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.”

Unmet needs

A social worker in every grade? Perhaps for 10 Colorado elementary schools

PHOTO: Ann Schimke/Chalkbeat
Fifth-graders practice mindfulness at Munroe Elementary School in Denver.

Educators, parents, and social workers told of students struggling with depression, younger and younger children attempting suicide, and youths ending up in prison. A bill approved Thursday by a Colorado House committee would pay for a three-year trial to provide social and emotional help for elementary students in the hopes of addressing some of these challenges.

If approved by the full legislature and signed into law, the measure would create a three-year pilot program at 10 high-needs schools. It is estimated to cost about $5 million a year. House Bill 1017 would place social workers, counselors or psychologists in every elementary grade at the test schools starting next year.

In an impassioned presentation, bill sponsor state Rep. Dafna Michaelson Jenet, a Commerce City Democrat, said schools need more social workers “to stop our children from dying by suicide, from ending up incarcerated, from being failed by our system.”

Suicide is a leading cause of death among youth ages 10 to 24 in Colorado, and advocates of the bill said schools are often ill-equipped to deal with children suffering from trauma, bullying and behavioral challenges.

The bill was scaled back from an original version that would have cost $16 million a year. Michaelson Jenet said the nearly $5 million annual cost would be funded in part by $2.5 million from the state’s marijuana cash fund, with the rest from private foundations.

The National Association of Social Workers recommends one social worker for every 250 students, and one for every 50 students at high-needs schools.

Colorado schools don’t come close to those numbers.

About one-third of the state’s 178 school districts employed social workers during the 2016-17 school year, the most recent for which data was available from the Colorado Department of Education. Those districts represented about 89 percent of that year’s 905,000 pre-K through 12th grade students.

The nearly 590 social workers employed worked out to less than one full-time employee per 1,000 students.

Englewood’s Sheridan School District had three social workers for 1,511 students, while Yuma County had 1½ social workers for 807 students.

The two largest districts, Denver and Jefferson County, employed more than one-third of school social workers that year, with more than one social worker for every 1,000 students. Denver voters approved a 2016 tax to help pay for more social workers.

But many districts have no social workers. And most school social workers are stretched thin.

Jessie Caggiano is a social worker who serves more than 3,000 students at four high schools in Weld County.

“I’m not able to meet with students effectively on a one-on-one basis, because I’m trying to implement other services schoolwide,” she said. “I’m only at each of my schools one day a week, so I’m not able to meet their needs by any means.”

Darlene Sampson, president of the Colorado chapter of the Association of Black Social Workers, recalled working at a Denver school when a student was killed in the cafeteria.

“Many kids are carrying their trauma in their backpacks into the school,” Sampson said.

And Cam Short-Camilli, representing the Colorado School Social Work Association, said students are facing increased emotional problems at most schools. The increase in youth suicide and suicide attempts is especially difficult, she said. One Denver incident last fall attracted national attention.

“Every school district, every student is impacted, that’s rural, urban, suburban schools,” Short-Camilli said. “In the past five years, I’ve been at elementary schools, and it’s been extremely shocking. Kids at those schools, there’s an immense ripple effect.”

But state Rep. James Wilson, a Salida Republican, questioned whether the pilot program would be possible to replicate because of the high number of professionals needed.

“I’m sitting here feeling like the Grinch,” Wilson said. “I cannot bring myself to put together an unrealistic pilot. Will it really work in the real world?”

State Rep. Janet Buckner, an Aurora Democrat, also expressed concerns, but voted for the bill.

“I’m concerned how we’re going to fund it,” she sad. “The suicide rate is off the chart and our kids need so much help. I don’t think we can wait. I have a lot of phone calls and emails about this bill, people who really need the help.”

HB-1017 next goes to the Appropriations Committee before being considered by the full House, then the Senate. It is one of several measures aimed at offering help for students and their families beyond academics at public schools.

Story time

This Memphis teacher’s favorite student didn’t stand for the Pledge of Allegiance. She taught him a powerful lesson.

PHOTO: Xzavier Bonds
Daniel Warner teaches at East High School in Memphis.

When one of Daniel Warner’s favorite students refused to stand for the Pledge of Allegiance, he could feel the tension in himself rising.

It was August 2017, the first week of classes, and Warner said he knew how important setting a tone was during the first few days of school.

