

Miller, who took the helm of the organization just 10 months ago, said one of her primary goals was to diversify funding, but there wasn’t enough time.

Miller said with a variety of factors playing into the state’s teen pregnancy rates, which have been at record lows in recent years, it’s hard to say what the impact of the organization’s dissolution will be.

She said Colorado Youth Matter has worked successfully with school districts with different political leanings to find the right policies and resources to address the sexual health of their students.

“We have been masters at meeting the school districts where they are,” she said.

Wanna go outside?

Less plastic, more trees: New effort seeks to reinvent preschool playgrounds and capture kids’ imaginations

This play structure at Step By Step Child Development Center in Northglenn will go away under a plan to create a more natural and engaging outdoor play space.

Michelle Dalbotten, the energetic director of a Northglenn child care center called Step by Step, doesn’t like her playground.

Sure, it’s spacious, with a high privacy fence bordering an adjacent strip mall parking lot. It’s also got a brightly colored play structure surrounded by lots of spongy rubber mulch.

But Dalbotten and her staff have long noticed that the kids get bored there. They clump together in the small shady area or on a few popular pieces of equipment. Sometimes, they start throwing trucks off the play structure or shoving their friends down the slide.

Something about it just doesn’t work.

Recently, Dalbotten found a solution in the form of a new grant program called the ECHO initiative, which aims to reinvent more than 100 preschool and child care playgrounds across Colorado over the next few years. Think mud kitchens, looping tricycle trails, vegetable gardens, stages, shady reading nooks and dump truck construction zones.

The idea is to create outdoor spaces that capture kids’ imagination, connect them with nature and keep them active in every season. Such efforts grow out of a recognition in the education field that healthy habits start early and boost learning.

The current preschool playground at Step by Step is covered by rubber mulch.

Step by Step staff members had talked many times about their stagnant play space. But it was hard to envision anything different until they attended a design workshop with experts from ECHO, a partnership between the National Wildlife Federation, Qualistar Colorado and the Natural Learning Initiative at North Carolina State University.

“We knew we were missing the boat somewhere because (the children) weren’t super-engaged and we had a lot of behavioral issues,” Dalbotten said. “But we just couldn’t see past it, I guess.”

For child care providers, it’s a common challenge, said Sarah Konradi, ECHO program director with the regional office of the National Wildlife Federation

“This is a very new idea to a lot of folks,” she said. “It’s hard to sort out as a layperson.”

ECHO, borne out of a decade of research from the Natural Learning Initiative, will hand out $355,000 in grants over the next three years. The initiative prioritizes centers that serve children from low-income families or other vulnerable populations.

Fourteen centers — Step by Step and Wild Plum Learning Center in Longmont are the first two — will get $10,000 awards for serving as demonstration sites willing to host visits for other Colorado providers.

Leaders at Step by Step say kids and teachers often congregate in the limited shady spots.

Around 100 other centers will receive ECHO’s $5,000 seed grants and expert assistance to revamp their outdoor spaces.

Such transformations can have a big impact on children who may spend thousands of hours a year at such centers, said Nilda Cosco, director of programs at the Natural Learning Initiative.

“When we do a renovation of the outdoor learning environments as we call them — not playgrounds — we see increased physical activity … more social interactions among children … less altercations,” she said.

“The teachers have to do less because the children are so engaged. There is so much to do.”

ECHO, which stands for Early Childhood Health Outdoors, is the latest iteration of a program Cosco started a decade ago called “Preventing Obesity by Design.” That effort revamped outdoor space at about 260 child care centers in North Carolina, South Carolina and Texas.

Cosco said such makeovers can ”prevent obesity by counteracting sedentary lifestyles. Children walk more, exercise more, are conversant with healthy eating strategies.”

Dalbotten and her staff have big plans for their play areas, which sit behind a plaza that houses a bingo hall, Dollar Tree and Big D’s Liquor store. They’ll get rid of the colorful play structure and the rubber mulch in favor of a more natural look. There will be trees, shrubs, small grassy hills and a winding trail leading to a wide array of activity areas.

This porch will get new lighting, fencing and foliage to make it a more attractive outdoor space at Step by Step.

The center’s smaller toddler playground will get a similar reboot and its tiny yard for babies — mostly bare except for a couple low-hanging shade sails — will be expanded to include a shaded deck where teachers can sit or play with babies. A barren concrete porch on the side of the building will be remade into a cozy activity area decorated with bird houses, planter gardens and butterfly-attracting foliage.

At the recent design workshop Dalbotten attended, ECHO leaders displayed photos from other centers around the country that have gone through outdoor transformations. She saw one that stuck with her.

“There were kids everywhere,” she said. “It was super cool looking. I was like, ‘Oh look, we can be that. We can have kids everywhere.’”

PHOTO: Natural Learning Initiative
The play space at Johnson Pond Learning Center in Fuquay-Varina, NC, after a makeover.
PHOTO: Natural Learning Initiative
The outdoor play space at Spanish For Fun Academy in Chapel, Hill, NC, after a makeover.