The Other 60 Percent

Healthy classroom parties gain momentum

Last year, Jennifer Herivel was surprised by the “no junk food” decree that came from her son’s kindergarten teacher as the annual Halloween classroom party approached.

Spooky healthy snacks were served to students at a classroom Halloween party at Fort Collins’ Bauder Elementary School. <em>Photo courtesy Brian Carpenter</em>

But Herivel, whose son Brayden is now a first-grader at Redstone Elementary in Highlands Ranch, gamely cooperated, pulling together a buffet of fruits, vegetables and popcorn.

Herivel, who served as room mother for the class, also arranged a healthy spread for the winter holiday party. Some parents, especially those with older children who got sweet treats in their classrooms, griped about the restriction. So, organizers allowed Rice Krispies treats.

“We kind of pushed the envelope,” Herivel said.

Reflecting on the experience a year later, Herivel is grateful that Brayden had such a health-conscious teacher and a kindergarten experience so focused on healthy foods.

“I look back on it and it’s not like the kids cared,” Herivel said. “The kids would sit and eat the veggies… They’ll eat whatever’s in front of them.”

Herival said Brayden never complained about the dearth of treats in his classroom and continues to be a healthy eater this year in first grade. She’s seen him pass up cupcakes and other sweets even when they are available in his classroom.

While Herivel’s experience may not be the norm, the push for healthy foods at school celebrations is growing in many Colorado schools. In some cases, it’s new wellness policies that have created the momentum. In others, it’s wellness coordinators, parents, teachers or principals who are experimenting with creative new ideas for throwing healthy classroom parties.

Prompting these changes is a growing awareness that childhood obesity is a widespread problem and that public schools can play a key role in turning the tide.

“More and more people are recognizing what a toxic food environment we have,” said Leslie Levine, technical assistance coordinator for LiveWell Colorado, an organization focused on reducing obesity.

There’s also a growing awareness about the connection between food and academic achievement, said Levine.

“Filling kids with sugar isn’t good for learning.”

Changing the culture

To Brian Carpenter, principal of Bauder Elementary in Fort Collins, the path to healthier party food comes down to changing habits and mindsets, usually of adults who grew up with sugary spreads at their own classroom parties. It’s not about replacing all sweet treats with vegetables, he said, but finding a balance between the two.

“You can have a cookie. Cookies are not the end of the world, but if that’s all we’re offering, that’s not OK.”

Fun activities at a classroom Halloween party at Bauder Elementary School in Fort Collins. <em>Photo courtesy Brian Carpenter</em>

Earlier this year at Bauder, which  has a wellness focus, Carpenter worked with the four third grade teachers to pilot a healthier Halloween party. At the party, healthy foods were presented with a fun twist. Carrots and yellow squash were laid out on plates to look like jack-o’-lanterns. Students were also asked to create several Halloween-themed food sculptures using a variety of items, including cheese sticks, bananas, almonds, apples, green peppers, chocolate cookies and chocolate kisses.

Finally, the third grade teachers pooled some of their classroom funds to pay for a substitute physical education teacher. That freed up the regular p.e. teacher to run an obstacle course in the gym for the party. Later this winter, Carpenter hopes to expand some of the third grade initiatives to other grades.

Carpenter admits that breaking with the tradition of sugar-laden school parties can cause friction.

“You’re always going to have this faction of people who say, ‘I’m so tired of wellness. I’m so tired of nutrition.”

Overall though, he’s heard very few critical comments about Bauder’s healthier party approach. When parents stop by their child’s classroom party they see kids “having a great time.”

Efforts to shift the focus of classroom parties away from food are also underway in Weld County District 6. To that end, wellness specialist Jenna Schiffelbein used grant money to purchase 16 classroom party kits that have themes like bingo, board games, charades or dance party. The dance party kit, which includes a boom box, age-appropriate CDs and a disco ball, has proved especially popular so far.