“Didn’t my teacher prep program teach me that I have to set high expectations in that first week or the year is lost?” asked Warner, a U.S. history teacher at East High School in Memphis. “If I don’t set those, we’re done for.”

But before Warner reacted, he said he took a few moments to reflect on what could be going through her head.

Chalkbeat TN Storytelling Event
PHOTO: Xzavier Bonds
Daniel Warner tells his story to a crowded room.

It was the Monday after a violent white supremacists rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. Stories of former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick were again dominating the news, as he remained ostracized for kneeling during the national anthem to protest police brutality.

Instead of punishing her, Warner said, he refocused on what she might be thinking through as a black American high schooler.

“The lesson she taught me that day was that some of the most harmful instances of school discipline happen when we are too focused on ourselves as teachers,” Warner said.

Warner was one of seven educators and students who participated in a February story storytelling night hosted by Chalkbeat Tennessee, Spillit, and The Knowledge Tree. The stories told centered around school discipline practices, a topic Chalkbeat recently dove into in this special report.

Video Credit: Gillian Wenhold, The Social Exchange. The Social Exchange is a pay-as-you can PR & content creation firm for nonprofits and responsible, women/minority owned businesses.

Here’s an edited transcript of Warner’s story. It has been lightly edited for length and clarity:

It’s a week into school in early August. And kids are just trickling into my senior homeroom mostly asleep, sitting quietly in their desk as 18-year-olds do at 7:15 in the morning…And then morning announcements come on. “Please stand for the Pledge of Allegiance.”

So I stand up, and I say, “Alright y’all, go ahead and stand up with me.” I see these seniors throwing their bodies out of their seats, trying to stand up while they are still asleep. And almost everyone stands up but one girl doesn’t…  

So, my eyes meet this girls eyes as she stays in her seat during the pledge. And I can feel the tension in me of my authority being challenged in the room. And I wonder if everyone else is looking at me, my other students. So I give her a teacher look meant to communicate, “Are you going to stand up?” And she looks at me from across the room and shakes her head and mouths, “I can’t.”

So this student was one of my best students the year before in honors U.S. History. She engaged deeply with the material and personally. She asked questions of herself, of her country, of democracy, what this whole thing is about. She processed the double consciousness she feels of being both black and American. And she did so while being kind, thoughtful hardworking. The student you think of that makes you want to cry, you love that kid so much. I wonder what’s going on, what is she thinking about…

This is a Monday and the weekend before had been the white supremacists march in Charlottesville… When she told me, that she couldn’t stand, I went and sat in the desk next to her…I asked, “What’s keeping you from standing up?”

She started by saying, “I hate,” and she stopped herself. She took a breath, calmed herself down and said, “I just can’t.” And so we just sat there for a second. I could see as I got closer to her that she was flooded with emotion and feeling something deeply. And so we let the announcements end and I tell her, “When I say the pledge I say it more as a hope and a prayer…that there would be liberty and justice for all.” She said, “Yeah, I was thinking about that,” like a good U.S. History student, but she said “things don’t’ seem to be headed that way right now…

The lesson she taught me that day was that some of the most harmful instances of school discipline happen when we are too focused on ourselves as teachers. She showed me that I was a little too focused on how I was being perceived by other students in the classroom. And that I wasn’t focused enough on her and what she might be processing. As teachers, we have all of this opportunity to escalate conflict, I’ve done it plenty of times. But we also have an opportunity to be gracious to students who are working out who they are in public…

This girl wasn’t being disengaged by saying no to me, she was being especially engaged with who she is… When we talk about restorative justice, the first step we have to take is for us as educators and adults, and it’s doing your own emotional work. And we have to ask ourselves questions about our identities. You can only lead someone somewhere if you’ve gone there yourself…

What is it about us when it sets us off when a kid says no to us? Why are we that insecure? … When we pay attention to ourselves, our emotional status, the hurt we’ve felt, the pain we’ve lived through, that is when we can begin paying attention to how formative schools are. They are spaces where folks are working out their identities in public, and that’s when you feel the most self conscious and vulnerable and in need of grace offered by someone else.

So, I hope as we talk about this, we think of ways where we can make school a space for people to be figuring out who they are and not just punished into compliance. In high poverty schools, you talk about compliance like it’s the ultimate behavior. I hope we can make schools where students can learn what it is to seek justice, even when and especially when, things just don’t seem to be headed that way right now.