The Other 60 Percent

Soccer program scores in impoverished schools

The Grains and the Veggies were challenging but, in the end, the field of play belonged to the Fruits.

Kindergarten and first-grade soccer players run around the playground at McGlone Elementary School. They’re learning the very basics of the sport while getting lots of physical activity.

Soccer coach Matthew Johnson at last tooted his whistle and gathered his second-grade soccer players, who’d been scampering all over one corner of the playground at McGlone Elementary in Denver’s Montbello neighborhood.

“All right now!” he yelled, high-fiving his squad. “Tell me the five food groups again – and no, frosting isn’t one of them!”

The youngsters were using their newly-learned ball-handling techniques to corral as many soccer balls as possible into the appointed food-zones.

They were doing a lot of running in the process, and by turning it into a game, Johnson – a teacher at McGlone – hoped he was making both soccer practice and nutrition education into something fun and healthy.

Soccer as an anti-obesity tool

Last week was Week 4 at McGlone of Soccer for Success, the U.S. Soccer Foundation’s innovative after-school program that uses soccer to combat childhood obesity and promote healthy lifestyles for children in low-income urban areas.

Matthew Johnson, a fourth-grade teacher at McGlone, is both a coach and a mentor to the soccer players after school.

Last year, the program operated in more than 60 schools in Chicago, D.C., Detroit, Houston, Los Angeles, Miami, New York, Newark, Portland and Philadelphia. This year, it has expanded to Denver and eight other cities.

In Denver, the 12-week program is being offered in nine schools located in or near the so-called “Children’s Corridor,” a 14-mile-long stretch along I-70 from Near Northeast Denver to Green Valley Ranch. The corridor is home to 54,000 children, roughly two-thirds of whom live in poverty.

Seventy-five kids, kindergarten through fifth grade, at each school – 675 kids in total – get to participate free of charge. Come spring, the program will expand to seven more schools so a total of 1,200 will be able to play.

It’s funded through a $300,000 grant the U.S. Soccer Foundation gave to the Colorado Fusion Soccer Club, in collaboration with America SCORES Denver and the Piton Foundation. The Fusion is responsible for implementing the program.

“This is a great intervention strategy for helping to improve the health and education outcomes of these kids,” said Jon Goldin-Dubois, executive director of the Colorado Fusion. “The reality is, these kids have too few opportunities to participate in organized sports. This is a way to give them a very positive experience playing soccer, being part of a team, building confidence, but also understanding healthy eating habits and engaging their parents in this at the same time.”

Skill and previous soccer experience don’t matter

Here’s how it works: A site coordinator is appointed to oversee the program in each school, and coaches are hired to be both coach and mentor to the students. Whenever possible, teachers from the school are hired to be coaches since the kids already know them.

Participating schools


  • Maxwell Elementary
  • SOAR Oakland Elementary
  • McGlone Elementary
  • DCIS at Ford Elementary
  • Amesse Elementary
  • Archuleta Elementary
  • Place Bridge Academy


  • Crawford Elementary
  • Kenton Elementary

Every child selected for the program is given a soccer ball, shin guards, socks and jersey. It’s a three-day-a-week commitment for them, usually meeting right after school Tuesday through Thursday. They begin with a healthy snack, then proceed to the soccer field for 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity.

At McGlone, where 96 percent of the students are eligible for federal meal assistance, organizers are considering adding a “super-snack” after practice, to help ensure the youngsters are getting enough to eat.

They’re grouped by age, and previous soccer experience or skill doesn’t matter. The soccer drills and games they play are designed to reinforce the nutrition and healthy lifestyle theme of the week. Week 4 is “Food Groups.” By the end of the 12-week program, they will have touched on eating habits, healthy bodies, getting enough vegetables, getting enough fruit, getting enough protein, even getting enough sleep.

“Soccer is the hook,” said Jaime Alvarez, program manager for the Soccer for Success Program. “We slip the nutrition information in.”

But soccer alone isn’t much of a draw for many of the kids targeted by the program. Organizers don’t want to appeal just to the physically active kids. They want the kids who typically don’t excel at P.E.

“Soccer is the hook. We slip the nutrition information in.”

— Jaime Alvarez

“We stress that it’s non-competitive,” Alvarez said. “Hispanic girls typically aren’t interested in playing soccer. I know that from first-hand experience. They don’t know how. But we tell them that we’ll teach them how to play. They will learn the skills they need.”

Overweight kids are especially encouraged to take part in the program. Alvarez acknowledges that body image is a sensitive subject for many kids, as is desire for fitness.

“We had a child at one school walk up to his coach and complain about how awkward he felt because he was the biggest child on the field,” Alvarez said. “But the coach said ‘Look, you signed up for this. If you stick with it, you won’t be the biggest for long.’ ”

At every school, there’s a waiting list to participate.

