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

Denver

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

Aurora

  • 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.

raising the curtain

Aurora high school students started rehearsing a musical about an earlier time — and discovered ‘harsh truths’ about today

Ebony Nash, left, sings during a rehearsal of Ragtime at Hinkley High School. (Photo by Yesenia Robles, Chalkbeat)

Nine weeks ago, more than 50 theater and choir students at Aurora’s Hinkley High School came together to begin work on a musical set in turn-of-the-20th-century New York.

At first, the kids did what high school students often do — cluster into familiar cliques, or self-segregate by race. Then the students started immersing themselves in the material.

The musical, “Ragtime,” intertwines the stories of a white family, a Jewish immigrant family and an African-American couple to spotlight differences and commonalities in the American experience.

At the urging of their teachers and directors, the Hinkley students began to use the plot and characters to examine their own actions, prejudice and biases. About 92 percent of Hinkley’s more than 2,100 students are students of color, the vast majority of them Latino.

The cliques and segregation slipped away. The production began taking shape.

“Ragtime” gets its Hinkley High School debut on Thursday and will be performed again on Friday and Saturday.

Chalkbeat sat down with a group of students involved in the production as they were in final preparations to learn about what their experience had taught them. The following is a portion of that conversation, slightly condensed and rearranged for clarity:

Janelle Douglas, a 17-year-old senior who portrays a friend of one of the story’s main characters, said the first time she saw and read through Ragtime, “it was intense.” She often cries as she rehearses her solo, sung during a funeral.

DOUGLAS: “I thought, this is powerful. This is overwhelming. This is amazing.”

Pamela Arzate, 17, plays the role of Evelyn Nesbit, a real model and actress who is incorporated into the fictional story and accused of being shallow.

ARZATE: “It’s very eye-opening because you look at it and it’s just a simple musical, but if you take a step back and go to the real world, it’s the exact same thing that’s going on today.”

Hodaly Sotelo, 17, plays the role of Mother, a woman whose attitudes toward her identity as a wife and woman evolve throughout the story.

SOTELO: “It reminds me of when I was younger and I was like, ‘Oh yeah, we’re over all that racism.’ But now, I look back and I think, what the heck? This stuff is still going on and we thought it was way over.”

Brianna Mauricio-Perez, 17, is one of two student directors.

MAURICIO-PEREZ: “It talks about all of the harsh truths that no one wants to talk about.”

DOUGLAS: “I think it’s safe to say it shows the true colors of our history.”

MAURICIO-PEREZ: “Even within our cast we did have to have a talk about how we were so separated because we were at the very beginning. Everyone was in their little groups and with their friends. You just want to keep to yourself.”

DOUGLAS: “It was literally ‘Ragtime.’”

MAURICIO-PEREZ: “We had a big talk with everybody. Things have gotten so much better. By the end of Act Two, we were all mixed up.”

Brenda Castellanos, 17, plays the role of Emma Goldman, drawn from a real-life political activist and anarchist.

CASTELLANOS: “Now that we’re closer, now that we’re all comfortable, we put in more effort.”

After nearly every rehearsal, teachers and directors give students a talk, urging them to immerse themselves in the feelings of their characters, relating to them if necessary through their parents, grandparents or ancestors who were immigrants, or through current events.

“What if you saw someone beaten, and bloodied and killed in front of you?” one director asked.

They also remind students of why the play should be impactful. “You have to figure out how for two-and-a-half hours you can give hope to that audience,” Marie Hayden, Hinkley’s choir director told students last week.

CASTELLANOS: “I think it it helps us. Every day, we get more into it and more into it until we actually believe it. You actually feel it — like how Janelle feels when she’s singing and she starts crying and makes everybody cry. We all feel connected.”

Students say they have different scenes that impact them the most, but they don’t hesitate to find how the scenes relate to their life despite the story being set in the first decade of the 1900s. Hayden’s class and the practice for the musical are safe places where they can discuss those parallels, they said.

Shavaun Mar, 16, is a junior who plays the main character of Coalhouse Walker Jr., a ragtime piano player who is the target of racial attacks and struggles with revenge and forgiveness.

MAR: “I feel like that is crucial that we give people those opportunities to talk because a lot of people have very valid things to say but they just don’t have a way to get it out.”

CASTELLANOS: “The shootings.”

ARZATE: “The racism. They help us discuss it because there’s so many things that are going on. Pretty much everyday there’s a tragedy going on. And so, in a way, we can use that sentiment, that emotion that we feel with the real world and convey it when we’re doing this show. We use those feelings and we try to think about it in that way. To display that emotion. To display it to everyone else. And not directly represent what’s going on today but just to give them that ‘aha’ moment, like ‘wow.’”

Ebony Nash, 17, plays the character of Sarah, an innocent girl who wants to help her boyfriend settle his problems.

NASH: “It just makes us want justice in real life because these things are still going on even though it’s not out there. It just makes us want justice for our community. This musical showed me that I need to become better within myself because I’m not perfect.”

