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.

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.