Minding the body

Transforming P.E. and maybe test scores too

A student at Falcon Bluffs Middle School in Jefferson County picks up his pedometer before P.E. class.

A seventh-grade girl in black skinny jeans and a black cardigan casually strolled into the gymnasium before fifth period at Falcon Bluffs Middle School in Littleton. She crossed toward a box of bright orange pedometers sitting on the floor, stooped to pick one up and immediately broke into a run as she headed to the locker room to change. She wasn’t late for class.

Neither were the boys who burst through the gym doors and sprinted to the pedometer box or the girls who speed-walked to the locker room.

Strange as it sounds, the students were all rushing to rack up Moderate to Vigorous Physical Activity minutes in P.E. class. Commonly known as MVPA, the student keep track of their minutes using the pedometers, which they clip to the waistband of their green gym shorts.

In addition to arriving early for P.E at Falcon Bluffs, students hopped up and down or skipped in circles while waiting for class to begin. They jogged in place while standing in line to bat during the day’s indoor baseball game. Some kept bouncing at the end of class as they waited in line to insert their pedometers into docking stations that would record their MVPA numbers in a computer database.

A set of 15 pedometers costs $400.
Students use these pedometers to track their “Moderate to Vigorous Physical Activity” in P.E. class. A set of 15 pedometers costs $400.

The students’ motivation to move stems from the school’s new approach to physical activity, both during P.E. and a before-school fitness program. It’s no longer just a means of achieving physical fitness, but also mental fitness, with the pedometers serving as a source of instant feedback and a tool for long-term tracking. The new approach, which began at Falcon Bluffs and four other Jeffco schools last year, is based on the work of Harvard psychiatry professor John Ratey, who wrote, “Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain.”

While many educators instinctively sense that exercise helps kids in the classroom, the reasons are often articulated with vague explanations like “it burns off energy” or “it gets the wiggles out.” Ratey details the science behind the intuition, describing how exercise affects neurotransmitters and brain infrastructure to facilitate learning.

“He calls exercise ‘Miracle-Gro for the brain,’” said Emily O’Winter, Jeffco’s healthy schools coordinator. “It is so compelling. It’s so motivating to exercise for your brain.”

In the education realm, there may be no better example of the brain-fitness connection than Naperville School District 203, a high-achieving district near Chicago that pioneered many of the physical education practices that Ratey recommends. In “Spark,” Ratey lauds the district’s student body as “perhaps the fittest in the nation” and talks about their world-class performance on the international TIMSS test.

The idea of leveraging exercise for academic success obviously intrigues principals and teachers, but it also seems to resonate with students. During a recent P.E. class, seventh-grader Brody Hall jogged in place as he explained to a visitor why he comes to the before-school “Spark” most days. “I wanted to come … in the morning and get my brain going for the day so I’d be able to learn better.”

A primer on MVPA
  • A person’s heart rate should be 50-70 percent of his maximum heart rate when doing moderate physical activity and 70-85 percent of his maximum when doing vigorous physical activity. To estimate a person’s maximum heart rate, subtract his age from 220.
  • Examples of moderate physical activity include brisk walking, leisurely biking, yoga and badminton.
  • Examples of vigorous physical activity includes jogging, basketball, soccer and hockey.
  • For more information, go to Measuring Physical Activity Intensity on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention web site.

His first class is language arts and he said his mind wanders less when he attends Spark first.

“I think it’s just like I’m more focused and ready to learn and more awake.”

This spring, the district plans to expand its Spark-inspired approach to seven additional schools with the help of a $200,000 “Thriving Schools” grant from Kaiser Permanente. Next fall, the funds will allow up to 15 additional schools to come on board.

While Jeffco is hardly the only Colorado district attempting to increase students’ physical activity, its approach appears unique. The use of pedometers and the careful tracking of MVPA is uncommon, said Jamie Hurley, a professional development consultant for RMC Health who has worked with many districts on physical activity initiatives. More often, he said, schools try to increase opportunities for physical activity throughout the school day, perhaps in the form of added recess or classroom “brain breaks.”

