First Person

Rural districts get creative about health, Washington notices

The kids in rural Center, Colo., in Saguache County, are still drying out after Monday’s rain turned their march through downtown to promote their anti-bullying campaign into a soggy slog. But it didn’t dampen their enthusiasm.

Students from Merino High School test some of the items in the "indoor recess boxes" they prepared for the elementary school students to keep them active on rainy days. Photo courtesy of Buffalo School District.

“I think we’re having an effect,” said Kevin Garcia, 16, a sophomore at Center High School, and a member of the school’s bullying prevention group. “When I walk down the halls, I hear people repeating our slogan: ‘Be a buddy, not a bully.’ I think things are going in a positive direction.”

Across the state in Merino, in Logan County in northeast Colorado, the rain just gave teachers a chance to test out the indoor recess boxes that the older kids put together for the younger ones.

“We had noticed that when the weather was bad, they would just stay inside and read or play games that didn’t involve much physical activity,” said Lynn Zemanek, family and consumer science teacher at Merino High School. “So my students surveyed the elementary school teachers about what they’d like to have included. Now, on rainy days, they can pull out those boxes during recess, and the kids can do juggling, or have relay races in the halls, or other active stuff.”

Telling the story to Washington

Meanwhile, Helayne Jones, president and CEO of the Colorado Legacy Foundation, is in Washington D.C. this week to tell federal officials all about what’s happening in Center and in Merino and in more than a dozen other rural school districts across Colorado where innovative health and wellness efforts are blossoming.

Jones will be talking about the work of the Legacy Foundation and the Colorado Coalition for Healthy Schools’ Healthy School Champions Scorecard, which rewards schools and districts for implementing health and wellness practices. Last month, 32 districts from around the state were awarded a total of $42,000 as part of the Scorecard program.

“Almost half the scorecard winners were rural districts,” Jones said. “Colorado was invited to present at this conference because of our work for rural school districts. Anecdotally, there aren’t a lot of others doing this kind of health and wellness work for rural schools, especially in the Rocky Mountain West.

“Our goal is to have rural superintendents learn from each other,” she said. “So often, superintendents say ‘We can’t do that because we’re a rural school district.’ We try to show them that, actually, rural schools districts ARE doing this work.”

Among those who will be hearing about what’s going on in Colorado are U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius.

“This is one of the first times they’ve taken the approach of having two Cabinet members come together to develop recommendations. It reiterates that these topics – education and health – should not be siloed,” Jones said. “Colorado and the Legacy Foundation were invited because we’re gaining recognition as a national model for improving student outcomes and boldly talking about the connection between student achievement and health and how safe students feel in school.”

The Colorado National Guard brought a climbing wall to a recent health fair that the Buffalo School District organized, in partnership with two other community health agencies.

Students come up with ideas adults wouldn’t

The Buffalo School District – home to roughly 300 students, including about 100 at Merino High School – is a case in point.

“We’re as rural as you can get,” said Zemanek, who serves as advisor to the district’s health and wellness committee.

What’s unique about the district’s wellness committee is its makeup: It is composed entirely of students. Zemanek is convinced that that’s made a difference in the ideas they’ve come up with and implemented. Ideas like the indoor recess boxes.

“Another thing is music,” she said. “We stumbled onto playing music purely by accident. We found that listening to music reduces snacking because it addresses the same part of the brain. So during breaks, we play people’s favorite songs, from classical to rock. And the mood of the school has changed. I think adults might not have come up with that idea.”

Ditto for the water infused with lemon. When Zemanek took her students to a conference at a hotel in California last year, the hotel served water with lemon slices in it. The kids were awed. “When we came back, it was something they wanted to do every Friday, just to increase the amount of hydration. I don’t think adult would have come up with that, either.”

Other accomplishments by the district’s wellness committee include building a school garden and greenhouse, and writing the protocols required by the local health department to use the produce grown in the greenhouse in the school’s salad bar. They also labored to insure that 50 percent of the foods served at the concession stand during sporting events are healthy choices, and they began a series of daily physical activity and nutrition challenges.

“Every teacher has x-number of students for the challenges,” Zemanek said. “I have 15 kids on my team. The kids push the teacher and the teacher pushes the kids.”

