all for nothing

State Board maintains status quo for health survey

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Students sit outside DSST Cole, which is one of five schools in the new enrollment zone.

The State Board of Education agreed Wednesday to seek no changes to a survey that asks students about drug use, sexual habits, and other health issues, ending months of controversy about how parents should be notified about the biennial questionnaire.

The board voted unanimously to stick with the status quo on the Healthy Kids Colorado Survey, which will be administered this fall. That means families who don’t want their students to take the survey will have to sign a form opting them out of it.

Board member Steve Durham, a Republican, made the motion to drop the crusade against the survey. He acknowledged that a revised letter to parents explicitly noting the voluntary nature of the survey was the biggest impact the board could have for now.

However, Republican board member Deb Scheffel suggested the Colorado Department of Education might want to remove itself from the survey in the future. The state health department partners with the education department and the Colorado Department of Human Services on the survey.

“If CDE wants to not accept the funds we can do that in two years,” she said.

The controversy about the survey bubbled up last winter amid parent complaints that some questions are inappropriate and invasive.

Parents wanted schools to get advance written permission from parents, known as “active consent,” for students to participate in the survey. Currently, most districts use “passive consent,” which means students are administered the survey unless their parents sign a form opting them out.

On the flip side, officials from the state health department emphasized that the survey is anonymous and voluntary, and said the survey data is critical to identifying trouble spots and tracking progress on adolescent health. They worried that an “active consent” model would dramatically reduce survey response rates.

Throughout the survey controversy, some state board members expressed interest in changing parental consent rules or otherwise curtailing the survey’s use in schools. These efforts, while much discussed, never got off the ground.

Last month, State Attorney General Cynthia Coffman weighed in on the issue after health department officials requested a formal opinion from her office. She wrote that state and federal laws don’t require schools to get advance permission from parents when students take the survey.

In other words, the passive consent model is legal.

The Healthy Kids Colorado Survey has been given under various names to the state’s middle and high school students since 1991. More than 40,000 students in 224 schools took the survey last time it was given in the fall of 2013.

During the next planned survey administration this fall, the number of students surveyed could grow because even if schools are not selected as part of the official survey sample, for the first time they are being invited to participate for free.

The high school version of the survey asks questions about sexual orientation, sexual behavior, suicide, smoking, alcohol, drugs, bullying, exercise, nutrition, grades, and school involvement. The middle school version of the survey doesn’t ask questions about sexual orientation or sexual behavior, but does ask about the other topics.

It’s up to participating school districts to decide whether to use active consent or passive consent to notify parents. About 92 percent of schools that participated in the 2013 survey chose passive consent.

The annual budget for the survey is about $950,000. Most of that funding comes from the state’s Marijuana Cash Tax Fund, with smaller portions coming from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the state’s tobacco tax and other sources.

Chalkbeat Colorado reporter Ann Schimke contributed to this report.

Starting young

These 11-year-old Brooklyn students are asking New York City to do something about segregated schools

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Matilda and Eliza Seki, left, and their friends Noa and Benji Weiss, right, collected signatures at a district 15 meeting to discuss middle school integration efforts.

While they learned about the history of segregation, a group of Brooklyn 11-year-olds took a good look around their classrooms and realized their schools weren’t so different from the photos in their textbooks.

So Matilda and Eliza Seki paired up with their friends Noa and Benji Weiss — two sets of twins — and decided to do something about it. They launched a petition on calling on the city to integrate its schools.

“We learned about separate and equal in the civil rights movement, and that it was not equal,” Eliza said, referring to the “separate but equal” legal doctrine once used to justify segregation. “And since there are schools with people of only one race, and it’s all separated, it cannot be equal.”

Matilda and Eliza are in the sixth grade at M.S. 839, and Noa and Benji are fifth-graders at P.S. 10. They already have a bit of experience in activism, having joined the Women’s March in D.C., and helping to lead environmental clubs at their school. They hold sophisticated views for kids their age, and are aware of the hurdles ingrained in addressing school segregation.