The hallmarks of Spark

Jeffco’s brand of Spark, which is not to be confused with two unrelated programs –the SPARK physical activity curriculum and SPARK After-School Academy—aims to provide daily or near-daily chances for physical activity at school with the goal of measuring and boosting students’ MVPA. Ideally, Spark takes place just before core academic classes though scheduling logistics don’t always allow that.

Two students in Allyn Atadero's P.E. class plug their pedometers into docking stations after class so their MVPA numbers will be recorded.
Two students in Allyn Atadero’s P.E. class plug their pedometers into docking stations after class so their MVPA numbers will be recorded.

Ryan West, the principal at Falcon Bluffs, launched the school’s first iteration of Spark in the fall of 2012 after a central administrator gave him and four other principals a copy of Ratey’s book.

“I had no idea that this was out there,” said West. “I knew the anecdotal stuff about the importance of athletics, but I didn’t have the research.”

West, with the help of counselor Rob Longbrake, soon launched a Spark elective class, selecting 16 students, mostly boys, who were reading below grade level. Each day, Longbrake led the students in a physical activity session in the former staff lounge, which had been equipped with stationary bikes, workout videos and circuit training equipment. The students tracked their MVPA using heart rate monitors strapped around their chests. Right after Spark, the students went to their remedial reading class.

Longbrake quickly discovered the kids didn’t enjoy spinning and weren’t as driven as he’d expected.

“So I finally just said, ‘OK guys, what do you want to do to get moving here?’”  he said. “So we ended up…doing anything we could to move. We played a lot of ultimate football outside.”

Meanwhile, the students made huge academic gains in reading.

“Their TCAP scores went through the roof,” said Longbrake. “It was pretty cool.”

West said all the students had scored “unsatisfactory” on the 2012 TCAP reading test. On the 2013 test, all but two scored “proficient” or “partially proficient” and more than half showed higher-than-average growth rates. In some cases, students went from reading at a first- or second-grade level to a fifth-, sixth- or seventh-grade level, he said.

O’Winter said the preliminary findings, which were similar at the other schools, are encouraging but can’t be indisputably attributed to the Spark programs.

“The thing is we’re not a research institute,” she said. “With this data we hope to show success, but we can’t prove anything without a randomized clinical trial.”

Taking it schoolwide

While the first-year data may not rise to the level of a scientific study, Falcon Bluffs administrators found it convincing enough to expand the Spark philosophy to all P.E. classes this year, and launch a 7 a.m. Spark fitness session four mornings a week.

The biggest change, aside from a wider swath of participants, was the switch from heart rate monitors to the more user-friendly pedometers, which use an algorithm based on step counts to calculate MVPA. While the heart monitors are probably a bit more accurate, the straps got sweat soaked after one or two class periods and the associated software didn’t always work, said P.E. teacher Allyn Atadero.

While the pedometers provide instant feedback on exercise intensity, students seem to glean at least as much inspiration from the many lists Atadero posts on the gym bulletin board. First, he created the 10-Minute Club, posting the name of every student who achieved at least that amount of MVPA during his 44-minute class. Initially, his hope was that 70 percent of students would reach that threshold.

Students jog in place while chatting with P.E. teacher Allyn Atadero before class begins.
Students jog in place while chatting with P.E. teacher Allyn Atadero before class begins.

“I thought I was shooting high,” he laughed.

Turns out, he was shooting too low. Pretty soon, Atadero added a 20-Minute Club, a 30-Minute Club, even a 40-Minute Club. He also created a Top 10 Boys list and Top 10 Girls list for every class, a Top 10 All-Time list and class vs. class competitions.

Perhaps most surprising is the 50-Minute Club, which was added a few weeks ago after one boy somehow spent every minute of P.E. plus most of two passing times in the MVPA zone.

“I can’t think of any student I have that has not bought into it, every single kid,” said Atadero.