Food focus is hard to shake

Marcella Lunt, the mother of two boys who attend Skyview Elementary in Windsor, has found that it’s not always easy to shake holiday traditions that have long depended on an abundance of baked goods and candy.

Lunt, who is the room mother for her first-grade son’s class, said when soliciting party contributions from other parents she doesn’t ask for anything but healthy snacks. She also refrains from using candy as a prize in party games.

“I do think kids will eat the healthy stuff if the other stuff is not put out right away.” – Marcella Lunt, parent

Discussing plans for this Friday’s holiday party, Lunt said, “I don’t want to disappoint parents or children by not having what they see as traditional or festive, but I know these kids are getting candy canes around every corner.”

Plus, she’s discovered through experience that sweets creep in to class parties, invited or not. She brought a small bag of Tootsie Rolls to her first-grader’s Halloween party just in case there were no sweets at all. One parent brought in “dirt cup” pudding treats and another brought cookies. There were also goodie bags containing some candy that went home with the children. She opted not to open up the bag of candy she brought.

Ultimately, Lunt says she’s comfortable with parents contributing the occasional dessert item for classroom parties and noted that she usually allows for a “make-your-own” activity incorporating sweets.

“I do think kids will eat the healthy stuff if the other stuff is not put out right away,” Lunt said.

Wellness policies weigh in

Many schools and districts have created guidelines and policies that outline acceptable food options for school functions, including classroom parties. For example, the Poudre School District in Fort Collins specifies in its “Strategic Direction” document that 50 percent of food at school-sponsored functions should be fruits, vegetables or non-sugar sweetened beverages.

“Ultimately, It’s up to the principal to encourage that among teachers,” said the district’s wellness coordinator Ashley Schwader.

In Weld County District 6, the wellness policy requires that healthy food options make up 100 percent of party fare, up from 50 percent in the old policy. The policy, which was updated in 2011, also includes a detailed description of what qualifies as “healthy,” detailing the maximum percentage of fat, saturated fat and sugar permitted.

There’s still a long way to go, said Schiffelbein, the wellness specialist.

“It’s hard to know everything that’s going on. You certainly don’t want to be the food police.”

Tracy Faigin Boyle, vice president of marketing and communications for LiveWell Colorado, led the health and wellness committee at Lowry Elementary in Denver when it drew up wellness guidelines suggesting that healthy food always be included in classroom parties. Some teachers think it’s great; others like to give out treats, she said.

The committee also worked with the school’s cafeteria manager to make a tasty cafeteria item available for in-school birthday and holiday celebrations. Topped with a light cream cheese frostings, the sweet potato muffins are now called “Lowry Soar Cupcakes” and can be ordered by parents for 25 cents each.

Does her third- grade daughter like them?

“They look like cupcakes so she’s fine with that.”

Starting young

These 11-year-old Brooklyn students are asking New York City to do something about segregated schools

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Matilda and Eliza Seki, left, and their friends Noa and Benji Weiss, right, collected signatures at a district 15 meeting to discuss middle school integration efforts.

While they learned about the history of segregation, a group of Brooklyn 11-year-olds took a good look around their classrooms and realized their schools weren’t so different from the photos in their textbooks.

So Matilda and Eliza Seki paired up with their friends Noa and Benji Weiss — two sets of twins — and decided to do something about it. They launched a petition on calling on the city to integrate its schools.

“We learned about separate and equal in the civil rights movement, and that it was not equal,” Eliza said, referring to the “separate but equal” legal doctrine once used to justify segregation. “And since there are schools with people of only one race, and it’s all separated, it cannot be equal.”

Matilda and Eliza are in the sixth grade at M.S. 839, and Noa and Benji are fifth-graders at P.S. 10. They already have a bit of experience in activism, having joined the Women’s March in D.C., and helping to lead environmental clubs at their school. They hold sophisticated views for kids their age, and are aware of the hurdles ingrained in addressing school segregation.

