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.

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.