While there are certainly a share of lean, athletic students who make the high-minute clubs, Atadero said he’s seen major improvements even by students who don’t typically embrace fitness. He described one girl in morning Spark, who started out with only two to three minutes of MVPA during the 40-minute session. Now, just by picking up her walking pace, she routinely breaks 20 minutes.

Atadero also said Spark has changed the way he teaches some of his P.E. units. For example, to incorporate more movement into baseball, he now requires students to sprint across the gym and touch the bleachers after every three outs. He also grades on effort, not athletic ability, awarding the top score of four to every student who achieves at least 10 minutes of MVPA.

“I have that tool now where I can monitor 100 percent of my students,” he said.

Lack of policies, funding

While West, Atadero and others involved in the Spark experiment at Falcon Bluffs are enthusiastic about the program, it’s not without weaknesses. For one, physical education is not required at the middle school level in Jeffco, so about 15 percent of Falcon Bluffs students don’t take it at all.

Those who do, take it daily for one trimester, or about 12 weeks. That means any benefits, whether physical or academic, are temporary, except for the 30-40 students who voluntarily attend before-school Spark.

What about the possibility of offering daily P.E. to students all year?

“I would absolutely love to do that. That would be a dream of mine,” said West, a former high school football coach. “The reality is I have 650 kids in this building and Allyn is my only P.E teacher.”

O’Winter said that problem exists across the district. Still, she believes excitement about Spark is growing and feels it provides a better solution for struggling students than loading them up with extra academics.

“Why isn’t this the most obvious thing?” she said. “This is how our brains are built.”

Chilling effect

Five ways a proposed immigration rule could impact Colorado students and schools

PHOTO: JGI/Jamie Grill | Getty Images

Advocates for immigrant families fear that a proposed federal rule governing green card decisions could lead to more children going hungry and losing housing and health care. That, in turn, could pose challenges for educators and schools.

The proposed rule would allow the government to penalize some legal immigrants who have used public benefits by denying them permanent residency — a possibility that could prompt families to forgo any kind of government help. For children in those families, many of them citizens, the result could be hunger pangs, untreated illness, or outsized worry that their parents won’t be able to stay in the U.S. Inside schools, the new rule could mean more time and energy spent addressing students’ basic needs and the loss of funding from some public programs.

Fear that immigrants will shy away from benefit programs is nothing new. Stricter immigration rules since President Trump took office — stepped-up raids, efforts to discontinue the DACA program, and family separations at the U.S.-Mexico border — have already led to a chilling effect on the legal use of public benefits by immigrants. Advocates say changes to the so-called “public charge” rule will only exacerbate the problem.

The rationale behind the proposed rule, a stricter version of one that’s been in place for years, is to prevent immigration by people who will end up dependent on government help. Opponents of the rule say it punishes working-class immigrants who may need short-term aid, but contribute much more to the country’s economy over the long term.

The existing public charge rule penalizes immigrants for using programs such as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families or long-term care. The proposed version adds several more to the list, including Medicaid, food stamps, and housing vouchers. Free and reduced-price school meals aren’t included in the existing or proposed rule.

Mónica Parra, program manager of the Denver school district’s migrant education program, said families she works with are reluctant to sign up for any kind of help, even assistance heating their homes during the winter.

“They’d rather struggle or find other ways to get support,” she said. “It’s going to be very challenging to keep students motivated, but also safe. Maybe they’re going to be cold. Maybe they’re going to get sick.”

The proposed public charge rule doesn’t apply to refugees and asylum-seekers, and doesn’t penalize immigrants for public benefits used by their children. Still, like other advocates, Parra said she hears anxiety about the proposed rule from all kinds of immigrants, including citizens and those who already hold green cards.

They worry that using public benefits could get their own legal status revoked or hurt their chances to sponsor family members who want to immigrate to the U.S.

“The fear has always been there in these communities,” she said. “Now, people are even more afraid.”