Describing how housing patterns can tie into school quality, Benji began his thoughts by saying: “Let’s say you’re from a different culture or race and you don’t have as much money as other people do — because we still live in a racist country — and you’re in an area where the housing is cheaper but you don’t have as good schools.”

Across New York City, adults have debated how to spur integration in the country’s largest school system — and one of the most segregated. According to one recent analysis, the city’s most selective high schools enroll 84 percent white and Asian students, even though those groups make up only 30 percent of the city’s student enrollment.

But student-organized groups have also been at the forefront of a grassroots movement for more diverse schools. The work of budding advocates Matilda, Eliza, Noa and Benji caught the attention of some those groups, and they’ve now joined the ranks of Teens Take Charge and IntegrateNYC as some of the youngest members. The changes they’d like to see go beyond admissions policies, but also include a push for additional resources for underserved schools, hiring more teachers of color and curricula that reflects all students and cultures.

“We decided it was an important issue and we wanted to help fix it,” Noa said.

Matilda added: “Our schools should look like our city.”

Their schools are in District 15, where 81 percent of white students are concentrated in just three of the district’s most selective middle schools, according to an analysis by parents. The city has launched a series of public workshops to craft a new admissions model to integrate middle schools there, but these kids already have their own ideas for how to do that.

Benji, who is heading to middle school next year, said it would be “pretty good” if schools stopped picking students based on criteria such as class grades and attendance. Such “screening” contributes to segregation because of a number of factors — from which elementary schools students attend, to their parents’ ability to navigate the complicated admissions process.  

“It’s… important to learn about different peoples’ backgrounds, and religions, and cultures,” he said. “And also to make sure that all kids, no matter their race, religion or where they live can get the same, good education.”

Raised Voices

Balloons, hearts, and ‘die-ins’: How Colorado students marked National Walkout Day

Students gather at the Colorado State Capitol to protest gun violence. (Melanie Asmar)

Thousands of students across Colorado poured out of their schools Wednesday to protest gun violence and to remember 17 victims of last month’s deadly shooting in Florida. Chalkbeat’s Melanie Asmar walked with students from East High School to the Colorado State Capitol, where Gov. John Hickenlooper and Speaker of the House Cristanta Duran urged them to remain politically active.

The protests took different forms at other schools – and not everyone wanted the event to be political. There were balloon releases, voter registration drives, and public “die-ins” at major intersections. And in one Denver area school district, a surge of threats cast a pall over events.

Here’s a look at #NationalWalkoutDay from around the region.

Students at Skinner Middle School in northwest Denver marched in silent solidarity.

In Colorado, teenagers can register to vote before their 18th birthday.

At schools in the Adams 12 district north of Denver, a big uptick in threats the night before – and a warning letter from the superintendent – led many students to skip school altogether.

Students at McAuliffe International School in northeast Denver spoke with their shirts. Instead of “Thoughts & Prayers,” they asked for “Policy & Change.”

But their event was not all about politics. They formed a heart with their bodies and read the names of the dead.

At Jefferson Jr./Sr. High School, students promised to work to change school culture.

Many schools released balloons to honor the victims and found other ways to advocate for change.

Unlike some Colorado districts, St. Vrain didn’t officially condone the walkouts, but students at Longmont schools walked out anyway.

Students at Denver’s South High School have been vocal about gun violence. In a recent visit from U.S. Rep. Diana DeGette, they rejected the idea that armed teachers would make them safer and demanded that lawmakers do more.

Students from one of Colorado’s KIPP charter schools used their bodies to send a message at a major intersection in west Denver.

Students of color in Denver reminded the public that gun violence is not limited to mass shootings.

Students aren’t just marching. They’re also writing their representatives. State Rep. Faith Winter, a Westminster Democrat, tweeted a picture of her inbox full of emails from students.

Colorado carries the legacy of the 1999 mass shooting at Columbine High School, where a memorial asks urgently as ever: “How have things changed; what have we learned?”