moving forward

Most districts still opt to participate in health survey that sparked state board uproar

Despite last spring’s flap over a student health survey given to Colorado’s middle and high school students, most districts will continue to participate—with several stepping up efforts to give parents more advance notice and detail about the survey.

Of 110 districts invited to give the Healthy Kids Colorado Survey as part of a random statewide sample this fall, 83 have agreed so far, said an official from the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus, which contracts with the state to oversee the biennial survey.

That number may rise in the next few weeks because not all districts have made their final decisions.

“In reflecting on the controversy, we were very concerned that we would be dead in the water with our recruitment efforts,” said Ashley Brooks-Russell, program director of the Healthy Kids Colorado Survey and assistant professor in the university’s Colorado School of Public Health.

But that hasn’t been the case, she said. While some districts have dropped off, many are continuing to participate and some new ones have joined the effort.

Four of the state’s six largest districts — including Denver, Jeffco, Cherry Creek and Adams 12 — told Chalkbeat that they plan to take part. A spokeswoman for the Douglas County School District, which did participate in the survey in 2013, said its schools won’t participate this year because the survey is invasive and takes away instructional time. A spokesperson for Aurora Public Schools said a decision is pending.

2015 participation…so far
Of the 110 districts asked to participate in the survey as part of the state sample, here’s how many have said yes so far:
  • Districts: 83
  • Schools: 119

Districts and schools that were not selected as part of the state sample can also participate. Here’s how many have opted in:

  • Districts: 7
  • Schools: 58

The survey, which state officials emphasize is anonymous and voluntary, became the focus of a protracted debate by the State Board of Education and dueling opinions from the state attorney general’s office last spring after some parents raised concerns about the explicit nature of questions on sexual behavior, drugs and suicide.

In addition, many critics argued that parents should have to give advance written permission—called active consent—in order for their children to take the survey. Over the survey’s 24-year history, most districts have chosen “passive consent,” which means students are asked to take the survey unless parents sign a form opting them out.

Ultimately, neither the state board nor State Attorney General Cynthia Coffman, who issued an official opinion on the matter in April, mandated substantive changes to the survey or consent rules.

Brooks-Russell said a number of questions have changed on this fall’s survey, but not because of the controversy last spring.

“No questions were eliminated due to those debates,” she said.

Instead, the deletions or additions (listed at the end of this story) were made after stakeholder discussions about what was most important to know about youth demographics and health behaviors.

For example, new this year on the high school survey will be questions about whether students consider themselves transgender, and about marijuana and prescription drug use. Gone are several questions each about students’ perceptions of marijuana, their exposure to tobacco, alcohol and drug advertising and their enjoyment of school. Such deletions don’t necessarily mean the survey asks nothing about these topics, but that those sections have been slimmed down.

Both the middle and high school surveys now include a question asking students about their mothers’ highest level of schooling—one proxy for socioeconomic status.

Passive consent still wins the day

The trend of passive consent will continue this fall, with only three of the 82 state-sample districts opting for advance written permission from parents, according to Brooks-Russell.

One of them is Jeffco, officials there said.

The district, where a conservative school board majority currently wields power and student data privacy has been a hot topic in recent years, did not participate in the survey in 2013.

Many survey proponents favor passive consent because it yields higher participation rates and more representative data about the adolescent population.

Scott Romero, school health coordinator for Denver Public Schools, said, “If it did go to active opt-in consent, the numbers and usefulness just wouldn’t be there.”

Although most districts will continue with passive consent this year, Brooks-Russell said schools will be required to ensure that parents get notification forms — which offer the choice of opting out — a full two weeks before the survey is administered. She said the university will monitor districts to ensure compliance.

Survey history 
The Healthy Kids Colorado Survey has been given under various names since 1991. The last version given in 2013 folded together multiple health surveys that were previously given separately. Along with questions from the federal Youth Risk Behavior Survey, it included additional Colorado-specific questions. Also new in 2013 was a much larger sample size—more than 40,000 middle and high school students, compared to 2,500 previously.

Administrators in multiple districts also said they will make extra efforts this year to make sure parental notification is consistent and transparent.

For example, Karina Delaney, whole child initiatives coordinator in Adams 12, said in addition to sending passive consent forms home to families, the district and the seven participating schools will post detailed information about the survey on their websites.

The goal, she said, is “making sure we, in many ways, are making parents very aware that it’s voluntary.”

In Denver, Romero said parents will receive the passive consent form two to three weeks before the survey is given, will be informed that they can review the survey questions and will be given Brooks-Russell’s phone number in case they have concerns.

Mining data

After months of uncertainty last spring about whether the state board would try to mandate active consent, or otherwise curtail the survey, many school health leaders are now breathing a cautiously optimistic sigh of relief.

They say the survey data, which covers everything from nutrition to risky behaviors, is crucial in tracking trends and crafting appropriate interventions when trouble spots arise.

Romero said in Denver, where up to 60 schools will participate in the survey this fall, principals receive one-page reports that focus on survey indicators they have the ability to address relatively quickly.

For example, one school’s report might show that few students are eating breakfast and provide relevant contact information for district nutrition staff.

“With one call they could change the face of how breakfast is served,” Romero said. “It can be done pretty simply.”

Like her counterparts in other large districts, Jeffco’s Healthy Schools Coordinator Emily O’Winter, said the survey data helps educators attend to the whole child.

“We need to understand all the issues facing our students…including health,” she said.

