Lunch Line

Outspoken student, burned sandwich and frozen fruit spur meal changes in southwest Denver

PHOTO: Padres y Jóvenes Unidos
This lunch was served at Kepner Middle School on May 12. Descriptions were added by the Padres employee who received the lunch. (The chicken patties are pre-cooked by the vendor, but DPS officials said sometimes there are red spots in the meat that lead people to believe the meat is undercooked.)

The story didn’t start with the burned sandwich bun or the still-frozen strawberries on the lunch tray at Kepner Middle School in Southwest Denver. It started months earlier with a slow simmer of dissatisfaction over the quality of the school’s food.

But when that meal was served on May 12 during a lunch visit by school board member Rosemary Rodriguez, a district administrator, and representatives from Padres y Jóvenes Unidos, it perfectly captured the ongoing complaints: Food wasn’t prepared properly, some items ran out before the end of lunch, and there weren’t enough choices.

It was a Kepner student named Stephanie Torres, speaking about Padres’ health justice platform, who helped sound the alarm about such problems at a school board meeting in April. Her remarks spurred plans for the lunchtime visit by district officials. The visit, while coordinated in advance by central administrators, was not announced to Kepner’s kitchen manager or principal.

Monica Acosta, lead health justice organizer at Padres, went along on the visit and snapped a photo of her lunch tray.

“It was heartbreaking. That’s the type of food Kepner students have been having all year long,” she said.

In the last three weeks, Torres, Acosta, and others who participated in the lunch visit have reported positive changes in Kepner’s cafeteria.

Questions or comments about DPS meals?
Contact: Theresa Pena
Regional Coordinator for Outreach and Engagement
720-423-5657
THERESA_PENA@dpsk12.org

There’s no more frozen fruit or expired milk, and there are more hot entrée choices. Next year, there are plans to put Kepner on a different meal model that will increase daily hot entrée offerings from four to six, in line with most other middle schools.

“We’re very thankful those changes were implemented immediately,” said Acosta.

She said officials from the DPS nutrition services department have twice met with Padres representatives, including parents from Kepner and other district schools where complaints have surfaced.

“It’s definitely on the right track,” she said.

Navigating a bureaucracy

By most accounts, the changes at Kepner represent a win, but they also raise questions about what caused the problems in the first place, how pervasive meal complaints are in the district, and what mechanisms exist for students and parents to air their concerns about school food.

Theresa Peña, a former Denver school board member and now a district employee, said the nutrition services department is willing to have conversations with students, parents and school personnel about food. In fact, that’s a large part of her new job as the department’s regional coordinator for outreach and engagement.

If there are concerns, she said, “we are absolutely willing to do something different.”

"The biggest complaint I hear from students is the lack of variety."

Still, she agreed that in a bureaucracy like DPS, which serves nearly 80,000 meals at 185 schools a day, it’s not always clear to students or parents whom to approach when there’s a problem. Closing that “communication gap” represents a big opportunity for the department, she said.

There’s been talk about putting kitchen manager’s photos and contact information up in school cafeterias and bringing parents on behind-the-scenes kitchen tours. Currently, the district seeks feedback about school food through student surveys conducted at three mobile food service kiosks. Peña also plans to work with the district’s student board of education to solicit feedback.

“The biggest complaint I hear from students is the lack of variety,” said Peña.

A varied landscape

The problems at Kepner represent a distinct contrast with what multiple observers say is an upward trajectory for meal program quality districtwide.

About five years ago, DPS began moving away from a menu of processed foods to majority scratch cooking. (Both Kepner’s kitchen manager and another employee there have participated in scratch cooking training.)

The district is also well-known for its robust school farm program, which provides thousands of pounds of fresh produce to school kitchens every year. In addition, all district schools have salad bars.

“DPS is really doing some great things,” said Rainey Wikstrom, a healthy school consultant and DPS parent. “I would say one bad apple doesn’t ruin the whole barrel.”

Still, it’s not clear why the burned bun–ironically one of the district’s scratch-made baked goods—or the frosty strawberries were served on May 12.

“In any large district there’s always going to be a difference between the best intentions of the central office and what actually happens in schools,” said Sarah Kurz, vice president of policy and communications for LiveWell Colorado.

