The Other 60 Percent

Eliminating ‘candy bribery’ in schools

Samara Williams’ candy epiphany came on the morning she saw the dental van parked in front of Rose Hill Elementary, and the volunteers preparing to provide free teeth cleanings for second graders.

Rose Hill Elementary kindergartener Aaliyah Lovelace chooses a reward from among pencils, temporary tattoos and other non-food treasures offered by principal Samara Williams.

Rose Hill, in Commerce City, serves some of the poorest kids in the metro area and dental care is a precious commodity that many of their parents simply can’t afford.

Suddenly, it all clicked for Williams, the school principal. Why, she wondered, would the school arrange to clean the kids’ teeth in the morning and then pass out candy in the afternoon?

“It’s just not right,” said Williams. “It really is an ethical and a moral thing.”

Teachers have long used candy the way dog trainers use Liver Snaps. It’s motivation. A Jolly Rancher can buy a few minutes of silence, or reward a right answer to a math problem. A Tootsie Roll tells a kid “Great job!” A pack of Skittles says “Thanks for doing your best on this test.” And the promise of a Snickers can still rambunctious youngsters who need to settle down.

Candy: cheap, easy and effective

Candy is cheap, it’s readily available, and it’s one of the most effective child behavior modification tools in an adult’s arsenal. It’s time-tested. And that’s why candy trafficking in the classroom is so widespread.

Some would say pernicious. It’s everywhere, and who but the crankiest fussbudget would object to some sweet bite-sized rewards? It’s not like teachers are handing out triple-scoop ice cream cones.

But increasing numbers of educators – and vast numbers of parents – don’t see it that way anymore. As schools across the nation have banned sugar-sweetened sodas and chocolate milk, gotten rid of vending machines and upgraded school lunches to be healthier and more nutritious, candy in the classroom is also getting a critical evaluation.

At Rose Hill, where Williams had steadily been promoting a schoolwide wellness initiative, she’d been asking teachers for two years to stop giving out candy. Finally, in December, she issued an ultimatum.

“I said ‘Those of you with a stash of candy, give it out during Christmas, give it to your own kids, but we are NOT giving our kids candy any more,’ ” she said. “If I’d said this on the first day I got there, nobody would have listened to me, and I would have gotten a lot of pushback. But because this was gradual, because we’d been moving in this direction for five years, I didn’t.”

Going through a Costco-sized bag every month

Sigrid Bowen, a first-grade teacher at Rose Hill, initially was skeptical. She’s been teaching for 16 years.

“And we’ve always used candy,” she said. Typically, she’d go through a large Costco-sized bag of candy every month. “It was something that was second nature. I remember wondering what we could give in place of it.”

Now, Rose Hill students vie for Positive Action Tickets, which they can exchange for non-food goodies such as temporary tattoos, pencils, calendars, ink stamps, books and other childish treasures. Bowen has also started rewarding her class with “two-minute dance parties.”

“It’s exercise and kids love it,” she said. “They love the other things too. It’s a great incentive for them.”

Classroom parties, too, have changed. Parents who host the parties are asked to bring healthier items and skip the cupcakes and ice cream of years past.

Kids as candy magnets

Rainey Wikstrom, school wellness consultant for the Adams County District 14 schools, is tickled by what Rose Hill is doing. She wishes her own children, who go to school in Boulder County, had the same classroom candy restrictions.

“It happens in every school unless there’s a firm policy,” Wikstrom said. “The thing that’s so insidious, if you have six classes a day, and every teacher gives you a piece of candy, if you calculate the amount of sugar, it’s huge. It places a huge burden on kids – a health burden and a dental burden. It’s not the way we want to motivate kids.”

Her own children, she acknowledges, have always been candy magnets.

“My daughter plays 15 minutes of a soccer game and comes home with 450 calories of cupcakes and juice drink a parent brought,” she said. “People assume it’s okay to feed kids anything at anytime, whether it’s a teacher, other parents or an elderly neighbor. It happens everywhere. It’s all with good intentions, but it’s having disastrous effects on children’s health.”

“I understand teachers have a classroom to control. But as a parent, it was very annoying to me.”
— Julie Kerwin, Golden

Julie Kerwin, the mother of a kindergartener and a second grader at Shelton Elementary in Golden, was astounded by the amount of candy her daughter got last year in first grade.

“It was almost daily,” she said. “Every day they had a competition, boys versus girls, to see who had more good behavior points at the end of the day, and in first grade, the girls tend to win. So they would all get a piece of candy.”

“I understand teachers have a classroom to control,” Kerwin said. “But as a parent, it was very annoying to me.”

Classrooom parties, fund-raisers also a challenge

When Kerwin wound up on a school wellness committee, she pushed putting a stop to all food rewards. And for the most part, she thinks it’s worked.

“I think maybe one or two teachers will give out candy, but most don’t,” she said.

Harder than ending candy rewards was getting parents to go along with the new classroom party policy: Now, at least 75 percent of the foods served in classroom parties at Shelton must be “healthy.”

“And my idea of healthy includes pizza,” Kerwin said. “But we’re trying to put a stop to the cupcakes and ice cream. There’s been a lot more pushback about that.”

The PTA also had to rethink its fund-raising strategies.

“When we had fund-raisers, the classroom that raised the most got a pizza party, and second place was an ice cream party,” Kerwin said. “That had to stop. So we decided to give out no rewards at all.

“And you know what? We raised the same amount of money.”

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?”