“We work with the administrators at each school to identify the appropriate participants,” Goldin-Dubois said. “In some cases, it’s first-come, first-served. In other cases, they targeted specific populations within the school.”

Mentoring, family engagement also critical

Besides physical activity and nutrition education, the program has two other components: mentoring and family engagement. Organizers want the children to bond with their coaches, and they want the coaches to teach more than soccer skills. And they want parents to reinforce those lessons at home.

McGlone P.E. teacher Nikki Allen, site coordinator for the program, chats with youngsters during their break time, when they get a healthy snack.

At McGlone, while the children are out on the soccer field, moms waiting to pick them up can take part in a Zumba class. It’s just one more way to get families thinking about healthy lifestyles.

“This is an awesome program,” said Nikki Allen, P.E. teacher at McGlone and site coordinator for the program. “This is such a great opportunity for our kids, because most of them could never afford something like this otherwise.”

Classroom teachers report that the extra physical activity is having a positive impact on the children’s behavior during the school day. “They say they’re getting a lot of extra energy burned out of them on the playground, and they’re able to sit still during class,” Alvarez said.

Allen said the nutrition information seems to be taking root as well.

“I had one parent tell me her child refused to eat the chili dog she gave him for dinner because it was unhealthy. So she fixed him some chicken instead,” she said. “So I know this is connecting with the kids.”

What is the Children’s Corridor?

The Children’s Corridor is a 14-mile-long stretch from Northeast Denver to Green Valley Ranch that includes 13 Denver neighborhoods and one Aurora neighborhood. It has been identified by the Denver-based Piton Foundation as home to some of the most significant areas of need in the entire state. Of the more than 54,000 children living in these 14 neighborhoods in 2010, 35,000 of them lived in poverty or near-poverty.

Movers & shakers

Former education leaders spearhead new Memphis group to zero in on poverty

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Klondike-Smokey City is the first Memphis neighborhood targeted by Whole Child Strategies to coordinate the fight against poverty.

In a “big small town” like Memphis, neighborhoods are a source of pride and strength for residents in one of the poorest cities in America.

Natalie McKinney

Now, a new Memphis nonprofit organization is seeking to address poverty by coordinating the work of neighborhood schools, businesses, churches, and community groups.

Natalie McKinney is executive director of Whole Child Strategies, created last fall to help neighborhood and community leaders chart their own paths for decreasing poverty, which also would increase student achievement.

“There’s a lot of people ‘collaborating’ but not a lot of coordination toward a shared goal,” said McKinney, a former policy director for Shelby County Schools.

McKinney doesn’t want to “reinvent the wheel” on community development. However, she does want to provide logistical resources for analyzing data, facilitating meetings, and coordinating public advocacy for impoverished Memphis neighborhoods through existing or emerging neighborhood councils.

“Poverty looks different in different areas,” she said, citing varying levels of parent education, transportation, jobs and wages, and access to mental health services. “When we get down and figure out what is really going on and really dealing with the root cause for that particular community, that’s the work that the neighborhood council is doing.”

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Luther Mercer

Her team includes Luther Mercer, former Memphis advocacy director for the Tennessee Charter School Center, and Rychetta Watkins, who recently led the Big Brothers Big Sisters of the Mid-South, along with Courtney Thomas, Elizabeth Mitchell, and Tenice Hardaway.

Whole Child Strategies is supported by an anonymous donor and also plans to raise more funds, according to McKinney.

The first neighborhood to receive a grant from the nonprofit is Klondike-Smokey City, which includes a mix of schools run by both Shelby County Schools and Tennessee’s Achievement School District. The group is drilling down to find out why students in those schools are missing school days, which will include a look at student suspensions.

At the community level, Whole Child Strategies has canvassed Agape Child & Family Services, Communities in Schools, City Year, Family Safety Center, Klondike Smokey City Community Development Corp., Mid-South Peace & Justice Center, and Seeding Success for ideas to increase transportation, reduce crime, and provide more mental health services.

For example, Family Safety Center, which serves domestic abuse survivors, now has a presence in schools in the Klondike-Smokey City community. McKinney said that’s the kind of coordination she hopes Whole Child Strategies can foster.

One need that already is apparent is for a community-wide calendar so that meetings do not overlap and organizations can strategize together, said Quincey Morris, executive director of the Klondike Smokey City Community Development Corp.

“I think like any new thing, you have to crawl first,” Morris said. “And I think the more that the community is informed about the whole child strategy, the more that we involve parents and community residents, I think it will grow.”

It takes a village

What does it mean to be a community school? This Colorado bill would define it – and promote it

PHOTO: Yesenia Robles
A teacher leads a class called community living at Jefferson Junior-Senior High School in Jeffco Public Schools.