The new public charge rule likely won’t take effect for months. First, there will be a 60-day public comment period, scheduled to start Wednesday, and then Trump administration officials will consider the comments and decide whether to make any adjustments.

Here’s a look at some of the ways the proposed rule could affect Colorado schools and students.

More kids come to school hungry

There are at least two ways schools could see more hungry students walking through their doors due to the public charge rule. First, families may be afraid to take advantage of food stamps — either by deciding not to enroll, or by dis-enrolling current recipients, such as citizen children.

Both Denver and Adams counties have seen dips in the number of people participating in the program over the last couple years. In Denver, about 2,000 fewer children receive the benefit now than in November 2016 when President Trump was elected. However, city officials caution that it’s hard to make a direct connection between falling participation and federal immigration policies since historically low unemployment rates may also be contributing to the trend.

While free and discounted school lunches are not part of the public charge rule, some advocates report that immigrant parents have been wary of enrolling their kids since Trump’s election. By law, public schools must serve students regardless of their immigration status and can’t ask for information regarding a family’s or student’s status.

A week after the Department of Homeland Security released a draft of the new public charge rule on its website, the Eagle County school district emailed parents asking them to help squash the rumor that signing children up for free or reduced-lunches “will inform ICE,” a reference to the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency.

The letter concluded, “There is NO RISK in applying for free and reduced lunch, help us spread the word.”

So, what happens when kids go to school hungry? They may have trouble paying attention, misbehave more easily, or suffer from headaches or stomach aches. In short, less learning.

More children without health insurance, more student absences

The public charge rule’s chilling effect could have a major impact on child health, according to a recent Colorado Health Institute analysis. An estimated 48,000 Colorado children — the vast majority of them citizens — could be disenrolled from one of two public health insurance programs, Medicaid or Child Health Plan Plus. That would double the state’s rate of uninsured children from 3 percent to 6.7 percent, according to the institute.

The reason for so much dropoff is that health insurance is typically a family affair. So even when different rules govern adults and children in the same family, they tend to be enrolled as a group or not at all.

When students don’t have health insurance, school attendance and performance can suffer. For example, children may be absent more if they lack help managing chronic conditions like asthma, or if they’re not getting treatment for acute illnesses or painful dental problems.

Loss of health-related funding for schools and school-based clinics

School districts stand to lose two health-related funding streams if the number of uninsured children swells. The first would impact the state’s 62 school-based health clinics, which would likely see a drop in Medicaid and Child Health Plan Plus reimbursements if fewer students enroll in those programs.

Such an enrollment decline, which some clinic leaders have already reported, could make it harder for school-based clinics to stay afloat financially, said Bridget Beatty, executive director of the Colorado Association for School-Based Health Care.

With more uninsured students, “The need will go up,” she said, “but conversely the ability to financially sustain them will get more challenging.” 

In addition, 53 Colorado school districts receive funding through a program that could be affected by the proposed public charge rule. It’s called the School Health Services Program and allows districts to seek Medicaid reimbursements for services provided to low-income students with disabilities. That money can be used for health-related efforts that benefit all students, such as the addition of school nurses, wellness coordinators, or suicide prevention programs.

Funding received through the program ranges from a couple thousand dollars in small districts to a few million in large districts.

High-poverty schools have a harder time offering universal free meals

Nearly 40,000 students in 20 Colorado school districts can eat school meals for free because their schools participate in a federal program designed to make breakfast and lunch easily accessible to low-income students. But that number could drop if the public charge rule decreases food stamp participation.

The special meal program, called Community Eligibility Provision, is open to schools or districts where at least 40 percent of students come from families that use certain public benefits, including food stamps or Temporary Assistance for Needy Families. Unlike in traditional school lunch programs, parents don’t have to fill out applications for free or reduced-price meals.

“Any time when you have eligible families not participating in SNAP, it does have a negative impact on community eligibility,” said Crystal FitzSimons, director of school programs at the national nonprofit Food Research and Action Center.

