The Other 60 Percent

Colorado counties target teen drinking

Nineteen-year-old Chantel Chavez has more reason than most young people to avoid drugs and alcohol. Growing up, she watched drugs engulf her mother, though she didn’t know it at the time.

The Speak Now Colorado campaign gives parents tips for talking with their children about drinking. Photo courtesy Speak Now Colorado

“We didn’t understand why she was leaving,” said Chavez, a recent graduate of Westminster High School who is now attending Colorado State University in Fort Collins. “We just always knew our mom couldn’t be at things like our dad could.”

When she got to high school, there were times she was tempted to abuse alcohol the way some of her friends did. “There were a few of my friends, maybe five, who were really party people,” she said. “There was a lot of drinking, but I don’t think it was as crazy as some people thought it was.”

But Chavez found her passion and her focus in high school not in partying but rather in the Young Leaders Society of Adams County, a group dedicated to battling underage binge drinking, especially among Latino youth.

Chavez began participating in the organization’s fun activities like movie nights and potlucks. She also went to educational conferences and helped with community service events. She helped design a social marketing campaign geared to warn her classmates about the dangers of substance abuse.

Four counties targeted with grant money

The campaign, dubbed “I’m Going Places,” as well as the Young Leaders Society, is part of a wide-ranging effort to lower the rates of binge drinking among Colorado’s youth, particularly among Latino youth.

The project, called the Colorado Prevention Partnership for Success, is funded through a $2.3 million federal grant targeting the state’s four counties with the highest concentration of Latino youth – Denver, Adams, Weld and Pueblo.

Now in the fourth year of the five-year grant, the project has already seen some noteworthy progress. Based on statewide surveys, underage drinking in Colorado is falling, and the disparity in underage drinking rates between Latino youth and other youth is disappearing.

Chavez is one of those young people whose life might have been ever so much different if not for the support and motivation she got through the campaign. But there are others.

Underage drinking decreases in Colorado

Findings from the 2011 Healthy Kids Colorado Survey show that alcohol use among high school students in the state has fallen from about 75 percent in 2005 to about 65 percent, and that use among Latino high schoolers is only fractionally higher.

Among middle school students, however, almost 40 percent of Latino students report having consumed alcohol at some point, a rate more than twice as high as that of white students. Binge drinking – defined as having five or more drinks in two hours – was reported by almost 1 in 10 Latino middle schoolers, while only negligible numbers of white students reported such heavy alcohol use. By the time they get to high school, binge drinking evens out to about 20 percent for all youth, regardless of ethnicity.

“We’re really trying to create an awareness that it’s more normal than not to refrain from using alcohol and drugs,” said Beckah Terlouw, project manager for the Adams County Prevention Partnership, which oversees the activities in the county. “Most young people do not habitually use. But students overestimate how many of their peers are using alcohol. Reality versus perception is huge. We want to empower young people to be comfortable saying no to these choices.”

In Adams County, the campaign involves partnering with the major school districts, as well as with community groups, to sponsor family nights and parent forums as a way to help parents who are struggling to know how to talk to their children about alcohol and drug use.

That 2011 Healthy Kids Colorado survey showed that fewer than half the state’s middle school students had had a conversation with their parents about alcohol in the past year.

“Just eating family meals together can significantly decrease children’s use of drugs and alcohol,” Terlouw said. “We know the economy is hard and schedules are hard, but being a place where families can come in and have a meal, where they don’t have to think about it, where activities are planned can be such a good thing. And parents can go home with new skills and tools.”

In Greeley, “make mine root beer”

In Weld County, the Weld County Prevention Partnership has supported everything from social norming campaigns in the schools to recruiting restaurants, bars and liquor stores to be more pro-active about not serving alcohol to minors.

“It’s a comprehensive approach. We’re doing a lot of things at once,” said Nomie Ketterling, coordinator of the program. “The idea is that we’re changing the environment.”.

In Weld County, changing the environment involves everything from making available t-shirts that say “Make mine root beer” to a graffiti mural project to ads, posters and newsletters. A website provides teens tips for talking to their parents about drugs and alcohol, and tips for parents who want to talk to their children about it.

The Strengthening Families program is a seven-session class in which families can do role-playing, watch videos and play games designed to reinforce the need to avoid underage drinking.

Focus on homecoming and prom activities

In Denver, the Department of Human Services has its Resource for Awareness and Prevention, which offers referrals to for parents and youth with substance abuse issues, education classes for families, tool kits for parents, community presentations and other efforts.

“One pamphlet we just created is “Know the Law,” which has information about underage drinking in Colorado,” said Jodi Lockhart, prevention coordinator. “There are so many parts of our program. We work with youth directly, and we do widespread messaging I the schools around high-risk times like Homecoming and prom.”