While Peña agreed the bun should have been thrown out, she said the Kepner kitchen, like others across the district, has struggled with short staffing throughout the year. She recalled that the workers were barely keeping up when she went through the lunch line herself that day.

Wikstrom said when she recently read a job posting for a school kitchen manager, it hit her hard how much is expected for a relatively low wage.

“We don’t pay our food service staff well…We need to offer them more support and more financial support,” she said.

As for the reason that Kepner students had few entree choices for most of this year, that’s because the school’s kitchen provides meals to a nearby district preschool as well and therefore followed a K-8 menu model. That model includes fewer daily choices than a middle or high school model.

A broader problem?

Kepner is not the only DPS school where complaints have surfaced about school food.

In fact, while lunch was the culprit this time around, breakfast has been a target of complaints in Denver and elsewhere over the last couple of years. That’s because more schools have added breakfast in the classroom since the passage of the “Breakfast After the Bell” law in 2013.

That trend, which often means delivering coolers of food to individual classrooms, has contributed to the use of easy-to-distribute, prepackaged items. Thus, there can be a big disconnect between what is served at breakfast and what is served at lunch.

“Breakfast items are not up to par…with where the lunch programs are” said Wikstrom. “[They] meet the requirements but don’t match the message or the philosophy.”

Padres parent Leticia Zuniga, who has a preschool daughter and first grade son, said through a translator that she is unhappy with how many menu items are flour-based.

Her daughter is clinically overweight and Zuniga worries that school food is not teaching her healthy habits. Her son, meanwhile, is not overweight, but comes home from STRIVE Prep-Ruby Hill two or three times a week saying he didn’t eat lunch.

“He doesn’t like the food,” she said.

In February, two students at McAuliffe International Academy wrote an article for their student newspaper in which they skewered certain hot breakfast items.

The girls wrote: “…it is a disappointment when your teacher opens the hot food container and all you see is half burnt pizza in a bag or half melted omelet in a bag. Even teachers think it’s gross.”

Peña acknowledged such complaints and said the district’s breakfast pizza has drawn particular ire.

She’s heard from multiple parents: “We think the idea of breakfast pizza is just wrong.”

at odds

Westminster’s model part of dispute with federal investigators in education of students learning English

Teacher Amy Adams walks around her classroom checking on students working independently on math at Flynn Elementary School in Westminster. (Photo by Yesenia Robles, Chalkbeat)

Westminster schools may have failed to identify scores of students needing help learning English, and also neglected to effectively teach many of those students, according to a federal investigation. Those are among the findings in newly released documents behind the school district’s agreement to boost services for English learners.

The 9,400-student district signed a settlement agreement with the U.S. Department of Justice in February, which outlines changes the district must make.

Despite the district’s agreement, Westminster Public Schools officials dispute the investigation’s findings.

“We still maintain that we were not out of compliance with the law,” said James Duffy, the district’s chief operating officer. But he said in the interest of students, “instead of continuing to argue and waste resources going back and forth, we are going to meet the agreement.”

Many of the disagreements center on how Westminster places and advances students based on proficiency rather than age, which is known as competency-based learning.

The district’s model also has put it at odds with the state. Last year, the district argued that Colorado’s accountability system unfairly flagged Westminster’s district for low performance, in part because some students were tested by the state on material they hadn’t yet been exposed to.

Below is a breakdown of the major ways the government believes Westminster schools were violating the law in serving English learners, the way the district argues they weren’t, and some next steps.

  • Finding: Westminster Public Schools has not identified all students that need English language services.

District officials said they had already identified problems in their process before the Department of Justice pointed them out, and were in the process of changing their system.

When a student enrolls in school, most districts require parents to fill out a home language survey that asks the language the students speaks and the language spoken in the home. The problem, in part, was that Westminster officials, years ago, were not testing students whose home language was something other than English, so long as parents had noted that their child did speak English.

“Based on experience with other states and school districts…this practice frequently results in the under-identification of ELs,” the justice department wrote.

This year, state numbers show Westminster has identified 38 percent of its 9,400 students, or 3,615, as English learners.

Officials said they have been using a new form, and said students are now tested for English proficiency when parents identify a primary language in the home that is not English. Teachers also can flag a student for testing and services.

