Classroom transformation

Goodbye desks, hello pedal tables!

Fifth-grader Miles Dwyer reads at a pedal desk on loan to Montclair from a South Carolina company that makes youth fitness equipment.

C.J. Cain is a physical education teacher, not an architect or interior designer. Still, he has big plans for a classroom makeover at Denver’s Montclair School of Academics and Enrichment.

He wants to create the state’s first “kinesthetic classroom” there. The term may be a mouthful, but it’s really just another way of saying that the room would feature desks and tables with built-in bicycles, elliptical machines and other exercise equipment. The idea, which has been piloted at a handful of schools around the country, draws on neuroscience research showing how exercise facilitates learning and memory.

It’s the same research that’s behind trends such as brain breaks and school-wide movement sessions. The biggest difference is that students would be doing academic work in the kinesthetic classroom—reading while they pedal or taking notes while they swivel at a “kneel and spin” desk.

“[It’s] a creative way we can look at closing the achievement gap and overall greater achievement for all students,” said Cain.

Besides helping students stay focused in class and better retain what they learn, he believes a kinesthetic approach can improve mood and help kids get along better. While that remains to be seen at Montclair, students have shown lots of interest in the blue pedal desk on loan from the South Carolina company KidsFit.

“The feedback has been great,” said Cain. “They love it.”

As is often the case, lofty ambitions come with hefty price tags. It will take about $27,000 to outfit a classroom with enough equipment for 32 students. So far, Cain’s raised just $25 through a ColoradoGives donation page. He said there’s no specific time frame for raising the full amount.

“We’re reaching out certainly to the community and asking for their help in this,” he said. “I’m very patient.”

While Cain hopes to eventually raise enough money to buy a full classroom set of kinesthetic equipment, he said a stripped-down version of the model could make it cheaper and easier to scale down the road. For example, instead of a full kinesthetic classroom, several classrooms could have a two or three kinesthetic stations.

Parent Kelly Dwyer, a member of Montclair’s school wellness team, expects fund-raising to be the toughest part of implementing the kinesthetic classroom, but likes the concept.

“We’ve seen so much research about how movement stimulates the brain and focus…I think this could really help in that regard,” she said.

“Our biggest challenge as a health team is to really help our school get to a point where we look at the research and say more time in the seat is not necessarily translating to performance.”

Montclair, an innovation school, enrolls about 480 students. Two-thirds of them are eligible for free or reduced-price school meals.

Along with academic benefits, Dwyer believes the kinesthetic classroom may provide fitness benefits too.

“Today, we have so much that teachers need to cover…that specials of all sorts, from art and music to PE, have gotten squeezed…and I’m very concerned most students are lacking in exercise.”

Dwyer, who has two sons at Montclair, believes the kinesthetic classroom could be especially helpful for her energetic second-grader “because he is one of those guys who is constantly moving his body.”

Eric Larson, physical education coordinator for Denver Public Schools, said Cain’s kinesthetic classroom vision could eventually serve as a model for other district schools if it has an effect on things like behavior and attendance.

“I think everything is data-driven,” he said. “I think it would be something the district would look at if there’s data there.”

 

transportation

Why more Denver students will now qualify for free public bus passes

PHOTO: Andy Cross/The Denver Post
A Denver East High School student board bus No. 2 on his journey home.

More Denver high school students will qualify next month for passes to ride public buses to school, thanks to a lower youth fare being rolled out by the Regional Transportation District.

The money Denver Public Schools will save on RTD passes will allow the district to relax its eligibility criteria. Currently, students must live more than 3.5 miles from their high school to get a pass. As of January, students who live more than 2.5 miles from school will qualify.

The district estimates 1,700 additional high school students will get a free RTD pass. That will bring the total number of students who qualify to more than 4,400.

Denver Public Schools does not provide yellow bus service to most high school students, and there are reasons other than proximity that students might not qualify for an RTD pass.

With some exceptions, the district does not provide RTD passes to students who attend a school that is not their boundary school — that is, the school in their neighborhood to which they are assigned. Critics see that as a problem given that Denver Public Schools has a robust school choice process that encourages families to choose the school that’s right for them.

Matt Samelson of the Denver-based Donnell-Kay Foundation is among the advocates who have been pushing the district to expand transportation options for high school students. (Donnell-Kay is a financial supporter of Chalkbeat.) Samelson called the new 2.5-mile rule “a great first step.” Whereas Denver’s previous walk distance of 3.5 miles had been the highest in the state, the new rule brings the district in line with other metro-area school districts.

But Samelson said it “doesn’t chip away at the equity issue of who actually needs transportation.” To solve for that, district officials have laid out several next steps, including moving from a system where all eligible students get a bus pass to a system where students must opt in. That would free up more passes for other students in need.

“If there are students and families who would be eligible and aren’t going to use it, let’s give that pass to somebody who would use it,” Samelson said.

