Healthy Schools

Shrinking enrollment leads to a new focus: play

When Anne Wesley became principal of Malley Drive Elementary School in Northglenn six years ago, the school had about 460 students. Over the next three years, enrollment gradually dropped to below 400.

Maureen Maloney, also known as "Coach Mo" plays "Cookie Monster Tag" with students at Malley Drive Elementary during recess.
Maureen Maloney, also known as “Coach Mo” plays “Cookie Monster Tag” with students at Malley Drive Elementary during recess.

“I was losing quite a few families,” said Wesley.

It wasn’t exactly that they didn’t like Malley Drive, but there were lots of new specialty schools in that pocket of the Adams 12 Five Star district. There was a STEM school, an arts-infused school, a magnet school for gifted students and a charter school offering intensive foreign language instruction. Two of them were within walking distance. The others were an easy drive.

“Parents really have a lot of choice, especially in our neighborhood,” said Cristi Hulse, a fourth-grade teacher at Malley Drive. “It was kind of like the new tennis shoe. Everybody’s got to try it out.”

With the competition for kids stiff, Wesley decided the school needed a special focus to help stem the tide of departures. In early 2012, she learned about a national non-profit program called Playworks, which provides full-time coaches to run recess games, after-school sports and student leadership training at low-income, urban schools. It seemed like the perfect foundation for a physical activity and wellness focus.

There was only one problem. Even with a $42,000 subsidy from Playworks, the program would cost Malley Drive $28,000 a year. It was a hefty price tag for a school where nearly 80 percent of students are low-income. Plus, it came at a time when the district was facing a budget crisis and principals were being asked to return any “carry-over” money that was left in their school budgets at the end of the year.

After months of research and meetings to gain staff buy-in on the program, Wesley brought her case to the superintendent, pushing to use her carry-over funds for Playworks. Her plan was approved and Malley Drive became a Playworks school in the fall of 2012.

“The superintendent kind of recognized my little school was floundering,” she said. “I was very fortunate.”

Today, Malley Drive has nearly 450 students. While Wesley said she can’t draw a direct line between Playworks and her increasing enrollment, she believes it might be one factor helping keep families at the school.

“It gives the school that selling point,” said Hulse.

Transforming recess

Maureen Maloney, or “Coach Mo” as the kids call her, is the face of Playworks at Malley Drive. A buoyant presence with a constant smile, she spends two hours on the playground every day during lunch recess, serving as social director, cheerleader, playmate, and occasionally, mediator.

One student made a house out of a hula hoops at recess.
One student made a house out of a hula hoops at recess.

On a recent day, bundled in a down jacket and a hat with ear flaps, she played “cookie monster tag” with about two dozen students as tiny snowflakes fell from the sky.

When two boys veered from tagging to mild rough-housing, she called out, “Boys, butterfly touches!” When a new child approached the group, wanting to get in the game, she immediately welcomed him.

“Are you a cookie monster? High five! What’s your name?….I’m glad you’re out here playing with us now.”

Nearby, smaller groups of children took part in other Playworks games like four square, wall ball and knockout. Overall, about three-quarters of students spend their recess doing Playworks activities and the rest do their own thing on the playground.

One widely-lauded outcome of Playworks is a reduction in playground spats and their inevitable spill-over into the classroom. Wesley said before the program launched, she’d routinely block out the lunch hour to deal with conflicts that arose during recess. Hulse said staff also had to ban recess football because kids got too physical and would end up fighting.

Now, like at all Playworks schools, kids use “ro sham bo” — also known as “rock, paper, scissors” — to solve minor playground problems. The school also has 15 “junior coaches” in the fourth and fifth grades to help Maloney ensure that kids work out their differences peacefully. Wesley emphasizes that Playworks gives teachers more time for instruction because students come back from recess settled and ready to focus.

Hulse said, “It’s been a great addition to our building and as a teacher, I like that we have a common language and a common ground to work with the kids.”

Playworks also seems to address parents’ two biggest fears about recess: that their child will be bullied or excluded. Parent Nicole Martin, who choiced her son into Malley Drive last year as a second-grader, said he used to sit out during recess at his old school, either because of his shy demeanor or long lines to get on playground equipment. Now, he always joins in Playworks games.

