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?

Poverty in America

A Memphis woman’s tragic death prompts reflection: Could vacant schools help fight homelessness?

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Graves Elementary School in South Memphis has been boarded up since its closure in 2014. It's one of 10 vacant school buildings in the city.

The death of a Memphis woman sleeping on a bench across from City Hall in frigid temperatures unleashed a furor of frustration this week across social media.

As Memphians speculated how someone could freeze to death in such a public place, some pointed to limited public transportation, one of the nation’s highest poverty rates, and entry fees to homeless shelters. The discussion yielded one intriguing suggestion:

About 650 Memphis students were considered homeless during the 2015-16 school year, meaning their families either were on the streets, living in cars or motels, or doubling up with friends and relatives.

At the same time, Shelby County Schools has an adequate supply of buildings. The district had 10 vacant structures last fall after shuttering more than 20 schools since 2012, with more closures expected in the next few years.

But what would need to happen for schools to become a tool against homelessness? Some cities already have already begun to tap that inventory.

Shelby County Schools has been eager to get out of the real estate business, though it’s not exactly giving away its aging buildings. In 2016, Superintendent Dorsey Hopson said the school system should “repurpose some of these buildings and … anchor some of these communities and rebuild and refurbish these communities instead of tearing stuff down.” The conversation was part of Memphis 3.0, the city’s first strategic plan since 1981 to guide growth for years to come.

District policy allows for “adaptive reuse” to lease vacant buildings for community development including affordable housing, community centers, libraries, community gardens, or businesses. A change requires a community needs assessment and input from neighborhood leaders and organizations before the school board can vote on a recommendation.

But proposals to transform schools into housing haven’t emerged in Memphis.

The Memphis Housing Authority, which oversees federal dollars for housing development, has a two-year exclusive right to purchase two former schools near downtown. But talk has focused on using that space for an early childhood center, not housing, according to High Ground News.

Under state law, districts must give charter schools, which are privately managed but publicly funded, serious consideration to take over a closed building.

That has happened for some Memphis schools, but high maintenance costs for the old buildings are a major deterrent. They also present a significant challenge for any entity looking to convert a structure into a homeless shelter or affordable housing.

Of the district’s 10 empty school buildings, most have a relatively low “facility condition index,” or FCI rate, which measures the maintenance and repair costs against the current replacement cost. The higher the number, the less cost-effective.


*as of October 2017

The idea to turn vacant school buildings into livable space is not new. Across the nation, some communities have found workable solutions to address the excess real estate.

In Philadelphia, a nonprofit organization transformed an empty four-story elementary school that was frequented by trespassers and drug users into housing for 37 homeless veterans and low-income seniors. The $14 million project, led by Help USA, took advantage of federal dollars set aside to house homeless veterans.

Last summer, leaders in Daytona Beach, Florida, pitched in $3.5 million in public funds to help a local nonprofit convert an elementary school into a homeless shelter. Despite pushback from neighborhood residents, the plan secured a unanimous vote from its county council.

In Denver, school officials proposed turning an elementary school into affordable housing for teachers to combat expensive living costs and rapid gentrification. That idea is still up in the air, with some residents lobbying to reopen the building as a school.

Detroit is riddled with empty school buildings. Developers there are buying up properties to repurpose for residential use as they wait to see what the market will bear. The city’s private Catholic schools have seen more success in transforming old buildings into apartments, luxury condominiums, or a boutique office building because they are smaller, easier to renovate, and don’t have the same deed restrictions as public schools.

The same appears to be true in Baltimore, where a nonprofit group converted a 25,000-square-foot Catholic school into housing for women and children. The $6 million project, completed last month, uses federal housing vouchers to subsidize rent.

In Memphis, the community is still assessing what resources need to be tapped in response to this week’s tragic death.

“Simply dismissing this as a tragedy will only allow us to continue to absolve ourselves from the apathy and selfishness that allow people to go unseen,” said the Rev. Lisa Anderson, a Cumberland Presbyterian pastor who is executive director of the city’s Room in the Inn ministry.

academic insurance

Children’s Health Insurance Program is on the brink. Here’s why that matters for education

The fate of the Children’s Health Insurance Program is in Congress’s hands — and children’s education, not just their health, may be at stake.

Congress passed a temporary extension of funding for of CHIP in December, through some states will run out of money shortly. The end of the program would come with obvious potential consequences, as CHIP, which covers approximately 9 million children, gives participants more access to health and dental care.

There may also be a less obvious result: Research has found that access to health insurance helps kids perform better on tests and stay in school longer.

A 2016 study, published in the peer-reviewed Journal of Human Resources, found that expanding Medicaid in the 1980s and 1990s increased students’ likelihood of completing high school and college.

“Our results indicate that the long-run benefits of public health insurance are substantial,” the researchers wrote.

Similarly, an earlier paper shows that broadening access to Medicaid or CHIP led to increases in student achievement.

“We find evidence that test scores in reading, but not math, increased for those children affected at birth by the increase in health insurance eligibility,” researchers Phillip Levine and Diane Whitmore Schanzenbach wrote.

In short, research suggests that when kids are healthier, they do better in school. That’s in line with common sense, as well as studies showing that children benefit academically when their families have access to direct anti-poverty programs like the earned income tax credit or cash benefits.

(Even if CHIP ends, affected children might still have access to subsidized insurance through the Affordable Care Act or other means. The Congressional Budget Office estimates that will be more costly in the long run.)

Congress appears likely to vote on a bill this week that includes a six-year CHIP extension, as as well as a temporary spending measure to avoid a federal government shutdown.