The Other 60 Percent

Spreading wellness to charter schools

Denver Public Schools students play basketball during recess in this EdNews file photo.
Denver Public Schools students play basketball during recess in this <em>EdNews</em> file photo.

At Global Village Academy in Northglenn, students study Spanish, Russian and Mandarin Chinese starting in kindergarten. The focus on foreign language is a major draw for families, but it also means that things like physical education and other health matters sometimes get short shrift.

Principal Lisa Pond, who started the job earlier this summer, could tell students weren’t moving enough at school as soon as she looked at the daily schedule. The schools’ language immersion model, which ensures students are proficient in two foreign languages by eighth grade, has also meant “we minimize the amount of time they’re out of the classroom.”

“It’s a challenge…to make sure we’re providing the specials, the physical activity kids need, and the nutrition,” she said.

Pond hopes an effort launched this summer by the Colorado League of Charter Schools will help the 771-student school tackle such issues. Global Village Academy, which will serve grades K-6 next year, is one of eight charter schools across the state that has been invited to join the League’s newly-formed Wellness Advisor Collaborative. The collaborative is one component of the league’s larger “Building Healthy Charter Schools Initiative,” which is funded with a three-year $705,000 grant from the Colorado Health Foundation.

In addition to the collaborative, the initiative aims to create service collaboratives that will allow several charter schools to share nursing or mental health staff. That process, which already exists among some schools that have joined forces on their own, is just getting underway.

The initiative will also focus on making health and wellness resources more widely available to the state’s nearly 200 charter schools and changing policy to make it easier for charter schools to embrace healthy practices.

Nuts and bolts

The Wellness Advisor Collaborative, which will unfold over three years, will allow participating schools to work with two wellness advisors to conduct needs assessments, create wellness policies, access health resources and promote wellness activities. The advisors will visit each school approximately once a month.

Rainey Wikstrom, a longtime healthy school advocate and one of the wellness advisors, said the schools’ needs vary, with some having strong practices in one area of school health and weak ones in another. One common denominator is the lack of a wellness policy.

In that regard, the schools seem “to be far behind the baseline of a lot of public schools…They are working in a bit of a vacuum,” she said.

Isolation aside, Wikstrom said the desire to incorporate health and wellness is there.

“They want to be in the mix and they want to be promoting that,” she said.

Pond said the collaborative represents a great opportunity to educate both parents and staff on wellness topics.

“They will come in and educate our wellness team and our wellness team will spread it throughout the school.”

In pursuit of lasting change

Making sure that healthy changes stick is also important to Sonya Hemmen, head of school at Carbondale’s Ross Montessori School, another school selected for the collaborative. She said it’s particularly easy at charter schools for programs and practices to come and go as staff turns over.

“I’m hoping to prevent amnesia at our school and have things stay whether the faces and names change.” she said.

Hemmen said that while Carbondale is already a physically active community and the school itself recently started a garden and caters organic lunches three times a week, there’s still room for improvement.

She believes the collaborative can help the school educate students about healthy habits in an objective way. Currently, she feels that some parents, whether hard-core soda-drinkers or over-the-top health nuts, are too extreme.

“I don’t know that it sets [kids] up for long-term healthy habits,” she said.

With the collaborative’s help, Hemmen hopes the school’s focus will “be more about balance and less about extremes.”

A diverse group

In addition to Global Village Academy and Ross Montessori, the schools invited to participate include Chavez-Huerta K-12 Preparatory Academy in Pueblo, Carbondale Community Charter School, Indian Peaks Charter School in Granby, Sims-Fayola International Academy in Denver, Platte River Academy in Highlands Ranch, and Eagle County Charter Academy in Edwards.

A second application window will likely open this fall, allowing a handful of additional schools to join the effort in 2014-15. All participating schools will pay about $4,000 a year to participate.

Organizers say they intentionally chose a diverse cross-section of schools, covering a range of sizes, geographic locations, programs and grades served. Lindsey Friedman, health and wellness program manager for the League, said in addition to helping participating schools become healthier over the next three years, the collaborative will allow the league to study “what levers create the most change.”

The goal, she said, is to “figure out what changes are the most sustainable and scalable throughout Colorado.”

Kids eat free

Colorado could expand lunch subsidy to high school students

PHOTO: Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post
Bernadette Cole serves food to students at Prairie View High School in Brighton.

When Colorado expanded a school lunch subsidy to middle school students, the number of sixth- through eighth-graders eating lunch at school went up in districts across the state.

Twenty-sixth percent more middle school students ate lunch at school in the Greeley-Evans district, where a majority of students live in poverty, but even in the more affluent Littleton district in Denver’s south suburbs, 11 percent more middle school students ate lunch.

For school nutritionists and children’s advocates, these kinds of results make the case for extending this same lunch subsidy to high school students.

“We know the co-pay is a barrier because of the large uptick in participation when it goes away,” said Erin Miller, vice president of health initiatives for the Colorado Children’s Campaign.