“I think it’s a great idea to have it,” she said.

Shannon Hays, who has a second-grader at Malley Drive, said she likes that Playworks emphasizes lifelong social skills such as compromise, using words to solve problems and being a good team player.

It’s a little pricey she said, “but I think it’s worth the money for what kids get out of it,” she said. “At least they get it here.”

More than recess

Playworks may be most closely associated with recess, but coaches work full at their schools, running a variety of play-based programs. At Malley Drive, Maloney holds “class game time” with individual classrooms every other week, teaching new games and class-building activities. She also runs the junior coach program, which at Malley and five other pilot schools includes a weekly after-school leadership class. Finally, she coaches free after-school volleyball and basketball teams that travel to other Playworks schools for games.

A student plays "knockout" during recess at Malley Drive.
A student plays “knockout” during recess at Malley Drive.

Currently, Playworks operates in 16 Colorado schools, most of those in Denver and Aurora. To qualify, at least 50 percent of a school’s students must be eligible for free or reduced-price meals. Andrea Woolley, Denver executive director of Playworks, said the organization plans to add two new schools in January, six more next year and four more the following year.

In addition to providing coaches to schools, Playworks also provides “Power of Play” trainings to schools and organizations like Boys and Girls Clubs. Next year, she’s planning an effort to reach out to the state’s rural communities.

“We really want to be known statewide,” she said.

Although Malley Drive didn’t change its name to reflect its physical activity and wellness focus, Wesley said when prospective families visit, she always talks about Playworks and the school’s other special features. For example, students get a minimum of 35 minutes of recess time a day, plus an additional 30-50 minutes of activity on p.e. days. This year, the school also offers universal free breakfast.

There’s also the fact that since last year, teachers no longer take away recess as a punishment. Now, kids who goof off in class may have to jump rope or hula hoop for five minutes when recess begins, but they no longer sit against the wall watching their classmates play.

“We really had to examine our belief system…about using recess as a carrot to hold over kids,” said Wesley. “Since we’ve brought Playworks on board, the kids, they know this is their sacred time.”

Not long for this world

Denver teen pregnancy prevention organization to close its doors at the end of the year

PHOTO: freestocks.org

A Denver-based nonprofit focused on teen pregnancy prevention and youth sexual health will close its doors at the end of 2017 after losing two major grants.

Andrea Miller, executive director of Colorado Youth Matter, announced the news in an email to supporters Monday afternoon.

The organization, begun in the 1980s as a volunteer-run group, provides teacher training and assistance in picking sex education curricula for 10 to 25 Colorado school district a year.

Miller said she’s hopeful other organizations will pick up where Colorado Youth Matter leaves off — possibly RMC Health, the Responsible Sex Education Institute of Planned Parenthood of the Rocky Mountains or the state-run Colorado Sexual Health Initiative.

Colorado Youth Matter’s biggest financial hit came in July when federal officials announced the end of a major teen pregnancy prevention grant mid-way through the five-year grant cycle. That funding made up three-quarters of Colorado Youth Matter’s $1 million annual budget.

“It feels like we’re getting cut off at the knees,” Miller said.

About the same time, the organization lost a family foundation grant that made up another 10 percent of its budget.

Miller, who took the helm of the organization just 10 months ago, said one of her primary goals was to diversify funding, but there wasn’t enough time.

Miller said with a variety of factors playing into the state’s teen pregnancy rates, which have been at record lows in recent years, it’s hard to say what the impact of the organization’s dissolution will be.

She said Colorado Youth Matter has worked successfully with school districts with different political leanings to find the right policies and resources to address the sexual health of their students.

“We have been masters at meeting the school districts where they are,” she said.

Wanna go outside?

Less plastic, more trees: New effort seeks to reinvent preschool playgrounds and capture kids’ imaginations

This play structure at Step By Step Child Development Center in Northglenn will go away under a plan to create a more natural and engaging outdoor play space.

Michelle Dalbotten, the energetic director of a Northglenn child care center called Step by Step, doesn’t like her playground.