Students in Merino built a greenhouse, with help from a grant from the Colorado Legacy Foundation, and wrote the protocols required by the health department to use fresh produce grown in the greenhouse in the school cafeteria.

Kids chose to focus on bullying in Center

In Center, the focus has been on bullying.

“We have a peer group of students that meets all year long to address various health and prevention issues, and bullying is one of those issues,” said Katrina Ruggles, the prevention and health education coordinator for the 575-student school district. “They’ve done a variety of things, and the high school students are in charge of everything, from snacks to curriculum. They created their own survey about bullying, and they’re using the information from that to create a social norming campaign.”

They found that 17 percent of students reported being bullied.

“It’s not that big of a thing, but it’s here,” said Garcia. “I’ve been bullied. I’ve been affected by it, and it hurts. I don’t want other kids to go through that. If I can make an impact with this campaign, then I’d like to do it.”

Creating learning laboratories for the state

Jones said the Legacy Foundation’s partnership with the Colorado Department of Education is key to promoting initiatives such as these, both in rural as well as urban and suburban school districts. “In some ways, we help the department to have a learning laboratory. We create pilots to test out, get early adapters for the work the department is trying to get done statewide. We’re really a new breed of public/private partnership,” she said.

While places like Center and Merino are far-removed from the Front Range population centers, what happens there is just as important as what happens in Denver or Jefferson County, Jones said.

“As a state, we have to focus on every child. We can’t focus only on the large population centers,” she said. “Education shouldn’t vary by zip code. Besides, a family in metro Denver today could be relocated and wind up in a rural school district tomorrow. Why should their quality of education be any different?”

First Person

‘I didn’t feel like I had anyone to ask for support’: Why it matters to have teachers who look like me

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

For 10 years — the first decade I was in school — all my teachers were white women.

As a Mexican-American kid, I didn’t get the chance to have a man of color as a teacher until high school. Going into my senior year, I like how diverse my teachers are now, but I wish I’d had the same experience when I was younger.

When I think about why it matters to have a teacher I can relate to, I think back to fifth grade. A classmate said to me, “Mexicans are illegal—they cross the border every day! How about you, did you cross the border?” This bothered me. So, after class, I asked the teacher for help. But all she said was, “That’s OK, he was just playing.” From there, I had nowhere to go. She was at the top of the food chain.

In 1990, before they met, my mother and father came over the border from Mexico. My mom’s parents weren’t making enough profit from their cattle ranch, so they had little choice but to immigrate. My mom came with them to the United States and worked at a restaurant so she could send money back home. My father followed his older brother here because he wanted to start a new life. Little did he know he would one day cross paths with my mother and eventually start a family.

But my classmate was “just playing” when he insulted all of this. I wish my teacher had done something else.

If I’d been the teacher, I would’ve taken a different approach and worked to understand why we were acting and responding the way we were. Maybe the other student and I could’ve found common ground. But, unfortunately, we never had a chance to try.

Up until ninth grade, I had zero male teachers of color. I didn’t feel like I had anyone to ask for support when things like the fifth-grade incident happened. Many of us students felt that way — and that’s why I want to be a teacher, a fifth-grade teacher in particular. I want to make my culture an asset in the classroom and be a teacher students feel comfortable confiding in, no matter their background.

A teacher’s perspective: Cut from the same cloth: Why it matters that black male teachers like me aren’t alone in our schools

In middle school, I started seeing more male educators, but they were all white. Then, when it came time for me to start high school, I ended up going to school in a different neighborhood — an hour commute away—and things finally changed for me. Since starting high school, I’ve had six male teachers of color, and it’s made a huge difference.

My high school makes a big deal out of the whole “building relationships” thing. To my teachers and everyone else at the school, relationships are just as important as academics. At first, it was hard to get used to, but eventually it started making sense to me. I’m in an all-male mentorship group led by two African-American men who openly share about their struggles growing up in New York, and give us advice in any area of life — including what it means to appreciate our cultures. This is one of the things I like most about my school.

It’s hard to explain the way it feels to have a teacher who looks like you; they’re like older brothers who become a huge part of our lives, even if it’s just for four years. They make it easier to connect and socialize and help me feel more like I belong. To me, learning from someone who reflects who you are is one of the best things a student can experience.