The “co-pay” is the 40 cents per meal that families who qualify for reduced-price lunch — but who make too much money to qualify for free lunch — are responsible for. The federal government picks up most of the cost for these lunches, and since 2008, Colorado has covered the 40 cents for the youngest students, rendering those lunches free to their families. This program has gradually expanded, reaching middle school students in legislation passed last year.

A bill that passed out of the House Education Committee Thursday would cover the 40-cent cost difference for high school students, a longtime goal of advocates.

“The state of Colorado has been trying to ensure that kids in poverty have access to food for a decade,” said Danielle Bock, nutrition services director for the Greeley-Evans district and a public policy and legislative consultant with the Colorado School Nutrition Association. “This is the final step.”

Miller said hunger affects children in school not just academically but also emotionally, with hunger even associated with higher suicide rates. Advocates have pushed to expand the state subsidy because participation in school lunch goes down as children get older, even as their caloric needs go up.

Currently, households that earn less than 130 percent of the federal poverty level, or $32,630 for a family of four, qualify for free lunch through the federal program. Families who earn between 130 and 185 percent of the federal poverty limit, or up to $46,435 for a family of four, qualify for a reduced-price lunch. It’s children from that second category families who will benefit if this bill becomes law.

Bock said the vast majority of school food service agencies in Colorado have unpaid lunch debt that, under federal law, they can’t just write off. School districts either pick up the costs out of their general fund or try to collect from parents, which sometimes leads to the controversial practice of “lunch shaming,” in which schools serve less nutritious and appealing alternative lunches to students whose parents owe money.

Lawmakers started out wanting to ban lunch-shaming, but school nutritionists convinced them it would be better to have the state cover some of the extra lunch cost for families who are struggling to make ends meet.

When Denver ended the practice of serving “alternative” meals to families who hadn’t paid for lunch, the amount of lunch debt skyrocketed, with a large portion of it coming from families who had not signed up for subsidized lunches and might have the means to pay.

According to a fiscal analysis, Colorado plans to spend $2.2 million on lunch subsidies this school year. Expanding the program to high school students would cost an additional $464,000 next year, with that money going into school food service budgets.

pass the microphone

This Memphis senior was kicked out of three high schools. Here’s how he got on track to graduate.

PHOTO: Gillian Wenhold, The Social Exchange
Despite what John Chatman calls a “really tough childhood” where he was often left on his own, he’s on track to graduate from alternative school G.W. Carver College and Career Academy this year.

In front of more than 100 people, John Chatman recalled the bullying he endured as a child for having a stutter.

Chatman was one of seven educators and students who took the mic at Chalkbeat’s February story storytelling night. The stories centered around school discipline practices, a topic we recently covered in this special report.

“Growing up in the area I grew up in, it’s hard to deal with that,” said the 18-year-old. “You’re an outcast. … It made me hate school, because I never could enjoy it. I may answer a question and stutter, [and other students would] get to laughing and cracking jokes.”

Kids stopped making fun of him in middle school when Chatman became a star middle school football player in Memphis — but the prestige that came with playing football disappeared when he was injured on the field.

“I took my injuries and replaced them with the streets,” Chatman said. “Throughout my ninth-grade year, I was starting to lose myself. … By 11th grade, I didn’t know who I even was.”

During that period, Chatman said he was kicked out of three high schools and eventually wound up at G.W. Carver College and Career Academy, an alternative school for expelled students, housed in former Carver High School.

“This school changed my life forever, Chatman said.

To hear more about how Chatman’s life changed, watch the video (or read the excerpt) below.

The storytelling night was hosted by Chalkbeat Tennessee, Spillit, and The Knowledge Tree. The video was filmed by Gillian Wenhold for The Social Exchange, a pay-as-you-can public relations and content creation firm for nonprofits, and businesses owned by women and people of color.

My 11th-grade year was the time I decided I had to change. The change was when I finally got kicked out of school. Well, I’d been kicked out of school but this was the kick-out-of-school that kicked me in my back real hard and said you only have one strike left. If you mess this up, this is it. It’s over with. You’re not going to see the light of day. Due to that, I ended up going to Northeast, and it still didn’t get better. In fact, I’m going to tell y’all the transitions of my schools. It started at ninth grade at Central, couldn’t come back to Central and I had to go to East , got kicked out of East and went to Northeast. Got kicked out of Northeast and now I’m back at Carver.

I’ll tell y’all, this school changed my life forever. I wouldn’t be here right now if it wasn’t for that school. It happened like this. There was a guy named Roger. We used to run together during the same time period. …

[During a presentation of past Carver graduates], an image of Roger popped up clear on the screen. It wasn’t up for nothing bad, he was on the road to making a six-figure [salary]. I was like, ‘This was the same person I used to shoot dice with?’… Now he’s living a life and I’m stuck here. I’m still doing the same stuff I’ve been doing and not getting no different result, and that’s called insanity… I took it, and I told myself if he can do it, I know I can.

Spillit, storytelling
PHOTO: Xzavier Bonds
Chatman speaks to a packed room during Chalkbeat’s storytelling event.