Sure, it’s spacious, with a high privacy fence bordering an adjacent strip mall parking lot. It’s also got a brightly colored play structure surrounded by lots of spongy rubber mulch.

But Dalbotten and her staff have long noticed that the kids get bored there. They clump together in the small shady area or on a few popular pieces of equipment. Sometimes, they start throwing trucks off the play structure or shoving their friends down the slide.

Something about it just doesn’t work.

Recently, Dalbotten found a solution in the form of a new grant program called the ECHO initiative, which aims to reinvent more than 100 preschool and child care playgrounds across Colorado over the next few years. Think mud kitchens, looping tricycle trails, vegetable gardens, stages, shady reading nooks and dump truck construction zones.

The idea is to create outdoor spaces that capture kids’ imagination, connect them with nature and keep them active in every season. Such efforts grow out of a recognition in the education field that healthy habits start early and boost learning.

The current preschool playground at Step by Step is covered by rubber mulch.

Step by Step staff members had talked many times about their stagnant play space. But it was hard to envision anything different until they attended a design workshop with experts from ECHO, a partnership between the National Wildlife Federation, Qualistar Colorado and the Natural Learning Initiative at North Carolina State University.

“We knew we were missing the boat somewhere because (the children) weren’t super-engaged and we had a lot of behavioral issues,” Dalbotten said. “But we just couldn’t see past it, I guess.”

For child care providers, it’s a common challenge, said Sarah Konradi, ECHO program director with the regional office of the National Wildlife Federation

“This is a very new idea to a lot of folks,” she said. “It’s hard to sort out as a layperson.”

ECHO, borne out of a decade of research from the Natural Learning Initiative, will hand out $355,000 in grants over the next three years. The initiative prioritizes centers that serve children from low-income families or other vulnerable populations.

Fourteen centers — Step by Step and Wild Plum Learning Center in Longmont are the first two — will get $10,000 awards for serving as demonstration sites willing to host visits for other Colorado providers.

Leaders at Step by Step say kids and teachers often congregate in the limited shady spots.

Around 100 other centers will receive ECHO’s $5,000 seed grants and expert assistance to revamp their outdoor spaces.

Such transformations can have a big impact on children who may spend thousands of hours a year at such centers, said Nilda Cosco, director of programs at the Natural Learning Initiative.

“When we do a renovation of the outdoor learning environments as we call them — not playgrounds — we see increased physical activity … more social interactions among children … less altercations,” she said.

“The teachers have to do less because the children are so engaged. There is so much to do.”

ECHO, which stands for Early Childhood Health Outdoors, is the latest iteration of a program Cosco started a decade ago called “Preventing Obesity by Design.” That effort revamped outdoor space at about 260 child care centers in North Carolina, South Carolina and Texas.

Cosco said such makeovers can ”prevent obesity by counteracting sedentary lifestyles. Children walk more, exercise more, are conversant with healthy eating strategies.”

Dalbotten and her staff have big plans for their play areas, which sit behind a plaza that houses a bingo hall, Dollar Tree and Big D’s Liquor store. They’ll get rid of the colorful play structure and the rubber mulch in favor of a more natural look. There will be trees, shrubs, small grassy hills and a winding trail leading to a wide array of activity areas.

This porch will get new lighting, fencing and foliage to make it a more attractive outdoor space at Step by Step.

The center’s smaller toddler playground will get a similar reboot and its tiny yard for babies — mostly bare except for a couple low-hanging shade sails — will be expanded to include a shaded deck where teachers can sit or play with babies. A barren concrete porch on the side of the building will be remade into a cozy activity area decorated with bird houses, planter gardens and butterfly-attracting foliage.

At the recent design workshop Dalbotten attended, ECHO leaders displayed photos from other centers around the country that have gone through outdoor transformations. She saw one that stuck with her.

“There were kids everywhere,” she said. “It was super cool looking. I was like, ‘Oh look, we can be that. We can have kids everywhere.’”

PHOTO: Natural Learning Initiative
The play space at Johnson Pond Learning Center in Fuquay-Varina, NC, after a makeover.
PHOTO: Natural Learning Initiative
The outdoor play space at Spanish For Fun Academy in Chapel, Hill, NC, after a makeover.