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.”

Business of education

Memphis leaders say diversifying school business contracts will help in the classroom, too

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Winston Gipson confers with his wife and daughter, who help run Gipson Mechanical Contractors, a family-owned business in Memphis for 35 years.

Winston Gipson used to do up to $10 million of work annually for Memphis City Schools. The construction and mechanical contracts were so steady, he recalls, that his minority-owned family business employed up to 200 people at its peak in the early 2000s.

Looking back, Gipson says being able to build schools was key to breaking through in the private sector.

“When we got contracts in the private sector, it’s because we did the projects in the public sector,” said Gipson, who started Gipson Mechanical Contractors with his wife in 1983. “That allowed us to go to the private sector and say ‘Look what we’ve done.’”

But that work has become increasingly scarce over the years for him and many other minorities and women. The program designed to address contract disparities in Memphis City Schools was cut during its 2013 merger with Shelby County Schools.

A recent study found that a third of qualified local companies are owned by white women and people of color, but such businesses were awarded just 15 percent of the contracts for Shelby County Schools in the last five years.

It was even worse for black-owned construction companies, like Gipson’s, which make up more than a third of the local industry but were awarded less than 1 percent of contracts.

The disparity is being spotlighted as the city prepares to mark the 50th anniversary of the death of civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr., who was assassinated in Memphis while trying to fight for the rights of minority workers in 1968.

On Jan. 25, Chalkbeat will co-host a panel discussion on how Shelby County Schools, as one of the city’s largest employers, can be an economic driver for women- and black-owned businesses. Called “Show Me The Money: The Education Edition,” the evening event will be held at Freedom Preparatory Academy’s new Whitehaven campus in conjunction with MLK50 Justice Through Journalism and High Ground News.

Community leaders say school-related business contracts are a matter of equity, but also an education strategy. Since poverty is a crucial factor in why many Memphis students fall behind in school, the lack of job opportunities for their parents must be part of the discussion, they say.

The district already is taking steps to improve its record on minority contracting, starting with setting new goals and resurrecting the city district’s hiring program.

Big district, big opportunity

Shelby County Schools is Tennessee’s largest district. With an annual budget of more than $1 billion, it awards $314 million in business contracts.   

An otherwise dismal 1994 study of local government contract spending highlighted Memphis City Schools’ program to increase participation of historically marginalized businesses as one of the county’s most diverse, though some areas were cited as needing improvement. The same study criticized the former county school system, which lacked such a program, for its dearth of contracts with Minority and Women Business Enterprises (MWBEs).

But when the two districts merged in 2013, the program in Memphis City Schools disappeared.

“We had to cut, cut, cut,” said school board member Teresa Jones. “We were trying to stay alive as a district. We did not focus as we should have.”

Jones, a former school board chairwoman, said it’s time to revisit the things that were working before the merger. “We have to get back,” she said, “to make sure there’s equity, opportunity, access, and an atmosphere that promotes business with Shelby County Schools.”

District and community leaders say the consolidated district has lost its ability to develop relationships with qualified minority-owned businesses.

“There was an infrastructure where African-Americans felt comfortable enough approaching the school system” for work, said Melvin Jones, CEO of Memphis Business Contracting Consortium, a black business advocacy group formed in 2015. “There was trust. During the merger, they dropped the infrastructure.”

Brenda Allen

Without the outreach, “we’re seeing the same vendors,” said Brenda Allen, hired last summer as procurement director for Shelby County Schools after working in Maryland’s Prince George County Public Schools, where she oversaw a diversity contracting program.

“We’re not marketing the district like we should,” she told school board members in November.  

Shelby County Schools is not alone in disproportionately hiring white and male-owned companies for public business. Just 3 percent of all revenue generated in Memphis goes to firms owned by non-white people, even though people of color make up 72 percent of the city’s population, according to a 2016 report by the Mid-South Minority Business Council Continuum.

Not coincidentally, district and community leaders say, Memphis has the highest rate of young adults who aren’t working or in college, and the highest poverty rate among the nation’s major metropolitan areas. About 60 percent of students in Shelby County Schools live in poverty and all but three of the district’s schools qualify for federal funding for schools serving high-poverty neighborhoods.

Jozelle Luster Booker, the CEO of the MMBC Continuum, developed an equity contracting program for the city utility company following the 1994 study that was so critical of the city. The program funneled half a billion dollars to minority-owned businesses — an example of how government policies can promote equitable contracting, and grow businesses too.

“When that happens, you could basically change the socioeconomic conditions of that community, which impacts learning,” Booker said. “They’re ready to learn when they come to school.”

Shelby County Schools plans to hire a consulting firm to help develop a procurement outreach program and set diversity goals for its contractors and subcontractors. The program will launch in July, and Allen plans to hire three people to oversee it.

PHOTO: Brad Vest/The Commercial Appeal
Bricklayers from TopCat Masonry Contractors LLC work on an apartment complex in downtown Memphis in 2014.

The district also is part of a city-led group that provides a common certification process for businesses seeking contracts with city and county governments, the airport, the transit authority, and Memphis Light Gas & Water. The city’s office of business diversity and compliance also has a list of qualified minority businesses, offers free business development courses, and accepts referrals from other government entities to reduce redundancy.

“As you spend public dollars, you always want those dollars to be spent in your neighborhoods because that money comes back into your economy,” Allen said. “When people have jobs, you should see crime go down. You should see more people wanting to do business in the community if you have a good program.”

