The Other 60 Percent

Eat Your Radio offers kid’s-eye view

Armed with microphones and recording equipment, four fifth-grade reporters deployed themselves throughout teacher Andy Zwick’s classroom at Denver’s Ashley Elementary School on a recent Friday, determined to ferret out the overall opinion of the class.

Denver's Ashley Elementary fifth-grade reporter Fabri Esipa interviews classmate Maria Gonzales about the day's nutrition lesson.

“What do YOU think it is?” they asked, casting glances at the bowls full of something white at the front of the class, and recording the responses.

“Butter?” some suggested. “Whipped cream?” others thought.

But their guesses carried little confidence, since Zwick had warned them not to eat any of it, no matter how good it looked.

It was actually hydrogenated oil, also known as Crisco, and before the hour was up, they would divide into teams of three to four and do some hands-on scooping and measuring work to determine just how much of the stuff really is in a serving of their favorite snack chips versus, say, a turkey sandwich.

Through it all, the reporters would go from team to team describing what each group was doing and recording their classmates’ thoughts and observations.

Program combines nutrition and hands-on journalism for kids

The food part of the lesson is courtesy of the Integrated Nutrition Education Program, a curriculum funded through a federal grant to targeted low-income communities.

KGNU producer Shelley Schlender teaches students how to use audio and video equipment to create radio and online segments.

The journalism part of the lesson is thanks to “Eat Your Radio,” an award-winning project of KGNU, a non-commercial Colorado radio station, now in its third year of documenting the challenges kids face around issues of nutrition and obesity.

“I got involved because children’s nutrition matters to me,” said Shelley Schlender, the KGNU producer who will spend several hours a week for 10 to 12 weeks with the Ashley students this semester, coaching them on how to use the audio and video equipment, how to interview classmates and how to frame the results.

She’ll also take some of the best of what the kids come up with and edit it to create reports to air on KGNU, and nutrition-related messages that the principal will play over the intercom every morning.

Schlender is one of two producers working with Eat Your Radio. The other, Ellen Mahoney, is assigned to Denver’s Swansea Elementary this spring. They’ve also worked with students at Columbine Elementary and Casey and Centennial middle schools in Boulder, and Maxwell Elementary and Centennial K-8 in Denver.

“This has been a beat I’ve covered for years, and I’ve seen enough data to convince me that when kids are healthy, they do better in school,” said Schlender, who has worked for a number of publications and broadcast outlets.

“I’m a journalist. It’s a different role from being a teacher, and different from doing PR for a program. My job is to celebrate the wonderful things that are happening, and to look for the prickly things.”

Eat Your Radio archive ranges from Chicken Salad (W)rap to serious issues

The result is nutrition from a kid’s-eye point of view.

Under the tutelage of KGNU producers, Eat Your Radio reporters have interviewed classmates about nutrition lessons, gone into their school cafeterias to interview lunchroom workers, and talked to family members about eating habits at home.

Best of Eat Your Radio

They’ve gone into grocery stores to examine the layout of the aisles, and documented how junk food is often put at eye level while fresh fruits and vegetables take more effort to get to.

They’ve created a blog where they can submit nutrition-related questions to “Dr. Carrot,” who responds within a few days with kid-friendly answers.

“We didn’t want to just put a microphone in front of them and have them parrot off lessons,” said Maeve Conran, KGNU’s co-director of news and public affairs. “We wanted to give them mikes and help them get to the truth about nutrition challenges. We’ve had a few reports where we’ve really empowered the kids to talk very sincerely about the challenges they face.”

One of Conran’s favorite shows is “Cavities and candy,” which includes a song one fifth-grader wrote about the evils of sugar, and in which the children share their difficulties in just saying no to candy.

“Part of me does want some and part of me does not,” one child admits. “This much of my body wants some, and the rest doesn’t. I’m like, never mind, I want that candy! Never mind! And I can’t make up my mind.”

“There’s just a real honesty coming from the kids, and you can see how conflicted they are,” Conran says. “They absolutely understand the issues around eating, but it’s hard because it’s so tempting.”