Describing how housing patterns can tie into school quality, Benji began his thoughts by saying: “Let’s say you’re from a different culture or race and you don’t have as much money as other people do — because we still live in a racist country — and you’re in an area where the housing is cheaper but you don’t have as good schools.”

Across New York City, adults have debated how to spur integration in the country’s largest school system — and one of the most segregated. According to one recent analysis, the city’s most selective high schools enroll 84 percent white and Asian students, even though those groups make up only 30 percent of the city’s student enrollment.

But student-organized groups have also been at the forefront of a grassroots movement for more diverse schools. The work of budding advocates Matilda, Eliza, Noa and Benji caught the attention of some those groups, and they’ve now joined the ranks of Teens Take Charge and IntegrateNYC as some of the youngest members. The changes they’d like to see go beyond admissions policies, but also include a push for additional resources for underserved schools, hiring more teachers of color and curricula that reflects all students and cultures.

“We decided it was an important issue and we wanted to help fix it,” Noa said.

Matilda added: “Our schools should look like our city.”

Their schools are in District 15, where 81 percent of white students are concentrated in just three of the district’s most selective middle schools, according to an analysis by parents. The city has launched a series of public workshops to craft a new admissions model to integrate middle schools there, but these kids already have their own ideas for how to do that.

Benji, who is heading to middle school next year, said it would be “pretty good” if schools stopped picking students based on criteria such as class grades and attendance. Such “screening” contributes to segregation because of a number of factors — from which elementary schools students attend, to their parents’ ability to navigate the complicated admissions process.  

“It’s… important to learn about different peoples’ backgrounds, and religions, and cultures,” he said. “And also to make sure that all kids, no matter their race, religion or where they live can get the same, good education.”

Raised Voices

Balloons, hearts, and ‘die-ins’: How Colorado students marked National Walkout Day

Students gather at the Colorado State Capitol to protest gun violence. (Melanie Asmar)

Thousands of students across Colorado poured out of their schools Wednesday to protest gun violence and to remember 17 victims of last month’s deadly shooting in Florida. Chalkbeat’s Melanie Asmar walked with students from East High School to the Colorado State Capitol, where Gov. John Hickenlooper and Speaker of the House Cristanta Duran urged them to remain politically active.

The protests took different forms at other schools – and not everyone wanted the event to be political. There were balloon releases, voter registration drives, and public “die-ins” at major intersections. And in one Denver area school district, a surge of threats cast a pall over events.

Here’s a look at #NationalWalkoutDay from around the region.

Students at Skinner Middle School in northwest Denver marched in silent solidarity.

In Colorado, teenagers can register to vote before their 18th birthday.

At schools in the Adams 12 district north of Denver, a big uptick in threats the night before – and a warning letter from the superintendent – led many students to skip school altogether.

Students at McAuliffe International School in northeast Denver spoke with their shirts. Instead of “Thoughts & Prayers,” they asked for “Policy & Change.”

But their event was not all about politics. They formed a heart with their bodies and read the names of the dead.

At Jefferson Jr./Sr. High School, students promised to work to change school culture.

Many schools released balloons to honor the victims and found other ways to advocate for change.

Unlike some Colorado districts, St. Vrain didn’t officially condone the walkouts, but students at Longmont schools walked out anyway.

Students at Denver’s South High School have been vocal about gun violence. In a recent visit from U.S. Rep. Diana DeGette, they rejected the idea that armed teachers would make them safer and demanded that lawmakers do more.

Students from one of Colorado’s KIPP charter schools used their bodies to send a message at a major intersection in west Denver.

Students of color in Denver reminded the public that gun violence is not limited to mass shootings.

Students aren’t just marching. They’re also writing their representatives. State Rep. Faith Winter, a Westminster Democrat, tweeted a picture of her inbox full of emails from students.

Colorado carries the legacy of the 1999 mass shooting at Columbine High School, where a memorial asks urgently as ever: “How have things changed; what have we learned?”