Near the end of the school year, my mentorship group did an activity where we took turns getting asked questions by other students and staff. One of the mentors asked me, “What’s it like being Mexican American and how has your background influenced your goals?” No one had ever asked me that before, and it took a long time for me to process the question.

After a few moments, I spoke a bit about my family’s story and shared some of the stereotypes I had encountered and how they affect me today. Everyone was so supportive, and the mentors encouraged me to continue breaking stereotypes and defining myself rather than letting others define me.

It was nerve-wracking at first, telling my story in that group, but after three years of high school, we’d developed that level of trust. It was the first time I’d shared my story with that many people at once, but it felt intimate and very different from the time in fifth grade when that kid tried to tell my story for me.

Finally having teachers that look like me has made a huge difference. They don’t just mentor me and help me with my academics, they also make my goal of becoming a teacher seem more realistic.

Having men of color I can look up to and model myself after is a big part of why I have no doubt I’ll make it to college — and eventually be able to give other kids the type of help my mentors have given me. I know where I’m needed, and that’s where I’m headed.

Jose Romero is a senior at EPIC High School North in Queens, New York. This piece originally appeared on the blog of TNTP, a national nonprofit and advocacy group that trains new teachers.

First Person

A Queens teacher on Charlottesville: ‘It can’t just be teachers of color’ offering lessons on race

PHOTO: Bob Mical/Creative Commons

In a few short weeks, school will resume in New York and I’m already thinking about how we are going to address racism within the four walls of my classroom. I’m thinking about what texts, historical and current, we can read and films and documentaries we can watch to support dialogue, questioning, and solutions for combatting that ugly, pervasive thread in the fabric of our country’s patchwork quilt called racism.

Last year we read “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass,” a former slave turned abolitionist, and juxtaposed its reading with a viewing of Ava DuVernay’s documentary “13th,” which discusses modern-day slavery in the guise of mass incarceration. Students asked questions of the documentary as they watched it and discussed those queries within their groups and with the class at large afterwards.

We do our children and ourselves a disservice when we don’t have these difficult conversations as a part of our collective curriculums. However, many teachers from various walks of life are neither well-versed nor fully comfortable discussing race on any level with their students. Not talking about racism won’t make it go away. If anything, not talking about racism in the classroom further perpetuates racist ideologies that are, at their root, born out of ignorance. Education’s goal is to dispel ignorance and replace it with truth.

With that being said, just how many teachers feel equipped to facilitate lessons that touch heavily upon race in the classroom? Not nearly enough.

According to Teaching Tolerance, “The dialogue about race should start in the classroom — the teacher-prep classroom, that is. Preservice teachers should be exploring multiculturalism and discussing ways to honor diversity in their future classrooms.”

But often, Hilton Kelly, a professor of education at Davidson College in North Carolina told the site, the coursework isn’t giving future teachers the training they need to talk about race. “Even when future teachers take courses on diversity and multiculturalism,” Kelly said, “those courses don’t take the critical approach to race that future teachers truly need.”

“Food, folklore and festivals are not the same as an analysis of race in America,” Kelly argued.

But an analysis of race in America is exactly what needs to happen. Furthermore, it can’t just be teachers of color solely facilitating such lessons in their classrooms.

I don’t want to write about the events going on in Virginia. I don’t want to think about it. I’m so tired of the hatred and I long for peace, but I can’t very well in good conscience remain silent. That would be akin to protesting with those hate-mongers in Virginia last weekend. I can’t just write about back-to-school shopping, lesson planning, and business-as-usual while my brothers and sisters in Virginia are being murdered in cold blood by white supremacist American Nazis.

Are the children of Virginia safe? Are our children anywhere safe? What can I do to make a difference within the hearts and minds of the children whom I teach? If education is our best vehicle for bringing about change — which it is— how am I going to infuse the lessons I teach with critical thinking and analysis about racism in the United States for the seventh-graders entrusted in my care? How are other educators planning to address these events with their students at every grade-level?

I pose these questions to all who are reading. Whether you are a teacher, a student, a parent, an administrator, or a community member, I plead with you to work together to create answers that work toward healthy conversations and hands-on action in the fight against racism.

Vivett Dukes is a teacher at Queens Collegiate: A College Board School. A version of this post first appeared on New York School Talk