The Other 60 Percent

San Luis teens work on classmates’ health

It’s not like the Sanford School is overrun with drugs and alcohol. It’s more like it’s overrun with … nothing to do.

Google map of Sanford. Click to enlarge.

The school, in the community of Sanford in rural Conejos County in southeastern Colorado, is many miles from the amenities of larger places and, other than sports, extracurricular activities for its 350 students are limited. Resources for its teachers are limited as well.

It’s exactly the kind of place where Elaine Belansky, a University of Colorado Denver assistant professor in community and behavior health, could find fertile ground for testing a project designed to get young adolescents talking about healthy environments and being engaged in creating them.

Working Together Project in third year of pilot

Belansky is the lead researcher on the Working Together Project, a five-year project funded by the Centers for Disease Control that’s reaching out to schools in the San Luis Valley.

Elaine Belansky

So far, the program has been piloted in three schools and two new schools are trying it out this fall. A third will begin it in the spring.

Belansky supplies the schools with 60 hours worth of curriculum and a full-time assistant who attends as many of the classes as possible to record what’s happening and to provide ongoing support to the teacher.

The schools provide a teacher – preferably of the “kid magnet” kind who has little trouble connecting with 13-year-olds – and time in the schedule for the class, which is aimed at seventh-graders.

Sanford agreed to pilot the program last year, along with middle schools in Mosca and Moffat.

Kids thought drug, alcohol abuse needed to be addressed

When 17 of the school’s 28 seventh-graders sat down last fall to talk about what their school’s most pressing health problem was, and how they might address it, drug and alcohol use loomed top of the list.

“For the kids, it was awesome … They felt like they were actually making a difference. They learned an effective way to make a change.”
— Tami Valentine, teacher

They’d pored over data from the Healthy Kids Colorado survey, which showed in detail just what health problems and risky behaviors confronted their classmates. They asked key adults in the school to complete a survey to help them identify an issue ripe for addressing. They examined what “best practices” were already going on in their school and which were not.

Once they’d settled on drug and alcohol use as an issue, they did a root cause analysis to determine why Sanford students might be especially vulnerable. They realized that a lack of opportunities to engage in positive activities might be contributing to drug use.

“We decided it would be good if we provided more after-school activities,” said Tami Valentine, the teacher at Sanford’s secondary school tapped to work with the students on their project.

“When we looked at surveys, it’s not like there was a really high rate of drug usage in the school, but they wanted to find ways to prevent it, ways to give kids something to do besides get involved with drugs,” she said. “And I liked that, because it reached out to all our students.”

It took several more rounds of surveys, a little bit of arm-twisting and even a trip to the school board, but eventually the school’s students, teachers and administrators determined what sorts of things they’d like, what sorts of things were possible and what things fell into both categories.

As of now, the youngsters are still waiting for that first after-school activity – archery training or golf – to be scheduled. But it will be soon.

What’s more important, the kids are feeling empowered that they actually got to change the culture of their school. They studied a problem and came up with a workable solution that all the evidence suggests will be effective.

“For the kids, it was awesome,” Valentine said. “We had lots of good discussions. We had debates. We used the democratic process. They felt like they were actually making a difference. They learned an effective way to make a change. And I think that will carry over to society. Rather than just complaining, they know how to get in there and get their hands dirty.”

Sangre de Cristo students tackle ‘checking out’ issue

In nearby Mosca, eighth-grade students at Sangre de Cristo Middle School were also taking up the issues impacting the health of their classmates. They determined that just “checking out” – a general lack of interest and motivation that can lead to dropping out – along with bullying were issues they could tackle.

“We talked about having accessibility to lesson plans on the school web site for kids who miss,” said teacher Deborah Shawcroft, who mentored the students. “We found that when kids miss school, they get buried when they come back, and give up. They feel there’s no way out of the hole. But if they had access to the lesson plans, maybe they could get that work done ahead of time.”

The students also launched a student-driven newsletter, in hopes of giving classmates more of a sense of empowerment and a say in the school’s goings-on.

