The Other 60 Percent

Contest sparks school breakfast growth

Before Bell Middle School in Golden started its breakfast program last year, kids would often come to the cafeteria and beg Kitchen Manager Annette Hansen for a bag of chips or another snack before school. Other school staff got similar requests and some started buying granola bars to hand out to hungry students.

Students at Burlington Elementary deliver breakfast for kindergarteners and first-graders. (Photo credit: Burlington Elementary Principal Debbie James)

Hansen says she doesn’t get these requests anymore, thanks to the school’s award-winning breakfast program, which serves about 60 students each morning starting at 7 a.m.

About half of those students come from low-income families.

Bell is one of three Colorado schools that won an “Innovation Award” last month in the School Breakfast Challenge. The contest, now in its second year, is put on by the No Kid Hungry Campaign, a collaboration between Gov. John Hickenlooper’s office, Hunger Free Colorado and Share Our Strength.

Stukey Elementary in Westminster and Northridge High School in Greeley also won Innovation Awards for their efforts in 2011-12. All three schools earned $1,000 awards in the contest.

In addition, four school districts won Breakfast Challenge awards ranging from $3,000 to $5,000 for big gains in breakfast participation between April 2010 and April 2011. West Grand and Ridgway won among districts with fewer than 40 percent of students eligible for free or reduced-price lunch. Wray and Burlington won among districts with 40 percent or more of students eligible for free and reduced price lunch.

Schools and districts around the state are now competing in the second School Breakfast Challenge, which runs until the end of January.  The contest is part of an effort to increase the number of students, particularly low-income students, who eat breakfast at school.

According to Hunger Free Colorado, for every 100 children who ate a free or reduced-price lunch in 2010-2011, only 40 ate school breakfast. In addition, although school breakfast participation has increased somewhat since 2008-2009, Colorado still ranks 44 among all states when comparing the number of school breakfasts per school lunches served.

Breakfast at Bell

On a recent Monday morning, Bell Middle eighth-grader Jalen Lucero stopped to chat on his way out of the cafeteria after breakfast. He said he likes the breakfast food at Bell much more than at his elementary school. He also likes Hansen, who brought in her home stereo system to liven up the cafeteria atmosphere.

“She’s funny. She dances all the time…Me and Mrs. Hansen are buddies,” Jalen said.

Bell’s breakfast program began as a project of the school’s Interact Club, which is a youth affiliate of the Golden Rotary Club.

Students eating breakfast in the Bell Middle School cafeteria.

Bell Principal Bridget Jones said of the Interact students, “They wanted to help make our school a thriving place and they knew some kids were not eating breakfast.”

About 35 percent of Bell’s 511 students receive free or reduced-price lunches this year, up from 17 percent six years ago.

The logistics were intimidating.

Students arrived on 13 buses every morning. There were concerns about how to accommodate students on late buses, who would provide before-school supervision and even where students would enter the building so they could access the cafeteria. Jones had her doubts, but said students and staff worked to overcome all the obstacles.

The Golden Rotary Club donated $500 for the kick-off breakfast, which was free for all students. Normally, students who are not eligible for free or reduced-price lunch pay $1.75 to eat breakfast at school.

Eighth-graders Ryan Houle and Leo Garcia shared their thoughts about the breakfast program over egg sandwiches and chocolate milk as the sounds of pop music drifted in from Hansen’s kitchen stereo. Houle said the program gives him a chance to eat if he doesn’t have enough time for it at home.

Leo Garcia, who’d just arrived after walking the 15 minutes from home in 12-degree weather, said he likes the warmth of the cafeteria. He also recalled feeling “pretty tired” when he neglected to eat breakfast last year as a seventh-grader. Without breakfast, Houle said, “It feels like you’re empty…You keep on thinking about how you’re hungry.”

The Burlington experience

Hunger was also evident at Burlington Elementary School before the school leadership team kicked off a program incorporating breakfast in the classroom and fitness activities last school year.

“We felt like we had lots of kids that were complaining about their tummies hurting or being lethargic in the morning,” said Principal Debbie James.

With leadership from the school’s physical education teacher, Burlington Elementary applied for and received a $2,230 grant plus nearly $1,800 worth of in-kind donations from Fuel Up to Play 60, a collaboration of the National Dairy Association, the NFL and the United States Department of Agriculture.

Armed with a new milk cooler, insulated bags and some red wagons to help the youngest students transport the food to their classrooms, Burlington began its universal free breakfast program last January. Soon, 87 percent of the 280 K-4 students were eating breakfast as soon as they got to school. James said the school had implemented a before-school breakfast program seven or eight years ago, but participation was low. At Burlington, 64 percent of students receive free or reduced-price lunches.

Teachers have noticed a difference since the breakfast program began, said James. Besides a reduction in obviously hungry kids, the number of tardy students has decreased. In addition, for those who are still tardy, the number of minutes they are late has decreased.

Parents and students have an incentive to arrive on time or close to it, said James, since breakfast in the classroom ends at 8:30 a.m., 30 minutes after classes begin.

Now, students show up to eat ready to learn.

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.