Near the top of Schlender’s list is the segment called Chicken Salad (W)rap, which begins with youngsters learning to make healthy chicken salad tortilla wraps in nutrition class.

Later, a handful of young volunteers gave up their recess time to join Schlender in a supply closet – the quietest room they could find – to come up with a song they could sing about chicken wraps.

“We just started playing with it,” Schlender said.

Then there’s the Broccoli Campaign, a five-part series that ran every day for a week on KGNU, paired with a listener call-in on helping kids learn to eat and like foods they initially refuse to eat. In the segments done at school, the Ashley students shared their own reluctance to try broccoli.

“At one point, one girl’s best friend says ‘I know you love mustard, so why not make a mustard sandwich, and I’ll mix in a little broccoli.’ That’s not something I would have thought of, a broccoli and mustard sandwich,” Schlender said.

Teacher embraces pint-sized broadcast crews in his classroom

Zwick isn’t bothered by having pint-sized broadcast crews prowling his classroom during his lesson. Quite the opposite.

“The kids love the technology,” he said. “I’ve taken some of the things Shelley’s done and put them up on my own website. The kids love to laugh at the videos.”

Learn more

On that Friday, 11-year-old Fabri Esipa got to don the headphones and carry the microphone and interview classmates for the first time.

“I like being a reporter,” she said. “I like reporting what people say. But the hardest thing is to know what you’re going to say to the person.”

Schlender is there to help with that. When the reporters run out of questions, she’s there to coach them with some others, and encourage them not to be shy.

“Ask them what they think they’ll learn from this lesson,” she told Fabri. “And be sure to talk to some of the boys. We want boys’ voices too.”

Eat Your Radio is now in its third year of a three-year grant from the Colorado Health Foundation. Conran considers the project to be a huge success with demonstrable results showing that kids who participate in the media portion soak up and remember much more on the nutrition information than kids that don’t.

“Now we’re looking to expand it,” she said. “We’d like to go into other school districts. And I know the schools we’ve worked with have enjoyed it. It benefits the kids in a variety of ways, not just nutrition. It also improves their literacy and their communication skills.”

task force

Jeffco takes collaborative approach as it considers later school start times

File photo of Wheat Ridge High School students. (Photo by Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

The Jeffco school district is weighing pushing back start times at its middle and high schools, and the community task force set up to offer recommendations is asking for public input.

Nearby school districts, such as those in Cherry Creek and Greeley, have rolled out later start times, and Jeffco — the second largest school district in Colorado — in December announced its decision to study the issue.

Thompson and Brighton’s 27J school districts are pushing back start times at their secondary schools this fall.

The 50-person Jeffco task force has until January to present their recommendations to the district.

Supporters of the idea to start the school day later cite research showing that teenagers benefit from sleeping in and often do better in school as a result.

Jeffco is considering changing start times after parents and community members began pressing superintendent Jason Glass to look at the issue. Middle and high schools in the Jeffco district currently start at around 7:30 a.m.

The task force is inviting community members to offer their feedback this summer on the group’s website, its Facebook page, or the district’s form, and to come to its meetings in the fall.

Katie Winner, a Jeffco parent of two and one of three chairs of the start times task force, said she’s excited about how collaborative the work is this year.

“It’s a little shocking,” Winner said. “It’s really hard to convey to people that Jeffco schools wants your feedback. But I can say [definitively], I don’t believe this is a waste of time.”

The task force is currently split into three committees focusing on reviewing research on school start times, considering outcomes in other districts that have changed start times, and gathering community input. The group as a whole will also consider how schedule changes could affect transportation, sports and other after school activities, student employment, and district budgets.

Members of the task force are not appointed by the district, as has been typical in district decision-making in years past. Instead, as a way to try to generate the most community engagement, everyone who expressed interest was accepted into the group. Meetings are open to the public, and people can still join the task force.

“These groups are short-term work groups, not school board advisory committees. They are targeting some current issues that our families are interested in,” said Diana Wilson, the district’s chief communications officer. “Since the topics likely have a broad range of perspectives, gathering people that (hopefully) represent those perspectives to look at options seems like a good way to find some solutions or ideas for positive/constructive changes.”