“I think what we did took root in the school,” said 14-year-old J.J. Casados, one of the students who worked on the Sangre de Cristo team last year. “I know some students who may not get the best grades, but at least they’re trying. I don’t think it’s as big a problem now as when we started.”

Success on several levels

For Belansky, what happened in Sanford and Mosca worked on several levels.

Belansky bemoans the fact that despite years of research that have pinpointed what works, small rural schools can’t always take advantage of that research.

“As a researcher, there’s a couple of things we’re trying to accomplish,” she said. “Of importance to the education community, we’re helping schools get best practices into place for promoting student health. That’s the ultimate goal.

“But we are also trying to develop a process for kids to be change-makers. We share with them the latest research, then have them find ways to get those best practices into place.”

Belansky bemoans the fact that despite years of research that have pinpointed what works and what doesn’t, schools – particularly small rural schools in which every adult is expected to wear multiple hats – can’t always take advantage of that research.

For example, research consistently shows that abstinence-only sex education curricula is far less successful at lowering the teen pregnancy rate than programs that include information about contraceptives and safe sex. Yet many schools won’t abandon the abstinence-only approach.

Another less controversial example is physical education. There are a handful of outstanding PE programs, including one called SPARK, that are proven to lead to increased academic achievement, better test performance and more physical activity. Yet schools fail to adopt these proven programs in favor of less effective ones.

“I think it’s simply that people just don’t know what the latest and greatest best practices are,” said Belansky. “And if you look at rural Colorado, we have PE teachers who haven’t been given the opportunity for professional development in 30 years. And principals may not know what the latest and greatest is because they’ve got so many other things they’re dealing with.

“That’s where the university can play such a relevant role in helping communities,” she said. “We’re in such a great place to provide communities with menus of best practices, and a framework for people to critique that menu, then figure out what can work best for them.”

Choice is based on local data, adult input

The Working Together curriculum is a six-step planning process that begins with studying local data about health issues. Youngsters get to choose which from among seven health issues they’d like to concentrate on, then determine why that particular issue is a problem for their school and what changes could be made to address it. Then they go out and make it happen.

One of the key ingredients is the assembly of a “dream team” of caring, supporting adults who will be champions for the kids and help them succeed in implementing changes.

“One of the things we’ve learned is that it’s very hard for those adults to make time during the school day to come to class and participate,” Belansky acknowledged. “At one of the schools, the kids invited a second-grade teacher that they all loved. She was delighted to be invited to be on the dream team, but it was very hard for her to leave her class for 20-30 minutes to drop in on their class. So to make this work, we have to keep scaling this back to make it less intensive for the adults.”

The pilot program is now in its third year, and so far the results have been encouraging, Belansky said. She meets monthly with a steering committee overseeing how the programs are playing out in the test schools.

“We continue to find ways to support schools in implementing their changes,” she said. “We’re trying to focus on changes that give us the biggest bang for the buck, not just the low-hanging fruit. So those kind of changes take time to implement. They’re not just easy things you put into place the following week.”

Working Together Project’s six-step planning process for students

  1. Checking out our health and what’s happening in our school.
  2. Which health problem should we work on?
  3. Why do we have this health problem?
  4. What changes should we make to our school to work on this health problem?
  5. Let’s make it happen!
  6. How can we make sure our changes work and stick around?

How I Help

Why this high school counselor asks students, ‘What do you wish your parents knew?’

Today, we launch a new series called “How I Help,” which features school counselors, social workers and psychologists across Colorado. It is a companion to our popular “How I Teach” and “How I Lead” series.

Through “How I Help,” we hope to give readers a glimpse into the professional lives of school staff members who often work behind the scenes but nevertheless have a big impact on the day-to-day lives of students.

Our first “How I Help” features Cassie Poncelow, a counselor at Poudre High School in Fort Collins. She was the 2016 Colorado School Counselor of the Year and is one of six finalists for the 2018 National School Counselor of the Year award.

Poncelow talked to Chalkbeat about how she creates a legacy of caring, what teens want their parents to know and why peer-to-peer mentoring is better than a social-emotional curriculum taught by adults.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.