A Colorado lawmaker wants to encourage struggling schools to adopt the community school model, which involves schools providing a range of services to address challenges students and their families face outside the classroom.

Community schools are an old idea enjoying a resurgence in education circles with the support of teachers unions and other advocates. These schools often include an extended school day with after-school enrichment, culturally relevant curriculum, significant outreach to parents, and an emphasis on community partnerships.

In Colorado, the Jefferson County school district’s Jefferson Junior-Senior High School is moving toward a community school model with job services and English classes for parents. New York Mayor Bill de Blasio has made this approach the centerpiece of school turnaround efforts in that city.

State Sen. Rachel Zenzinger, an Arvada Democrat, is sponsoring a bill that would, for the first time, create a definition of community schools in state law and make it explicit that innovation schools can be community schools. The Senate Education Committee held a hearing on the bill Thursday and didn’t kill it. Instead, state Sen. Owen Hill, the Colorado Springs Republican who chairs the committee, asked to postpone a vote so he could understand the idea better.

“My concern is these chronically underperforming schools who are wavering between hitting the clock and not for years and years,” Zenzinger said. “What sorts of things could we be doing to better support those schools? In Colorado, we tend to do triage. I’m trying to take a more holistic approach and think about preventative care.”

Colorado’s “accountability clock” requires state intervention when schools have one of the two lowest ratings for five years in a row. Schools that earn a higher rating for even one year restart the clock, even if they fall back the next year.

Becoming an innovation school is one pathway for schools facing state intervention, and schools that have struggled to improve sometimes seek innovation status on their own before they run out of time.

Innovation schools have more autonomy and flexibility than traditional district-run schools – though not as much as charters – and they can use that flexibility to extend the school day or the school year, offer services that other schools don’t, and make their own personnel decisions. To become an innovation school, leaders need to develop a plan and get it approved by their local school board and the State Board of Education.

Nothing in existing law prevents community schools. There are traditional, charter, and innovation schools using this model, and many schools with innovation status include some wraparound services.

For example, the plan for Billie Martinez Elementary School in the Greeley-Evans district north of Denver envisions laundry services and an on-site health clinic.

District spokeswoman Theresa Myers said officials with the state Department of Education were extremely supportive of including wraparound services in the innovation plan, which also includes a new learning model and extensive training and coaching for teachers. But the only one that the school has been able to implement is preschool. The rest are on a “wish list.”

“The only barrier we face is resources,” Myers said.

Under Zenzinger’s bill, community schools are those that do annual assets and needs assessments with extensive parent, student, and teacher involvement, develop a strategic plan with problem-solving teams, and have a community school coordinator as a senior staff person implementing that plan. The bill does not include any additional money for community schools – in part to make it more palatable to fiscal hawks in the Republican-controlled Senate.

Supporters of community schools see an opportunity to get more money through the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, which includes non-academic factors like attendance, school climate, and expulsions in its school ratings and which encourages schools to work with parents and community partners. In a 2016 report, the Center for Community Schools said ESSA creates “an opportune moment to embrace community schools as a policy framework.” And a report released in December by the Learning Policy Institute argues that “well-implemented community schools” meet the criteria for evidence-based intervention under ESSA.

Zenzinger said that creating a definition of community schools in state law will help schools apply for and get additional federal money under ESSA.

As Chalkbeat reported this week, a series of studies of community schools and associated wraparound services found a mix of positive and inconclusive results – and it wasn’t clear what made some programs more effective at improving learning. However, there doesn’t seem to be a downside to offering services.

The State Board of Education has not taken a position on the bill, and no organizations have registered lobbyists in opposition. But there are skeptics.

Luke Ragland of Ready Colorado, a conservative group that advocates for education reform, said he’s “agnostic” about types of schools and supports the existence of a wide variety of educational approaches from which parents can choose. But he worries that the focus of community schools might be misplaced.

“They try to address a lot of things that are outside the control of the school,” he said. “I wonder if that’s a wise way forward, to improve school by improving everything but school.”

Ragland also worries about the state directing schools to choose this path.

“I would argue that under the innovation statute, the ability to start this type of school already exists,” he said. “We should be thinking about ways to provide more flexibility and autonomy without prescribing how schools do that.”

Zenzinger said her intent with the bill is to raise the profile and highlight the benefits of the community school model. She stressed that she’s not trying to force the community school model on anyone – doing it well requires buy-in from school leaders, teachers, and parents – but she does want schools that serve lots of students living in poverty or lots of students learning English to seriously consider it.

“There is not a roadmap for implementing innovation well,” she said. “There are a lot of options, and not a lot of guidance. There’s nothing saying, ‘This is what would work best for you.’ If they’re going to seek innovation status, we want to give them tools to be successful.”

This post has been updated to reflect the result of the Senate Education Committee hearing.