The settlement agreement also requires the district to identify long-term English learners who have been enrolled in American schools for more than five years without making progress toward fluency.

Officials said they have identified 730 long-term English learners in the district. Parents of those students will soon receive letters asking if they are interested in sending their children to school this summer for a program to help those students make more progress.

  • Finding: Westminster Public Schools is not providing adequate services for students that need English language development.

According to the Department of Justice findings, most students in the district aren’t getting help to learn the language.

“Our site visits and review of data revealed that the type of language assistance services (English learners) receive varies widely, depending on which school they attend,” the department states. And when students are getting instruction to learn English, they aren’t always getting it from a teacher who is trained and certified to do so, they found.

Westminster schools use what they call an “interventionist framework” that combines specialists who have Colorado’s Culturally and Linguistically Diverse Education endorsement, as well as other specialists, including special education teachers, to form a team of “interventionists” that all work with lagging students. That team works by going into classrooms throughout the day.

It’s a system that, in part, helps maximize the number of teachers working with students when the district doesn’t have enough of one kind, but it also can target which kind of help a student needs, Duffy said.

“We look at the need of our students and not the broad brush labels,” Duffy said. “They are getting services from a number of people. This is a program that has been recognized.”

But the district only tests students in English, meaning some students may not get an appropriate education.

When the district is trying to figure out what class levels to place a new student in, they test them for math and English using tests in English, so if a student can’t understand the test, they may not be able to demonstrate their ability to read or to do math and end up placed in classes below their ability.

District officials say that once in classrooms, teachers look at data closely and can determine if a student has been placed incorrectly just because of a language barrier. Teachers also have some flexibility in how they ask students to show they’ve learned a standard so they can move to another level.

“It’s just an initial placement,” Duffy said. “They are approaching this from a very traditional model. It’s not in alignment with our system.”

As part of the settlement agreement, however, the district must develop new procedures for testing and placing students, including “assessing ELL’s literacy and math levels in Spanish where appropriate and available.”

  • Finding: The district does not have enough staff for its English language learners and does not provide teachers with enough training to help students in their classes.

District officials admit they cannot hire enough trained staff to work with all students, but point out that it’s not a problem unique to their district.

According to district-provided numbers from December, 83 district staff have a Culturally and Linguistically Diverse Education endorsement. The February settlement agreement asks the district to increase the number of teachers with the endorsement.

To recruit these highly-sought after teachers, Westminster officials have gone to national job fairs and have provided signing bonuses for hard-to-staff positions, including for teachers with this credential. Going abroad to recruit foreign teachers has not been something Westminster can afford, Duffy said, but the district would hire qualified foreign teachers if they applied.

Westminster also provides out-of-state teachers with a stipend for moving expenses but runs into the high cost of living in Colorado.

“It’s scaring a lot of people away,” Duffy said.

One other incentive Westminster and many other districts offer is a tuition subsidy for teachers interested in earning the endorsement.

The Department of Justice also will require Westminster to develop new and additional training for district teachers who don’t have the credential, so they can better teach language learners.

The district is going to work with the University of Colorado Denver to provide that training. Duffy said officials submitted their teacher training plan to the Department of Justice, and are awaiting approval.



On track

This bill could help Colorado foster youth keep their school – and graduate – even when home changes

When she was a little girl, Gloria Mendez would dream of walking across a stage in a cap and gown to receive her high school diploma.

But when she went into foster care at the age of 15, already a mother herself, that dream got further and further out of reach. She was placed in a home in Greeley, separated from her brother and more than hour away from her school in Aurora. She changed homes and schools frequently. Each time, the credits and classes required to graduate changed.

“I was like, ‘OK, two or three more classes. Not a big deal.’ But then they move you again,” she said. “I needed two more credits, and I got to Denver, and they told me I needed three more years. I was already 18.”

At that point, she said, social workers and school counselors began to pressure her to get a GED instead. She told them: “I don’t want a GED. I want my high school diploma.”

Mendez is hardly alone: Youth in foster care in Colorado graduate from high school at a rate that’s abysmal — and falling, unlike the graduation rates of students from other vulnerable groups. Last year, just 23.6 percent of youth in foster care graduated on time, down 10 points since 2016. The statewide graduation rate is 81 percent.