In Pueblo, the Pueblo Alliance for Healthy Teens and the Pueblo Alliance to Prevent Underage Drinking/Drugging is using social marketing, substance abuse prevention education and alcohol-free activities for youth to target that county’s underage drinking problem.

Statewide, the Speak Now Campaign aims at getting parents to have conversations about alcohol and drug use with their teen-age children, and offer guidelines for putting together a family plan for reducing or eliminating underage drinking.

“They’re all doing very good work,” said Stan Paprocki, community prevention program manager for the state’s Division of Behavioral Health, which oversees the federal grant. “And they’re all so very different.”

Colorado’s underage drinking laws

Most likely charge

  • The charge of “minor in possession” is the most common charge in the state when it comes to underage drinking
  • Any teen found with alcohol or suspected of consuming may face a charge of minor in possession
  • Possession or consumption of alcohol by a minor is only allowed if it happens on private property, with the property owner’s consent and under direct supervision of that minor’s parent or guardian

Possible sanctions

  • First offense for a minor in possession charge: Fine up to $250, up to 24 hours community service and a license revocation for three months if the minor fails to follow court-ordered instructions
  • Second offense: Fine up to $500, up to 24 hours community service, mandatory alcohol class and a license revocation for six months
  • Third offense or more: Three to 12 months imprisonment and/or $250 to $1,000 fine, mandatory alcohol class and a license revocation for a year

Source: Denver Resource for Awareness and Protection

making moves

In New York, a new focus on housing could also spur more diversity in schools

PHOTO: Christina Veiga/Chalkbeat
In 2016, the Community Education Council in Manhattan's District 3 approved a controversial school rezoning aimed in part at integrating schools.

On a recent morning in Brooklyn, principals, parents, and education leaders from across the state gathered to drill into the root causes of school segregation and develop plans to spur more diversity. Joining the discussion was someone unexpected: a representative from the state’s Fair and Equitable Housing Office.

“We want to see within your districts, what your challenges are, what your ideas are,” said Nadya Salcedo, the office’s director. “You can’t talk about integration and segregation without talking about housing.”

It is often taken as a given that schools are segregated because neighborhoods are. Yet the twin challenges of integrating where children live and learn are rarely tackled in tandem. In New York, two recent moves have the potential to address both.

The first: State education leaders who are working with local districts to craft school integration plans are also inviting housing officials to the table early on — and plan to include them throughout the process.

The second: In New York City, housing officials have launched a tiny pilot program to help low-income renters move into neighborhoods that offer more opportunities, defined partly by school performance. The initiative isn’t meant to tackle school segregation directly, but if it grows, it could result in more diverse classrooms.

Both are small and unconnected, involving officials from different agencies. Details about both the state and city efforts are scant, for now. But taken together, they suggest a new energy toward tackling housing issues that are often a barrier to more integrated schools.

“There have been some ripples of hope out there,” said Fred Freiberg, executive director of the Fair Housing Justice Center. “But we still have a long ways to go.”

The meeting in Brooklyn brought together school district leaders who have been armed with a state grant to help improve schools by integrating them. Now, housing officials have been looped into that work to brainstorm how to collaborate.

The housing department “is working to help desegregate communities,” spokeswoman Charni Sochet wrote in an email. “This includes working with our federal, State and local partners.”

Similarly, the city began its housing pilot this summer but didn’t share details until this week, when the Wall Street Journal profiled the program. The 45 families in the program’s first phase are getting assistance searching for a new home — including rent vouchers that are worth more in wealthier neighborhoods, financial counseling to help them afford a move, and support navigating the intimidating New York City housing market.

“The mayor’s education and housing plans take dead aim at achievement and economic gaps decades in the making,” Jaclyn Rothenberg, a city spokeswoman, wrote in an email. “All students benefit from diverse classrooms. Neighborhoods benefit from a diverse community.”

The pilot is striking given what Mayor Bill de Blasio has said about housing in the city in the past. When asked how he plans to tackle school segregation, he has often argued that the city’s power is limited because schools reflect entrenched housing patterns and private choices by families about where to live. “We cannot change the basic reality of housing in New York City,” he said in 2017.

Families with rental vouchers often find it difficult to move out of segregated neighborhoods where schools tend to struggle under the weight of concentrated poverty. The city’s pilot could tackle those issues.

“At least now I’ll have a chance to apply to some of these apartments,” one participant, the mother of a 10- and 12-year-old, told the Wall Street Journal. “I’m moving to a better school district, and nothing else matters.”