Even if schools or districts remain eligible for the program, a drop in students getting public benefits could mean a change in how schools are reimbursed for the free meals, she said. That, in turn, could make the program less financially viable for schools or districts to participate.

Immigrants could turn away from publicly funded early childhood programs

Crystal Munoz, who heads the nonprofit Roots Family Center in southwest Denver, worries that the Spanish-speaking families her program serves will stop using programs like Head Start, state child care subsidies, and the Denver Preschool Program, which provides tuition assistance to the city’s 4-year-olds.

Even though those programs aren’t part of the proposed rule, there’s still trepidation, she said. It’s because of the constant flurry of rule changes and the generally negative tone around immigration right now.

“We find ourselves very afraid to even give out resources or referrals to certain programs because we’re not sure,” she said. “For us, it’s waiting and seeing.”

She said if families do drop out of Head Start or other child care programs, it could push children — many of them citizens — into unlicensed care with relatives or neighbors, or force parents to cut back work hours to stay at home with them.

The Other 60 Percent

Too young to vote, Memphis teens lead voter-engagement campaign in advance of midterms

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Caitlin Brinson (left), Christian Fuentes, and Aaliyah James lead a breakout session with fellow students on youth and education.

At 17, Caitlin Brinson isn’t yet old enough to vote, but she’s working hard to get other Memphis residents to the polls in November.

The Cordova High School school senior is active in a new youth initiative called Engage Memphis, which aims to increase voter turnout and to educate young future voters on issues that affect their lives, such as school discipline, sexual assault and harassment policies, and diversity in schools.

“It’s difficult not to have input on decisions that affect us directly,” Caitlin said. “It can feel powerless, like you can’t change things at your school or in local government, but I’m a pretty optimistic person. I really believe we can make an impact if we come together and help people around us see why who they vote for directly impacts us.”

Caitlin was one of more than 300 Memphis students from 40 schools who gathered earlier this month at a forum held by BRIDGES and Facing History and Ourselves. Those two local student leadership groups joined forces to create Engage Memphis.

One of the goals of the youth forum was to grow Engage Memphis into a citywide effort, said Marti Tippens Murphy, the Memphis executive director for Facing History. Ahead of the November midterm elections, students involved with BRIDGES and Facing History gathered for a series of lectures and breakout sessions. One of the goals was to help teens decide what they wanted their initiative to look like.

“Students came up with the strategy to focus on re-engaging people who can vote but haven’t yet,” Tippens Murphy said. “That often looks like a parent, grandparent or older sibling. They’re now having conversations with those people and connecting voting to issues that affect them.”

When it comes to voter participation, Tennessee has a long way to go. More than 838,000 adult Tennesseans are not registered to vote. The state ranks 40th in the nation in voter registration and last in voter turnout, according to The Tennessean. So the teenagers of Engage Memphis are trying to correct course.

“We’ll hear students say, ‘I’m only 16 and hadn’t thought issues around voting applied to me,” Tippens Murphy said. “We see this as leading students to prioritize voting when they become old enough. We know the youngest demographic is the lowest in voter turnout. But it doesn’t have to be that way.”

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
A recent Harvard Institute of Politics poll of America’s 18- to 29-year-olds found a spike in the number of young Americans who said they will “definitely be voting’ in the upcoming midterm Congressional elections.”

Caitlin said she’s seen a large amount of excitement around voting among her peers. That’s reflected nationally, too. A recent Harvard Institute of Politics poll of America’s 18- to 29-year-olds found a spike in the number of young Americans who said they will “definitely be voting’ in the upcoming midterm Congressional elections.”

Morgan Fentress, a 10th grader at Immaculate Conception Cathedral School, said that while she originally attended last week’s forum because it meant a day off from school, the gathering inspired her to get involved in earnest.

“I hear people talk about voting in terms of getting out to the polls and making sure your voice is heard, but we’re not told or taught what we should be voting for, what the issues are we should care about,” Morgan said. “I wish modern politics were taught more in school. But coming here and hearing what issues other students are passionate about, it’s been really good.”