SOTELO: “It opened my eyes a lot more for sure. This kind of just makes me realize the problems I have. It makes me realize yea, I’m having immigration issues with my father right now, but that also my friends, you know, they’re going through the same thing too. This DACA stuff or this coming out stuff. I became more accepting of what other people might be going through and how I can help.”

MAR: “The past few years, I have been in a bit of a shell. So putting myself in this situation and pushing myself to be this other person has really shown me what I’m capable of and it’s helping me break out of that shell and realize who I am as a person.”

NASH: “Basically, this is our getaway from real life because we get to come on stage and be somebody else. It also makes us want to put the story out right so people can understand. So people can feel what we want them to feel.”

CASTELLANOS: “That there’s hope after all this corruption that’s going on.”

DOUGLAS: “That even in your bad times you can still laugh, cry, dance.”

NASH: “What I want people to get from this is change. To learn how to change and learn how to forgive and learn how to come together as a community and just, like their worth.”

SOTELO: “And to be strong. To stand up for what’s right.”

ARZATE: “And it might sound weird, but I feel like they should feel a certain level of uncomfort because that means that they’re going to look at themselves while seeing the musical. Maybe they’ll go ‘I’m uncomfortable because I do that’ or ‘I have that prejudice’ or ‘I feel that certain way,’ so if they come out and they feel uncomfortable and then at the end they’re like, ‘Wow. There’s that hope for change.’ Hopefully that like…”

DOUGLAS: “… It inspires them to do better.”

ARZATE: “Like, you can do it.”

SOTELO: “It’s kind of like a water droplet. One small move can domino-effect to something bigger.”

 



Taking attendance

Want to make middle school admissions more fair? Stop looking at this measure, parents say

PHOTO: Monica Disare
Middle school students write their names down at a high school fair in Brooklyn.

Parents across New York City have pushed for changes in the way selective middle schools pick their students, saying the process is unfair.

Now, a group of Manhattan parents has come up with a novel solution: Stop looking at students’ attendance records.

The parent council in District 2 — where about 70 percent of middle schools admit students based on their academic records — points to research showing that students from low-income families are far more likely to miss school. Those children are at a distinct disadvantage in the competition for the district’s top middle school seats, the council argues, even though factors beyond the control of any fourth-grader — especially family homelessness — often account for poor attendance and tardiness.

“This outsized focus on attendance disproportionately impacts students who don’t have secure housing and may not have secure healthcare, and that is troubling to me,” said Eric Goldberg, a member of the community education council in District 2, which includes stretches of Lower Manhattan and the Upper East Side. “There are many factors that should not impact a student’s educational opportunities — and the way the system is set up, it does.”

Eighteen of the district’s 24 middle schools are “screened,” meaning they rank applicants based on factors including test scores, grades, and interviews. Of those, all but one school also considers how often students were late or absent in fourth grade, according to the parent council.

Most of the schools assign points to each factor they consider. Some give absences 10 times more weight than science or social studies grades, the council found, while others penalize students for even a single absence or instance of tardiness.

Disadvantaged students are especially likely to miss school.

A recent report by the city’s Independent Budget Office found that homeless students are more likely than other students to be chronically absent — typically defined as missing about 10 percent of the school year.

Schools with the highest chronic absenteeism are in communities in “deep poverty,” which have the highest rates of unemployment and family involvement with the child-welfare system, according to a 2014 report by the New School at the Center for New York City Affairs.

“We can use chronic absenteeism as a good guess of all the other things kids are dealing with,” said Nicole Mader, a senior research fellow at the New School and a co-author of the report. “If these middle schools are using absenteeism to weed kids out, that means they’re going to automatically weed out those kids who have the most barriers to academic success already.”

The attendance requirement can put pressure on any family, regardless of their financial status or housing situation.

Banghee Chi, a parent of two children in District 2, said she sometimes sent her younger daughter to school with a fever when she was in fourth grade rather than have her marked absent.

Her daughter would show up to class only to be sent to the school’s health clinic — which would call Chi to pick her up. Chi was thinking ahead to middle school, when a missed day of class could hurt her chances of getting into the most sought-after schools.

“It was something I was really conscious and aware of during my child’s fourth-grade year,” she said. “I think it’s unfair.”

The education council’s resolution, which will be put to vote in December, is nonbinding because middle schools set their own admissions criteria. But a show of support from parents could lead to action from the education department, which has been prodded by integration advocates to make other changes in high school and middle school admissions.

This summer, the department announced it would end the practice of “revealed rankings,” which allowed middle schools to select only those students who listed them first or second on their applications. The city is also appointing a committee of parents, educators, and community leaders in Brooklyn’s District 15 to come up with a proposal for making that district’s middle school applications process more fair.

“We’re collaborating with communities across the city to make school admissions more equitable and inclusive, including in District 2,” said department spokesman Will Mantell in an email. The department looks forward “to further conversations about this resolution and other efforts to improve middle school admissions in District 2.”