Why did you become a school counselor?
I was incredibly fortunate to have many powerful educators shape my life in my time as a student, but none did more so than my school counselors. My counselor from high school remains a dear friend and mentor. I knew that I wanted to be a part of what is happening in education and loved the diversity of the school counselor job. They get to collaborate with so many different stakeholders, get to know students in really cool ways and be involved with so many aspects of making change.

Cassie Poncelow

Tell us about an effort or initiative you spearheaded at your school that you’re particularly proud of.
Three years ago, we noticed that students were dropping out continuously because they were short on graduation credits and tired of taking the same classes over and over again. I worked with a team to create Opportunities Unlimited, which is a dropout recovery program for students ages 17-21 that is focused on GED completion and concurrent enrollment opportunities. A fifth cohort started this fall and the program has graduated 26 students in two years.

Is there a tool, curriculum or program you couldn’t live without in your job?
Our Ambassadors program is in many ways the backbone of our climate and culture at Poudre High School. This program trains 50 upperclassmen to mentor freshmen through a year-long curriculum that includes topics like stress management, suicide prevention and sexual assault. This mentoring model means that every freshman has an ambassador that is connecting with them for almost three hours each month. The ambassadors deliver comprehensive, peer-to-peer education that is far beyond and better than any social-emotional learning curriculum that counselors could facilitate. As the co-leader for this program, I also couldn’t live without the hope that this crew gives me. They are the best part of my job.

What’s the biggest misconception you’ve encountered about your role in the school(s) where you work?
I am grateful to work in a place and with people who see the vital role of school counselors and are eager to partner with them. In my time at Poudre High School we have added two new school counseling positions, further demonstrating our school’s belief in the work we do. I have worked at schools in the past that created a lot of systemic barriers to accessing school counselors and I think this was based on a misconception that we were a more frivolous part of services for students.

You spend lots of time with students. Knowing what you know, what advice would you give to parents?
I often ask my students, “What do you wish your parents knew?” What I hear consistently is a plea for them to remember what it was like to be 16: How painful and awkward it was, how boys were all the rage and not getting invited somewhere really was the actual worst.

So, I advise parents to remember that. And remember that a lot of what they dealt with at 16 is even more complicated by the world our kids are experiencing. Social media wasn’t a reality when they were kids and our current students have never known a world where mass shootings haven’t happened often. I know it’s no, “I walked uphill both ways without shoes in the snow,” but this is a scary time to be student — different, but equally hard. Our kids need us to hear them in that. And believe that they can change it.

Tell us about a time when you managed to connect with a challenging student or a student facing a difficult situation. How did you do it?
At my core, I think we all thrive on authentic relationships and I do whatever I can to create these with my students. I want each of my students to feel like I am truly in their corner and a champion not only of what they do but more so of who they are. I hope to not only live this, but to model it for my students in ways that inspire them to do the same.

This semester I have a freshman boy who was consistently skipping class (who knew gas station tacos were such a draw?) and failing multiple classes. His “consequence” is that he has to spend a period working on missing work in my office. I also have a slew of seniors who have made my office their home during this fifth hour, many who are excellent students and are just looking for a place to study. They have taken this freshman under their wing and are committed to his success far beyond what I could ever be. They are constantly asking about his upcoming exams, what he needs help with and celebrating his rising grades with him. I think I have built really authentic relationships with these upperclassmen who then remember what it means to feel connected and cared for and are passionate about showing this student just that. I often stress “legacy” to my students and this seems like a clear picture of that.

What is the hardest part of your job?
Kid stuff is hard. I hurt for kids a lot, as I think all educators do. They live lives far beyond our walls and far beyond what we could imagine and ever control. That’s the hardest. Close second would be trying to operate in a system that seems to be driven by folks who aren’t doing the work. I recognize that there are so many moving pieces and would love to have some of the actual “decision-makers” come spend the day in our role and better understand the work we do.