How such a large group will reach a consensus remains to be seen. Winner knows the prospect could appear daunting, but “it’s actually a challenge to the group to say: be inclusive.”

For now the group is seeking recommendations that won’t require the district to spend more money. But Winner said the group will keep a close eye on potential tax measures that could give the district new funds after November. If some measure were to pass, it could give the group more flexibility in its recommendations.

Battle of the Bands

How one group unites, provides opportunities for Memphis-area musicians

PHOTO: Rebecca Griesbach
Memphis Mass Band members prepare for Saturday's Independence Showdown Battle of the Bands in Jackson, Mississippi.

A drumline’s cadence filled the corners of Fairley High School’s band room, where 260 band members from across Memphis wrapped up their final practice of the week.

“M-M-B!” the group shouted before lifting their instruments to attention. James Taylor, one of the program’s five directors, signaled one last stand tune before he made his closing remarks.

“It behooves you to be on that bus at that time,” Taylor said to the room of Memphis Mass Band members Thursday night, reminding them to follow his itinerary. Saturday would be a be a big day after all.

That’s when about 260 Memphis Mass Band members will make their way to Jackson, Mississippi, for the event of the season: the Independence Showdown Battle of the Bands. They’ll join mass bands from New Orleans, Detroit, Georgia, Mississippi, and North Carolina to showcase musical performances.

“This is like the Honda of mass bands,” said baritone section leader Marico Ray, referring to the Honda Battle of the Bands, the ultimate competition between bands from historically black colleges and universities

Mass bands are designed to connect young band members to older musicians, many of whom are alumni of college bands and can help them through auditions and scholarship applications.

Created in 2011, Memphis Mass Band is a co-ed organization that’s geared toward unifying middle school, high school, college, and alumni bands across the city. The local group is a product of a merger of a former alumni and all-star band, each then about a decade old.

Ray, who joined what was called the Memphis All Star band in 2001, said the group challenged him in a way that his high school band could not.

“I was taught in high school that band members should be the smartest people, because you have to take in and do so much all at once,” he said, noting that band members have to play, count, read, and keep a tempo at the same time.

But the outside program would put that to the test. Ray laughed as he remembered his first day of practice with other all-star members.

“I was frightened,” he said. “I knew I was good, but I wanted to be how good everybody else was.”

Ray, now 30, credits the group for his mastery of the baritone, for his college degree, and for introducing him to his wife Kamisha. By the time he graduated from Hillcrest High School in 2006 and joined the local alumni band, he was already well-connected with band directors from surrounding colleges, like Jackson State University, where he took courses in music education. After he married Kamisha, an all-star alumna and fellow baritone player, they both came back to Memphis to join the newly formed Memphis Mass Band.

“This music is very important, but what you do after this is what’s gonna make you better in life,” he said. “The goal is to make everyone as good as possible, and if you’re competing with the next person all the time, you’ll never stop trying to get better.”

In a school district that has seen many school closures and mergers in recent years, Ray said a program like MMB is needed for students who’ve had to bounce between school bands. The band is open-admission, meaning it will train anyone willing to put in the work, without requiring an audition.

“[Relocation] actually hurts a lot of our students and children because that takes their mentality away from anything that they wanted to do, versus them being able to continue going and striving,” Ray said. “Some of them lose opportunities and scholarships, college life and careers, because of a change in atmospheres.”

With its unique mix of members, though, school rivalries are common, and MMB occasionally deals with cross-system spars. But Saturday, the members will put all of that aside.

“What school you went to really doesn’t matter,” Ray said. “Everybody out here is going to wear the same uniform.”

Asia Wilson, an upcoming sophomore at the University of Memphis, heard about the group from a friend. Wilson used to play trumpet in the Overton High School band, but she said coming to MMB this year has introduced her to a different style.

Jorge Pena, a sophomore at Central High School, heard about the group on YouTube. It’s also his first year in the mass band, and the tuba player is now gearing up to play alongside members of different ages, like Wilson.

They’re both ready to show what they’ve learned at the big battle.

“It’s gonna be lit,” Wilson said, smiling.

Need weekend plans? Tickets are still selling for Saturday’s 5 p.m. showcase. To purchase, click here.