The Other 60 Percent

Head Start tackles obesity

Huge red strawberries were the star of the show for the three- and four-year-olds eating their weekly vegetarian lunch at Sunshine Center Head Start in Commerce City on a recent Tuesday. The children, who also had whole grain rolls, one-percent milk, and baked potatoes with grated cheese and sour cream, asked for seconds, thirds and fourths of the berries.

Students eat lunch at Sunshine Center Head Start in Commerce City.
Head Start students eat lunch at the Sunshine Center in Commerce City.

Watching the children eating fruit like candy, it was momentarily hard to believe that excess weight can be a pressing issues for these preschoolers. But about 18 percent of the 545 low-income children here and at other Head Start locations run by Adams County, are overweight or obese.

It’s a problem that staff members like Health and Nutrition Supervisor Andrea Pruett are working hard to address. Although she says the process is just beginning, a number of changes have already taken place this year.

Meatless meals, ranging from roasted red pepper hummus to black bean and sweet potato chili, are now offered once a week. More money has been allocated for fresh fruits and vegetables, lessening the program’s reliance on canned products.

In addition, items like white flour biscuits, juice and bacon have been eliminated in favor of foods with less fat and sugar and more whole grains. After an unpopular skim milk trial, one-percent milk replaced two-percent milk.

Aside from menu changes, Adams County Head Start administrators are taking steps to incorporate more physical activity into the school day, educate staff and parents about healthy habits and involve them in conversations about new initiatives. Next year, Pruett hopes to offer parent cooking classes, increase the number of vegetarian meals and buy new kitchen equipment.

The goal is to reduce the rates of overweight and obesity by 10 percentage points by 2015. If all goes well, that means about 46 fewer Head Start children will fall into those categories two years from now.

A statewide push

Pruett and her colleagues are not alone in their efforts to tackle the complicated problem of overweight and obese kids. In fact, many Head Start programs face even tougher odds than Adams County. In Colorado Springs, 23 percent of 1,034 students enrolled in Head Start through the Community Partnership for Child Development are overweight or obese.

“That number, that’s alarming,” said Chief Operating Officer Linda Meredith.

Weight status of Colorado Head Start students
  • Underweight: 5.2%
  • Healthy weight: 71.7%
  • Overweight: 12.4%
  • Obese: 10.6 %

But it’s also the norm for low-income preschoolers across Colorado. In 2010, 23.2 percent of the state’s poor children, ages two to five, were overweight or obese, according to the Pediatric Nutrition Surveillance System run by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That number fell slightly from a high of 24.7 percent in 2005. All told, there are 41 Head Start programs enrolling 10,400 children in Colorado.

Obesity among the early childhood set has been on the radar of Head Start leaders in Colorado and nationally for about a decade, said Andreas Molarius, executive director of the Colorado Head Start Association. But it was really after the Head Start Act was reauthorized in late 2007 with new language about obesity that many program directors began to take a more aggressive and comprehensive approach to the problem.

Now, efforts to address obesity are often woven throughout entire Head Start programs, and touch children through curriculum, on-site meals and body mass index monitoring. In addition, parent outreach may include referrals to dieticians or other specialized staff, cooking and health classes at Head Start centers and in-home health education by Head Start staff.

Molarius said a handful of programs, including the Community Partnership for Child Development, Boulder County Head Start and Clayton Early Learning in Denver, are particular stand-outs when it comes to tackling obesity. For example, she said that the Boulder Head Start matches master gardeners with Head Start families to help them start and sustain their own home vegetable gardens.

“It’s definitely innovative and food security is just a huge issue for our families,” she said.

Part of the family-style vegetarian lunch served at Sunshine Center Head Start
Part of the family-style vegetarian lunch served recently at Sunshine Center Head Start.

Despite these kinds of efforts, Head Start leaders face a raft of challenges when it comes to reducing obesity and overweight rates. Societal factors like the availability of cheap processed food, the ease of entertaining kids with television, and the difficulty of outdoor play for low-income children living in apartments or unsafe neighborhoods are part the problem.

Plus, Head Start programs housed in elementary schools may rely on school district menus, which vary widely in their emphasis on whole foods and scratch cooking. Some Head Start centers have high staff turn-over, lack access to specialists like dieticians or scrap to find funding for nutrition and movement programming or intensive parent outreach.

Other programs struggle to get buy-in from parents or staff members, some of whom may struggle with weight problems themselves. Pruett said while about 60 percent of the staff at Adams County Head Start support the recent changes, some don’t.

“It’s been a little scary for a lot of my staff,” said Pruett.

Some don’t want to give up indulgences like donuts and soda that were once acceptable in the classroom. In other cases, new menu items like hummus are unappealing to teachers, who eat family style with their students.

Boosting healthy habits

One of the key offensives in the obesity fight is getting kids and families to like, and ultimately choose healthy foods over salty, sugary and high-fat fare. That’s one reason that many Head Start centers use the Food Friends program developed by Colorado State University’s Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition.

In addition to a physical activity component called “Mighty Moves,” the program introduces preschoolers to a variety of new foods, from daikon radishes to gouda cheese.

Terri Hulsey, director of health and nutrition at the Community Partnership for Child Development, said, “They end up having a tasting party at the end and they’ll eat everything.”

A second widely-used program, which focuses more on physical activity, is called “I Am Moving, I Am Learning.” Developed by Head Start in 2005, the program aims to increase the number of minutes of moderate to vigorous exercise that children get each day.

Amber Arens, health/nutrition specialist at the Colorado Early Education Network in Weld County, said the curriculum ensures that her program’s full-day Head Start kids children get an hour of exercise during the school day and that half-day children get 30 minutes. One-third of the program’s 562 children are overweight or obese.

For parents, Cooking Matters classes are a popular offering at many Head Start centers. The Community Partnership for Child Development offers these cooking classes featuring healthy meals made by the chef from the local food bank.  At the end of each class, parents are given a bag of groceries containing everything they need to recreate the meal.

“They’re crazy for it,” said Meredith, adding that more parents show up than there are slots available.

Encountering resistance

Not surprisingly, weight can be a touchy subject, especially since perceptions about what constitutes a healthy weight don’t always jibe with clinical findings. It was a lesson Meredith learned the hard way last fall when program staff sent out letters to scores of parents informing them that their children were obese or on track to becoming obese according to body mass index measurements.

“Parents were livid,” she said. “We had a lot of families calling and saying, ‘How dare you?’”

Despite the push by some staff not to sugar-coat what they saw as an urgent health message, Meredith said future iterations were massaged so they didn’t upset parents so much.

Arens knows the feeling.

“Once you say ‘obese’ sometimes families shut down,” she said.

Teacher Lynne Clifft eats lunch with her students.
Teacher Lynne Clifft eats lunch with her students.

Lynne Clifft, a Head Start teacher at the Sunshine Center, said she tries to keep things positive when parents come to her for advice about dealing with overweight children. She focuses on physical activity because telling people what to eat makes her uncomfortable.

“That’s mostly my thing with them, if they can get outside and play,” Clifft said. “I don’t like to go the food route.”

Cultural norms can also impact the weight discussion.

Pruett said some Hispanic parents feel that having a chubby child is a good thing, demonstrating that they are well fed. Hulsey has noticed similar attitudes among some parents in her program, and one outcome has been a shifting focus from addressing a child’s weight problem to living a healthy lifestyle.

“You won’t get to everybody,” she said. “We just kind of plug along.”

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.