Leveling the playing field

In order for it to work, there has to be consistent reports, measures and, most of all,  accountability, according to Janice Banks, CEO of Small Planet Works, who helped the district with its disparity study.

Gipson agrees.

A wall of his second-floor Memphis office is lined with photos of some of his most significant projects during his 35 years of business, including a multimillion-dollar mechanical contract with AutoZone when the Memphis-based car part company moved its headquarters downtown in the early 2000s.

The work was made possible, he said, because of public sector jobs like constructing nine schools under Memphis City Schools. But that work evaporated after the merger. “It’s mostly been Caucasian companies that do the work (now),” he said. “It’d be one thing if you didn’t have anyone qualified to do it.”

Shelby County Schools will have to show commitment, he said, if it wants to level the playing field.

“You have the mechanism in place to make a difference,” he said. “Now do you make a difference with that mechanism or do you just walk around, beat your chest, and say we have a disparity study and let things run the way they’ve been running?”

“If you don’t make it happen, it will not happen,” he said.

college plans

As Washington decides their fate, ‘Dreamers’ preparing for college are stuck in limbo

PHOTO: Joe Amon/The Denver Post
Randi Smith, a psychology teacher at Metro State University, marched to support Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals during a citywide walkout in downtown Denver, CO.

While many high schoolers spend spring of their senior year coasting through classes and waiting to hear back from colleges, undocumented students who hope to attend college spend their time calling lawyers, consulting school counselors, and scouring the internet in search of ways to pay for school without the help of federal financial aid or student loans — assuming they even get in.

That process, anxiety-provoking even in a normal year, has become incalculably more chaotic this admissions season — even traumatic — as these young undocumented immigrants watch President Trump and lawmakers wrangle over Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, the program that has until now allowed them to remain in the country without having to fear deportation.

As the policy battle nears a climax, these students aren’t just breathlessly waiting to learn whether they’ll be accepted into college — they’re waiting to see whether they have a future in this country.

“It’s different for me. It’s definitely more stressful and there are times when you want to give up,” said an undocumented student at KIPP NYC College Prep High School, who is graduating this year and applying to colleges. She requested anonymity because of her legal status. “But then I remind myself that regardless of what’s going on, I’m still going to do what I’ve set myself to do.”

High school counselors are also feeling the strain. They already faced the difficult task of helping undocumented students compete for private scholarships, and finding schools that will support those students once they’re on campus. Now those counselors also must monitor each twist and turn of the immigration debate in Washington, while, somehow, trying to keep their undocumented students focused on college.

One of those counselors is John Kearney, who works at Guadalupe Centers Alta Vista High School, a charter school in Kansas City, Missouri. Dozens of his soon-to-graduate students are beneficiaries of DACA, a program created under former President Obama that allows undocumented immigrants who were brought to the country as children to avoid deportation and work here legally. Lately, they have been asking him why they should even consider college when their fate in the U.S. is so uncertain.

“The big question is, ‘Why? Why go to college, and then I can’t even work, then why?’” said Kearney, who also helped start a nonprofit that provides scholarships to undocumented students. “It’s a really tough question.”

As of Friday, President Trump and lawmakers were still locked in heated negotiations over DACA, which Trump said this fall that he would eliminate unless Congress enshrined it in law. Without an agreement, it is set to expire March 5, just as graduating seniors firm up their college plans. If that happens, young immigrants, often called Dreamers, could lose the few crucial protections they have. For many, their DACA status has already lapsed.

Even with DACA’s protections, Dreamers face massive hurdles to enroll in college: They don’t qualify for federal aid or loans, and, in some states, are barred from receiving financial aid or even attending public universities. Out of the estimated 65,000 undocumented students who graduate from high school every year, only 5-10 percent enroll in college.

Following Trump’s announcement in September, counselors have also had to race against the clock counting down to DACA’s expiration: That meant juggling college application deadlines with the October cutoff for students to apply for renewed DACA status.

The KIPP charter school network received a donation this year to help students pay for the renewal fee, which has been a godsend for many students — including the young woman who is graduating from KIPP NYC College Prep High School.

As soon as she learned the school would pay the fee for her, she immediately called her father, who is also undocumented and repairs beauty-salon equipment for a living.

“My dad was definitely trying to round up the money before the deadline, so it was a blessing that the school was able to find a donor,” she said. “I told him not to worry about it and it was a relief — like a weight off his shoulders.”

If the girl was trying to relieve her father’s stress, her college counselor, Rob Santos, was trying to do the same for her. Even as she balanced college-application essays, transcripts, and the rest, she was also coming to realize how quickly her life would change if DACA is not extended.

“There was definitely extra emotional support that I’ve had to provide this year,” Santos said. “I definitely had my DACA student in my office, and tears were happening.”

Santos keeps a running list of the colleges that accept students who don’t have permanent legal status and the few scholarships available to them. Many of those scholarships require undocumented students to have DACA status. If the program ends, it’s unclear whether students will still be eligible.

Still, Santos said his dreamer student rarely talks about the political furor surrounding her future in the U.S. as she awaits her college-acceptance letter. Instead, she’s more likely to discuss her hope of one day studying business and fashion.

“Our DACA students are resilient. They’re optimistic,” Santos said. “But they’re also realistic for what could actually happen.”