In places such as Baltimore, similar “mobility” programs have included a sharp focus on helping families move to areas with better schools, and making sure that students adjust well to their new classrooms. On a wide scale, such efforts could create more diverse neighborhoods and learning environments, since income tracks closely with race and ethnicity — and schools with high test scores are often filled with white students and those from more affluent families.

It could also have profound effects on how children perform academically and later in life. Moving to a neighborhood with lower poverty rates can boost college attendance and future earnings, according to some of the most influential research on the topic.

Montgomery County, Maryland offers another example, where the housing commission randomly assigned families to public housing instead of letting them choose where to live. There, children in public housing who went to “advantaged” schools in less impoverished neighborhoods did better in math and reading than their peers who lived in public housing but attended the district’s least-advantaged schools, according to a report by the Century Foundation, a progressive think tank.

That result hews to a growing body of research that has found that students benefit from attending schools that are integrated by race and socioeconomic class.

How the city implements its pilot will matter if students and schools are to benefit most. Although some studies have found that housing programs can improve affected students’ academic performance, the effect can be modest and vary greatly depending on where families relocate and which schools their children attend.

New York City presents some additional challenges. With a vast system of school choice and programs that selectively sort students based on their past academic performance, students and neighborhoods aren’t as closely linked here as they are in other cities.

Recent research found New York City schools might be slightly less segregated if students actually stayed in their neighborhood schools. And simply living near a school does not guarantee access in cases where competitive entrance criteria are used to admit students — a process called screening that critics say contributes to segregation. School attendance boundaries can also separate students by race and class even when they live side by side, a dynamic exemplified by recent rezoning battles on the Upper West Side and in gentrifying Brooklyn neighborhoods.

In New York, the scale of the challenge is huge: The city has one of the most segregated school systems in the country, an ignominious superlative that also applies to neighborhoods. The politics of unraveling these issues can be explosive. Many advocates for both fair housing and more diverse schools caution that policies should work both ways, giving low-income families and people of color the chance to leave under-resourced schools and neighborhoods, while also boosting investments in classrooms and communities that have been historically neglected.

“It shouldn’t be an either-or,” said Freiberg, the Fair Housing Justice Center director. “You’re going to have to do both.”

Though conversations seem to just be getting started, integration advocates and housing experts are heartened by the small steps already taken.

“This is a dream come true for people in the housing world,” said Vicki Been, a former city housing official who is now faculty director at the New York University Furman Center. “We have always been looking for ways to get families into neighborhoods that have better schools, lower crimes, better job opportunities.”

Reema Amin contributed reporting. 

money matters

Haven’t heard of participatory budgeting? Voters approved it on Tuesday — and here’s how it can bring millions to New York City schools.

PHOTO: Christina Veiga/Chalkbeat
Sunset Park Prep Principal Jennifer Spalding, left, and Assistant Principal Lauren Scott, right, sit in the school auditorium, which was renovated with funds won through participatory budgeting.

When a city councilman told Laura Espinoza she could win thousands of dollars for her local schools through a process called participatory budgeting, the mother of four was skeptical it could be true.  

Then she thought about a recent experience volunteering in her daughter’s Sunset Park school, where she watched the deep disappointment of a boy who lost a class project on an outdated laptop that abruptly died.

Espinoza decided to put together a proposal, working with teachers and administrators, to fund technology upgrades for P.S. 24, as well as other schools in the district, including her son’s middle school at the time, Sunset Park Prep. She was amazed when her son’s assistant principal called to say their project had won a share of almost $700,000 to be divided among schools.

“I said, ‘Wow! That’s what we were able to do?’” Espinoza remembers.

More New York City parents could have similar experiences at their schools after voters on Tuesday passed a ballot referendum that calls for participatory budgeting to expand to every council district. It’s a concept many New Yorkers may never have heard of but allows everyday parents and even students to steer millions of dollars to their communities, including their schools.

As it stands now, council members choose to participate in the process, dedicating at least $1 million of their discretionary budgets for the public to spend. Residents gather ideas through a formal process, and the proposals are put to a vote. Children as young as 11, or those who are in at least the sixth grade, can cast ballots — as well as anyone else who lives in the district. Projects with the most votes get funded.

Participatory budgeting has been a lifeline for Sunset Park Prep, a school that serves mostly children from low-income families and is nestled on a few floors of a 100-year old building. Principal Jennifer Spalding estimates the process has pumped $1.8 million into her school over the past five years.

“There’s no single source of money I can think of that would replace that amount,” she said. “It’s allowed us to do projects I never thought would be possible.” 