People who work in child welfare have taken notice, convening a group that included teens in foster care to brainstorm ways to preserve schools as places of stability for children whose families are in crisis.

Now, lawmakers are moving toward putting some of those ideas into practice. A bill that passed a key committee this week aims to help students in foster care graduate on time by allowing more of them to stay in their home school and by providing flexibility around graduation requirements, regardless of where they’re enrolled.

The bill would require county child welfare officials and schools to work out transportation plans so that children can stay in their home schools when they go into foster care. It would make funding available to counties to work out solutions that make sense in their area, whether that’s contracting with ride-share services or paying mileage to foster parents or creating shuttle routes.

When children can’t stay in their home school, the bill would allow them to enroll immediately in a new school, without waiting for immunization records or academic records to transfer.

The bill would also allow districts to waive certain requirements or create alternative ways to meet requirements so that youth in foster care aren’t penalized for changing schools.

The bill is part of a package of legislation to address problems with the foster system, including providing foster parents with more information about the children in their care and extending services beyond the age of 18 for more people. That package represents Colorado’s effort to comply with 2016 federal rules requiring states to take additional steps to keep children in their home schools and to pay for transportation when necessary.

Those rules, part of the federal education law, didn’t come with new money, and it’s unclear whether Colorado will step up to fund the transportation requirements. The bill’s sponsor, state Rep. Dafna Michaelson Jenet, a Commerce City Democrat, asked for $2.9 million in the state budget, but members of the Joint Budget Committee declined to include that money in their budget proposal. They said they were open to adding it in later if the bill passes, and state child welfare officials said they’ll look for other funding if they need to.

After the bill passes the Democratic-controlled House, it goes to the Republican-controlled Senate.

For now, the state’s 6,600 youth in foster care continue to rack up experiences that set them back in school. While students who are removed from their homes usually see their academic performance even out after a few months, their growth is often slower than other students who aren’t dealing with the trauma of instability, according to Kristin Melton, youth services manager in the state’s Division of Child Welfare

“If you are in a low-interest rate saving account and everyone else is in the stock market, you will never catch up and you will fall further and further behind,” Melton said.

Sister Michael Delores Allegri has been a foster parent to more than 70 children over 20 years. She said it’s often a challenge to even get kids enrolled in school in a timely manner.

“Even if you miss two weeks of high school, you’ve missed a lot,” she said. And then curriculum often doesn’t line up, or they can’t participate in sports or drama or whatever activity was their lifesaver in their home school.

“They lose their high school life, and because of that, they don’t engage,” she said. “We put obstacles in the kid’s way.”

The ability to earn a diploma can be incredibly meaningful to those who persevere, she said.

“Those kids who graduate from high school have that sense about themselves that nothing can stop them,” she said. “It’s all of our responsibility as adults to reach out and tell the kids, ‘I know you can do it, and I’m going to help you.’ It’s not that they don’t want to do it. They just get so discouraged.”

Mendez said she was embarrassed at times to be legally an adult and still in the foster system, still in high school – but she did eventually get her high school diploma. She “stumbled into” the Emily Griffith Technical College and met with a counselor who, for the first time in her high school career, really listened to what she wanted for herself.

The Emily Griffith school in downtown Denver offers GED courses along with a wide range of technical and vocational programs for adult students, and it also offers a standard high school track for adult students.

Mendez graduated in 2015, three years later than she would have if her academic career had stayed on track, and walking across the stage was every bit the accomplishment she dreamed of.

“It felt like, I proved you wrong,” she said. “No matter how many times you doubted me or pushed me to get a GED, finally being able to graduate and walk across that stage and having your high school diploma … all my hard efforts paid off.”

Kristina Smith, now 20, did manage to graduate on time, despite spending most of high school in a group home, but she said transportation help would have transformed her school experience. She had to walk 45 minutes to school and 45 minutes back every day, regardless of weather. All those hours spent walking, in the cold, in the dark, in the snow, and in the rain, often made her want to give up and made her feel like no one cared if she succeeded or failed – or even if she was safe.

She returned to her home school and her family during her senior year. At first she was excited, but the academics were a lot more challenging. She had to stop doing sports, which she had loved, to make it to graduation. Things shouldn’t have been that hard, she said.

Smith said she wants policy makers to know: “There are not that many things holding these kids back that can’t be fixed.”