District officials said they hope to start the opt-in system next school year. If it succeeds, they envision piloting a further step: providing bus passes to students from low-income families who are using choice to go to a school outside their neighborhood.

cracking the code

Newark schools partner with Girls Who Code to expand access to coding clubs

PHOTO: Kei-Sygh Thomas/Chalkbeat
Students at announcement of Girls Who Code partnership with Newark Public Schools at Rafael Hernandez School

Starting in the spring, more Newark middle schoolers will be learning how to code, owing to a new partnership between Newark Public Schools and Girls Who Code. Schools Superintendent Roger León announced the initiative at Rafael Hernandez Elementary School on Thursday. The partnership will establish Girls Who Code clubs in 24 of the district’s middle schools, providing an introduction to coding skills to more than 3,000 girls.

“If we are serious about equity and opportunity, especially when it comes to communities of color, we have to teach them how to code,” said Reshma Saujani, the CEO of Girls Who Code. “I think it’s an opportunity to reach the hardest-to-reach communities.”

The initiative complements a push to increase computer science education statewide. In January, New Jersey passed a law requiring every public high school, starting this fall, to offer a computer science class. And in October, Governor Murphy committed $2 million to increasing the number of public high schools making advanced computer science classes available to students. Priority consideration will be given to schools that receive Title I funds.

Girls Who Code already offers clubs in six Newark schools, according to its website: Newark Tech High School, East Side High School, Barringer High Schools, TEAM Academy, Hawkins Street School, and First Avenue. The new partnership will increase that number and target middle schools exclusively.

By age 15, girls have often lost interest in math, science or technological subjects, according to one report. The program wants girls “to act or think like a computer scientist,” said Chrissy Ziccarelli, the director of education at Girls Who Code.

It also hopes to inspire girls to enter technology-related fields. The U.S. Bureau of Labor projects that there will be approximately 4.6 million computing jobs nationwide by the year 2020 but not enough people with the skills to fill those jobs.

“A majority of our girls want to take another computer science class after they participate in a club,” Ziccarelli said. Alumni of the program are also more likely to major in computer science, she said.

The challenge for districts, however, isn’t just exposing students to computers, says Darrin Sharif, Executive Director of Newark Kids Code, another organization that provides extra-curricular enrichment programs for Newark students, but also showing them how to use them. The Thirteenth Avenue School has two computer labs, for example. Rather, schools struggle to find teachers who are trained in how to teach computer science.  

“It’s not a digital divide, it is a digital use divide,” Sharif said.

According to a report by Code.org, universities in New Jersey only graduated three new teachers prepared to teach computer science in 2016. Because of the shortage in computer-science instructors, Girls Who Code will use volunteer facilitators, who are not required to have a technical background (and often do not). Their training consists of two, 15-minute videos to introduce the structure of the program.

The facilitators are then encouraged to learn alongside their female students by completing tutorials with them. The clubs in the new Newark Public Schools partnership will also have access to one club specialist, who has a technical background, whom facilitators can reach out to online or by phone for support.

Newark Kids Code is approaching the teacher shortage by working to tap more homegrown talent. “There is a lot of tech activity that is happening downtown, but there’s no connection to our schools at all. It may be a while before [NPS] can fill that gap,” Darrin Sharif said.  

To compensate, Newark Kids Code recruits computer science students from New Jersey Institute of Technology. These NJIT student facilitators then use curriculum from Code.org to teach six-hour workshops to elementary school students every Saturday at the Urban League’s headquarters for ten weeks. Students learn to develop websites, animations, and games with HTML and Scratch.

Stephanie Burdel has been teaching coding at Hawkins Street Elementary School for almost two years and attends “training” at Newark Kids Code on Saturdays, where she assists students, some of whom attend Hawkins and can observe the NJIT student facilitators. Burdel uses the time to learn best practices for teaching coding to her own students.

“I get extra engagement with students and see what problems they come across in the Scratch program,” Burdel said. “I learn what to do when students have problems when they’re coding and speak with the facilitators if I have questions.”

Last week, Burdel’s kindergarten and first-grade students participated in an Hour of Code, a national event designed to encourage interest in coding. She was amazed by how engaged students were. Burdel believes that learning to code in school can help students build character and improve in other subjects.

“I especially love seeing the little ones sitting and talking through the problems together,” she said. “You don’t think they have the capability especially with shorter attention spans. But they sat engaged the whole time and they loved it.”

Ana Quezada is one of Burdel’s students. She is 10 years old and sees herself becoming a programmer so she can understand computers to make them better.

“When I’m not able to figure something out on my own after ten minutes, I look around to see who can help me,” Ana said. “I ask them to explain it so I know how everything works.”

Kei-Sygh Thomas is a Newark-based journalist, who grew up and went to schools in the city.