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.”

task force

Jeffco takes collaborative approach as it considers later school start times

File photo of Wheat Ridge High School students. (Photo by Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

The Jeffco school district is weighing pushing back start times at its middle and high schools, and the community task force set up to offer recommendations is asking for public input.

Nearby school districts, such as those in Cherry Creek and Greeley, have rolled out later start times, and Jeffco — the second largest school district in Colorado — in December announced its decision to study the issue.

Thompson and Brighton’s 27J school districts are pushing back start times at their secondary schools this fall.

The 50-person Jeffco task force has until January to present their recommendations to the district.

Supporters of the idea to start the school day later cite research showing that teenagers benefit from sleeping in and often do better in school as a result.

Jeffco is considering changing start times after parents and community members began pressing superintendent Jason Glass to look at the issue. Middle and high schools in the Jeffco district currently start at around 7:30 a.m.

The task force is inviting community members to offer their feedback this summer on the group’s website, its Facebook page, or the district’s form, and to come to its meetings in the fall.

Katie Winner, a Jeffco parent of two and one of three chairs of the start times task force, said she’s excited about how collaborative the work is this year.

“It’s a little shocking,” Winner said. “It’s really hard to convey to people that Jeffco schools wants your feedback. But I can say [definitively], I don’t believe this is a waste of time.”

The task force is currently split into three committees focusing on reviewing research on school start times, considering outcomes in other districts that have changed start times, and gathering community input. The group as a whole will also consider how schedule changes could affect transportation, sports and other after school activities, student employment, and district budgets.

Members of the task force are not appointed by the district, as has been typical in district decision-making in years past. Instead, as a way to try to generate the most community engagement, everyone who expressed interest was accepted into the group. Meetings are open to the public, and people can still join the task force.

“These groups are short-term work groups, not school board advisory committees. They are targeting some current issues that our families are interested in,” said Diana Wilson, the district’s chief communications officer. “Since the topics likely have a broad range of perspectives, gathering people that (hopefully) represent those perspectives to look at options seems like a good way to find some solutions or ideas for positive/constructive changes.”

How such a large group will reach a consensus remains to be seen. Winner knows the prospect could appear daunting, but “it’s actually a challenge to the group to say: be inclusive.”

For now the group is seeking recommendations that won’t require the district to spend more money. But Winner said the group will keep a close eye on potential tax measures that could give the district new funds after November. If some measure were to pass, it could give the group more flexibility in its recommendations.

Battle of the Bands

How one group unites, provides opportunities for Memphis-area musicians

PHOTO: Rebecca Griesbach
Memphis Mass Band members prepare for Saturday's Independence Showdown Battle of the Bands in Jackson, Mississippi.

A drumline’s cadence filled the corners of Fairley High School’s band room, where 260 band members from across Memphis wrapped up their final practice of the week.

“M-M-B!” the group shouted before lifting their instruments to attention. James Taylor, one of the program’s five directors, signaled one last stand tune before he made his closing remarks.

“It behooves you to be on that bus at that time,” Taylor said to the room of Memphis Mass Band members Thursday night, reminding them to follow his itinerary. Saturday would be a be a big day after all.

That’s when about 260 Memphis Mass Band members will make their way to Jackson, Mississippi, for the event of the season: the Independence Showdown Battle of the Bands. They’ll join mass bands from New Orleans, Detroit, Georgia, Mississippi, and North Carolina to showcase musical performances.

“This is like the Honda of mass bands,” said baritone section leader Marico Ray, referring to the Honda Battle of the Bands, the ultimate competition between bands from historically black colleges and universities

Mass bands are designed to connect young band members to older musicians, many of whom are alumni of college bands and can help them through auditions and scholarship applications.

Created in 2011, Memphis Mass Band is a co-ed organization that’s geared toward unifying middle school, high school, college, and alumni bands across the city. The local group is a product of a merger of a former alumni and all-star band, each then about a decade old.

Ray, who joined what was called the Memphis All Star band in 2001, said the group challenged him in a way that his high school band could not.

“I was taught in high school that band members should be the smartest people, because you have to take in and do so much all at once,” he said, noting that band members have to play, count, read, and keep a tempo at the same time.

But the outside program would put that to the test. Ray laughed as he remembered his first day of practice with other all-star members.

“I was frightened,” he said. “I knew I was good, but I wanted to be how good everybody else was.”

Ray, now 30, credits the group for his mastery of the baritone, for his college degree, and for introducing him to his wife Kamisha. By the time he graduated from Hillcrest High School in 2006 and joined the local alumni band, he was already well-connected with band directors from surrounding colleges, like Jackson State University, where he took courses in music education. After he married Kamisha, an all-star alumna and fellow baritone player, they both came back to Memphis to join the newly formed Memphis Mass Band.

“This music is very important, but what you do after this is what’s gonna make you better in life,” he said. “The goal is to make everyone as good as possible, and if you’re competing with the next person all the time, you’ll never stop trying to get better.”

In a school district that has seen many school closures and mergers in recent years, Ray said a program like MMB is needed for students who’ve had to bounce between school bands. The band is open-admission, meaning it will train anyone willing to put in the work, without requiring an audition.

“[Relocation] actually hurts a lot of our students and children because that takes their mentality away from anything that they wanted to do, versus them being able to continue going and striving,” Ray said. “Some of them lose opportunities and scholarships, college life and careers, because of a change in atmospheres.”

With its unique mix of members, though, school rivalries are common, and MMB occasionally deals with cross-system spars. But Saturday, the members will put all of that aside.

“What school you went to really doesn’t matter,” Ray said. “Everybody out here is going to wear the same uniform.”

Asia Wilson, an upcoming sophomore at the University of Memphis, heard about the group from a friend. Wilson used to play trumpet in the Overton High School band, but she said coming to MMB this year has introduced her to a different style.

Jorge Pena, a sophomore at Central High School, heard about the group on YouTube. It’s also his first year in the mass band, and the tuba player is now gearing up to play alongside members of different ages, like Wilson.

They’re both ready to show what they’ve learned at the big battle.

“It’s gonna be lit,” Wilson said, smiling.

Need weekend plans? Tickets are still selling for Saturday’s 5 p.m. showcase. To purchase, click here.