Since her first foray into the process, Espinoza has dedicated countless hours to drum up ideas and voters to support projects for schools in her community. She’s not alone in council District 38, which is overseen by Councilman Carlos Menchaca. Spanning immigrant enclaves such as Sunset Park, Red Hook, and other Brooklyn neighborhoods, the district last year tallied the most votes for participatory budgeting projects.

Many of those voters are school parents like Espinoza, who have turned to the process to fill resource gaps in their children’s classrooms — raising the kind of money that would be the envy of PTAs in more well-off schools but also challenging stereotypes about how involved immigrant parents and those of more modest means are in their neighborhood schools. Across the city, surveys show that participatory budget voters are more likely to be among the very poor, Hispanic, or come from communities who can’t participate in regular elections.  

“For me participatory budgeting, as a Hispanic, as an immigrant, as someone who feels like she doesn’t have a voice in this country, changed my life,” Espinoza said. “Though we can’t vote, though we can’t give money that families and professionals in Park Slope can, we can give something too — and it’s not a small thing. They are things that change the lives of children.”

Principal Jennifer Spalding speaks fondly of the century-old building that houses Sunset Park Prep middle school, which features long windows and soaring ceilings. But with age comes plenty of capital needs — and not always the kind that are a top priority in a city where the average school building was constructed in 1948.

Rich red curtains hang in the auditorium, where the sound system will soon get a makeover. The gym sports a shiny wood floor and freshly painted walls. In science classrooms, there are brand new cabinets and the sinks now work. A metal cart houses dozens of sleek MacBook Air laptops in a multimedia room stuffed with new tables and a smart board. All were paid for through participatory budgeting.

The process is especially important for schools like Spalding’s, where the parent organization is focused more on building community than raising dollars. The school relies on $3 tickets to dances to help fund field trips, while other nearby schools throw fancy galas and pull in hundreds of thousands of dollars. (A new city council bill will track those disparities by requiring the education department to collect and report PTA fundraising.)

For Spalding, the value of these badly-needed infusions goes beyond dollars. Students get their first taste of civic engagement by participating in voting during a school day. They feel a sense of empowerment when their school benefits. And they see the tangible benefits of their votes — and that they’re worth investing in.

“It adds so much value to our students’ lives,” she said. It sends a message that, “this is a place worth being, and a place of value.”

Not everyone supported expanding the process — at least not in the way the city ballot measure calls for. It creates a commission that would oversee voter initiatives, including a wider roll-out of participatory budgeting. A majority of members will be appointed by the mayor, prompting some to call the initiative an unnecessary expansion of mayoral power. Others have cautioned that participatory budgeting may not be as inclusive as it appears.

After seeing its power in his own district, Menchaca lent his support to the ballot initiative.

Before Menchaca was a city councilman, he worked in the Brooklyn borough president’s office managing capital projects. Though he saw many positive improvements being made, he was confounded by how opaque the process was, and how removed projects often seemed from what people really wanted. Then he became a city councilman.

“Participatory budgeting was like this ‘aha’ moment —  this eureka moment where it shifts the balance of power,” Menchaca said.

He made the process the centerpiece of how he does city business. When Menchaca meets a new constituent, he starts the conversation with participatory budgeting: “Do you have an idea about how to make your community better? Great,” he says.

His open invitation was met by organized and motivated parents who saw deep needs in local schools, but sometimes lacked the ability to give from their own pockets. Through countless public meetings, with steady translation services to reach the many Chinese and Spanish speakers in the district, parents were quickly won over.

“This was the first time parents had an idea for a concept and could fund it themselves,” Menchaca said.

Last year, more people voted for participatory budgeting projects than they did in the district’s primary election. Menchaca dedicated $2.5 million to the process last year — and often ends up spending most of his discretionary budget on other ideas that just missed the cut.

But the process is also a reminder of the scale of need that parents see in their neighborhood schools. It’s a challenge the district will have to overcome if a new school integration plan is to succeed. Approved in September, the plan changes the way students are admitted to middle schools in District 15, which overlaps Menchaca’s district. Advocates say the diversity push will have to go beyond attempts to simply move students around, and also to tackle inequities that continue to exist within individual schools.

While many in his district see participatory budgeting as a game-changer for schools, it can only go so far to fill resource gaps. The process only divvies up money for capital projects like building repairs and park renovations. It can’t pay for programming like an arts class or after-school robotics club or fund salaries for extra helpers in the classroom.

Those are the kinds of holes that Espinoza says will need to be filled if the district is to meet its integration goals. The city is dedicating $500,000 to implement the plan, part of which will go towards new resources for schools. Advocates also called for an analysis of available programming.

“We’ve been alleviated a little with these projects,” Espinoza said. “But more is needed”