Tell us about a memorable time — good or bad — when contact with a student’s family changed your perspective or approach.
A year ago, I had a student who was really struggling with some significant mental health issues. I knew that we needed to bring in a parent but the girl was very anxious about this idea, to the point where she had literally crumpled up on my office floor. After calling her mom to meet with us, I joined her on the floor of my office to talk more. Her mom walked in shortly after, assessed the scene and sat right down on the floor with us, despite the chair-filled room. This move shifted everything and I was so grateful for her wisdom to be where her kid was at. It was a good reminder to me to do that always: be where kids are at.

You spend your days trying to help students and staff with any number of things. How do you wind down after a stressful day?
A lot of my unwinding still includes my students as I announce volleyball games or attend other sporting events or performances. I love these opportunities because they let me see my kids in a different light and remind me how awesome they are. I also spend as much time outside as possible, whether it’s going for a quick hike with my pup or a bike ride. Beyond traveling and reading, I cheer hard for the CSU Rams! Go State!

Big money

Millions in grant dollars will bring more counselors to Indiana’s underserved students

KIPP Indy was one of several schools in the county to receive a counseling grant.

Scores of Indiana schools were awarded private grants that will allow them to bolster counseling services for students, many of whom are lacking help for an increasing portfolio of problems, including fallout from the state’s drug epidemic and basic needs like advice on college applications.

The $26.4 million in grants, decided last month, include six for Marion County districts and charter schools. They were awarded by Lilly Endowment, a prominent Indianapolis-based philanthropy founded by key players in the pharmaceutical giant Eli Lilly.

The grants went to 52 school districts and five charter schools, covering about a third of the state’s counties. Based on enrollment, they ranged from about $68,000 to almost $3 million.

Lilly began its push to help schools build better counseling programs last year.

“The response from school corporations and charter schools far exceeded the Endowment’s expectations,” said Sara B. Cobb, the Endowment’s vice president for education. “We believe that this response demonstrates a growing awareness that enhanced and expanded counseling programs are urgently needed to address the academic, college, career, and social and emotional counseling needs of Indiana’s K-12 students.”

As Chalkbeat previously reported, school counselors have been stretched exceedingly thin in recent years, both in Indiana and across the country. On average, each Hoosier counselor is responsible for 630 students, making Indiana 45th out of 50 states and the District of Columbia for counselor-to-student ratios. The American School Counselor Association recommends a ratio of no higher than one counselor for every 250 students.

So far, state-led efforts to expand counseling have fallen short; a bill proposed in 2015 to require a counselor in every school was withdrawn for further study, and the issue hasn’t resurfaced significantly in the legislature since. At the time, cost was the sticking point.

Schools and districts had to apply for the grants and show how they would use the money. Lilly reported that mental health and business partnerships, mentoring programs, improving curriculum and adding in more training for staff were all strategies that grant-winners have proposed.

Initially, 254 districts and charter schools applied, many pointing out how Indiana’s recent opioid crisis has increased social and emotional challenges for students. Counselors have to juggle those serious needs with college and career advising and, increasingly, responsibilities that have nothing to do with counseling, such as overseeing standardized tests.

Because of the level of interest, Lilly is planning a second round of grants, which would total up to $10 million.

“Because the implementation grant process was so competitive, the Endowment had to decline several proposals that had many promising features,” Cobb said. “We believe that with a few enhancements, many of these proposals will be very competitive in the second round of the Counseling Initiative.”

These are the districts and schools in Marion County that received counseling grants. (Find the full list here.)

  • Indianapolis Public Schools: $2,871,400
  • KIPP Indianapolis: $100,000
  • Lawrence Township: $1,527,400
  • Pike Township: $1,114,700
  • Neighborhood Charter Network: $68,312
  • Southeast Neighborhood School of Excellence: $99,870

IPS said in a news release that it planned to use the grant money to build counseling centers in each of the district’s high schools, which would begin operating in 2018 after IPS transitions to four high schools. Superintendent Lewis Ferebee said counselors are “critical” for students as they prepare to graduate high school and pursue higher education and careers.

“We’re thrilled that the students and families we serve will benefit from this gift,” Ferebee said.