The Other 60 Percent

Academy 360 aims to change the conversation

It was 7:45 a.m. on a cloudy Monday morning. About 100 children hopped up and down on the cracked asphalt outside their school, pretending to dribble basketballs, toss baseballs and jump rope.

Students at Academy 360 participate in morning movement.

Following the lead of Health and Wellness Coordinator Becky McLean, the children shouted, “I am smart! I am kind! I am a scholar!”

This is how each day starts at Academy 360, a new health and wellness charter school in the Montbello neighborhood in Far Northeast Denver. The 15-minute morning movement session is one small part of the school’s ambitious plan to bolster academics by promoting students’ physical, mental and emotional well-being.

Students, about 95 percent of whom come from low-income families, also get free breakfast and lunch in their classrooms and 45 minutes of physical education and 15 minutes of “guided” recess every day. Sugary drinks and flavored milks are not permitted, and unhealthy snacks like potato chips will likely prompt a note home with suggestions for healthier alternatives. Woven throughout the school day are formal and informal lessons on social-emotional skills such as compassion, tenacity and responsibility.

There is plenty more in the works. Although the school is currently located in leased church space, the long-term plan calls for a facility with a school-based health clinic. There are also plans for parent programs such as weekly exercise classes and talks on topics such as buying healthy food on a budget. Finally, the school, which currently serves kindergartners through second-grade, plans to add a grade on each end every year until it eventually offers preschool through fifth grade with additional programming for younger children as well as prenatal programs for parents.

Ultimately, school leaders and board members hope Academy 360 will help change the conversation around education, showing that healthy students and families are cornerstones of academic success, not optional add-ons.

“If we do this well, it does have the opportunity to be a new model of what education can look like,” said board member Dan Schaller, director of outreach and operations at the Denver Preschool Program.

In the classroom

The school’s focus on character education is obvious in the classrooms, with teachers discussing such attributes as graciousness or responsibility during lessons and walls and whiteboard adorned with aspirations such as, “I can be a model of tenacity.” Sally Sorte, the school’s founder and executive director, explained that these social-emotional themes are embedded deeply in expeditionary learning model used at the school and that teachers try to break it down into a discrete set of skills for students.

When two kindergartners had a tiff in Teacher Abbie Mood’s classroom, Sean Udell, the school’s special education and Response to Intervention coordinator, sat with the boy and girl at the “peace table” near the door and coached them through the conflict using a restorative justice approach.

A poster in a second grade classroom illustrates some of Academy 360’s values.

“It sounds like you both were hurt,” he said to the pair. “Instead of hitting her back, what could you have said to her?” he asked the boy.

Across the hall, second-grade teacher Dorothy Shapland, who is also the school’s director of curriculum and instruction, read the book “Children Make Terrible Pets” to her students. In between making the children giggle with her animated story-telling, she helped the children identify the characters’ feelings, and used the story to illustrate the meaning of compassion.

“She’s showing compassion,” Shapland said of the main character Lucy, a bear who adopts a little boy and then allows him to go home to his family. “She thinks about how someone else is feeling and then she acts on that feeling.”

A neighborhood in need of help

Across Scranton Street from Academy 360 is Amesse Elementary, a traditional public school that serves as a reminder to its new neighbor of the challenges that lay ahead. Like Academy 360, it serves a large majority of low-income and students of color. In the last few years, it has also gradually slipped to the lowest “red” ranking in the district’s five-tier performance framework.

“Sadly, they are one of Montbello’s many failing schools,” said McLean.

That’s in large part why Academy 360 serves Montbello as well neighboring Green Valley Ranch. Its leaders not only wanted to give parents a new school choice, but one cut from different cloth than the typical offerings.

“The mission was very attractive to parents,” said Board President Leslie Bayliff.

Funders found it appealing as well. Several have contributed financially to Academy 360, providing start-up grants or money for specific projects or staff members. They include the Colorado Health Foundation, the Gates Family Foundation, the Walton Family Foundation, the Colorado League of Charter Schools and the Colorado Department of Education.

While Academy 360 may enjoy a brief honeymoon as it puts down roots this year and perhaps next, everybody wants to know if it can outshine nearby district schools.

Kindergarteners at Academy 360 have cereal, milk, apple slices and sunflower seed butter for breakfast in their classroom.

 

Sorte is quick to say, “Number one, we’re a rigorous academic school.”

The charter’s expeditionary learning model emphasizes interdisciplinary project-based learning designed to tap kids’ interests. The school supplements its math and literacy curriculum with programs such as Singapore Math and the “Lucy Calkin” workshop approach to teaching writing. Finally, at 8.5 hours, the school day is longer than most.

While Academy 360 tapped various sources for its curriculum and programming, Namaste Charter School, a health and wellness school in Chicago, may figure in most prominently. Sorte believes the nine-year-old school provides solid evidence that Academy 360’s model can work.

“They’ve done a good job in showing how health and wellness can lead to greater academic outcomes.”

Last year, Namaste earned the middle ranking, “good standing” on Chicago Public Schools’ three-level performance rating system. In 2012, 87 percent of its students met or exceeded standards on state tests, beating the district average by more than 10 percentage points. Of Namaste’s 482 students last year, 85 percent were low-income and 26 percent were “Limited English Learners.”

The journey

Academy 360 was just a concept two years ago when Sorte, who was 25 at the time, applied for a fellowship to design a health and wellness charter school. The fellowship was funded by the Colorado Health Foundation and offered through Get Smart Schools, a Denver non-profit dedicated to expanding the number of charter schools and other autonomous schools.

Sally Sorte, Academy 360’s founder and executive director, talks with students after morning movement.

Sorte, who taught high school in Hawaii through Teach For America and worked at Google before coming to Denver, describes the school-planning process as “long and grueling.”

Tasks included recruiting board members, filling out the lengthy charter application, passing out brochures at grocery stores and knocking on doors to meet prospective families. In addition to doing a month-long residency at Namaste Charter School, she visited the Harlem Children’s Zone in New York City and The Odyssey School, an expeditionary learning charter school in Denver.

Sorte said at times she felt her age and gender prompted some push-back from the Denver Public Schools board, but she considered it “an opportunity to show it’s not just about the individual, it’s about the team they create.”

Part of that team is her 11-member staff, which went on an overnight camping retreat over the summer. All appear energetic and committed to the mission of educating students’ minds, bodies and characters. Take Udell, who used to teach special education at STRIVE Prep’s Highland Campus. He ran into Sorte, whom he’d met once previously, at a social gathering last June. She updated him on Academy 360’s progress.

We talked for about three hours and at the end of that conversation I was totally inspired by the vision and so impressed by how much was in line and how much she had reached out to the community… I didn’t want to miss out being a part of it so I sent her my resume from the bar,” he said with a laugh.

Mclean, who worked for the President’s Council on Fitness, Sports and Nutrition in 2011, is similarly passionate about her role as the school’s point person for health and wellness. In such, she not only collects health data from families and plans parent wellness activities, she has one-on-one conversations with students about how they feel when they eat too many sugary treats or with parents concerned about children exercising outside in cold weather.

While McLean has many plans to promote and publicize wellness efforts at Academy 360, one of her most ambitious is to have Michelle Obama visit the school. McLean envisions the First Lady eating at the salad bar with students and taking part in a school movement session.

“I think I’m just going to have to pitch the White House a bunch of times, prove that what we’re doing is working,” she said.

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.