One example of particular import in Colorado is marijuana, which was legalized for recreational sales in 2014.

“We’ve had parents express concern … about how the new laws are impacting our students,” O’Winter said. “So it will be interesting to see statewide if there’s an impact and how to respond.”

Brooks-Russell said if survey participation rates are high enough this year, Colorado’s data will be included in state-by-state comparisons compiled by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

It’s an “opportunity to look at a recreational marijuana state before and after [legalization],” she said.

Many district health coordinators, including Delaney, also say the survey data helps secure health-related grants. Adams 12 has won nearly $900,000 in grants for physical activity and school wellness over the last four years.

“Without Healthy Kids Colorado…we wouldn’t know how to report out how our kids are even doing,” she said.

Kids eat free

Colorado could expand lunch subsidy to high school students

PHOTO: Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post
Bernadette Cole serves food to students at Prairie View High School in Brighton.

When Colorado expanded a school lunch subsidy to middle school students, the number of sixth- through eighth-graders eating lunch at school went up in districts across the state.

Twenty-sixth percent more middle school students ate lunch at school in the Greeley-Evans district, where a majority of students live in poverty, but even in the more affluent Littleton district in Denver’s south suburbs, 11 percent more middle school students ate lunch.

For school nutritionists and children’s advocates, these kinds of results make the case for extending this same lunch subsidy to high school students.

“We know the co-pay is a barrier because of the large uptick in participation when it goes away,” said Erin Miller, vice president of health initiatives for the Colorado Children’s Campaign.

The “co-pay” is the 40 cents per meal that families who qualify for reduced-price lunch — but who make too much money to qualify for free lunch — are responsible for. The federal government picks up most of the cost for these lunches, and since 2008, Colorado has covered the 40 cents for the youngest students, rendering those lunches free to their families. This program has gradually expanded, reaching middle school students in legislation passed last year.

A bill that passed out of the House Education Committee Thursday would cover the 40-cent cost difference for high school students, a longtime goal of advocates.

“The state of Colorado has been trying to ensure that kids in poverty have access to food for a decade,” said Danielle Bock, nutrition services director for the Greeley-Evans district and a public policy and legislative consultant with the Colorado School Nutrition Association. “This is the final step.”

Miller said hunger affects children in school not just academically but also emotionally, with hunger even associated with higher suicide rates. Advocates have pushed to expand the state subsidy because participation in school lunch goes down as children get older, even as their caloric needs go up.

Currently, households that earn less than 130 percent of the federal poverty level, or $32,630 for a family of four, qualify for free lunch through the federal program. Families who earn between 130 and 185 percent of the federal poverty limit, or up to $46,435 for a family of four, qualify for a reduced-price lunch. It’s children from that second category families who will benefit if this bill becomes law.

Bock said the vast majority of school food service agencies in Colorado have unpaid lunch debt that, under federal law, they can’t just write off. School districts either pick up the costs out of their general fund or try to collect from parents, which sometimes leads to the controversial practice of “lunch shaming,” in which schools serve less nutritious and appealing alternative lunches to students whose parents owe money.

Lawmakers started out wanting to ban lunch-shaming, but school nutritionists convinced them it would be better to have the state cover some of the extra lunch cost for families who are struggling to make ends meet.

When Denver ended the practice of serving “alternative” meals to families who hadn’t paid for lunch, the amount of lunch debt skyrocketed, with a large portion of it coming from families who had not signed up for subsidized lunches and might have the means to pay.

According to a fiscal analysis, Colorado plans to spend $2.2 million on lunch subsidies this school year. Expanding the program to high school students would cost an additional $464,000 next year, with that money going into school food service budgets.

pass the microphone

This Memphis senior was kicked out of three high schools. Here’s how he got on track to graduate.

PHOTO: Gillian Wenhold, The Social Exchange
Despite what John Chatman calls a “really tough childhood” where he was often left on his own, he’s on track to graduate from alternative school G.W. Carver College and Career Academy this year.

In front of more than 100 people, John Chatman recalled the bullying he endured as a child for having a stutter.

Chatman was one of seven educators and students who took the mic at Chalkbeat’s February story storytelling night. The stories centered around school discipline practices, a topic we recently covered in this special report.

“Growing up in the area I grew up in, it’s hard to deal with that,” said the 18-year-old. “You’re an outcast. … It made me hate school, because I never could enjoy it. I may answer a question and stutter, [and other students would] get to laughing and cracking jokes.”

Kids stopped making fun of him in middle school when Chatman became a star middle school football player in Memphis — but the prestige that came with playing football disappeared when he was injured on the field.

“I took my injuries and replaced them with the streets,” Chatman said. “Throughout my ninth-grade year, I was starting to lose myself. … By 11th grade, I didn’t know who I even was.”

During that period, Chatman said he was kicked out of three high schools and eventually wound up at G.W. Carver College and Career Academy, an alternative school for expelled students, housed in former Carver High School.

“This school changed my life forever, Chatman said.

To hear more about how Chatman’s life changed, watch the video (or read the excerpt) below.

The storytelling night was hosted by Chalkbeat Tennessee, Spillit, and The Knowledge Tree. The video was filmed by Gillian Wenhold for The Social Exchange, a pay-as-you-can public relations and content creation firm for nonprofits, and businesses owned by women and people of color.

My 11th-grade year was the time I decided I had to change. The change was when I finally got kicked out of school. Well, I’d been kicked out of school but this was the kick-out-of-school that kicked me in my back real hard and said you only have one strike left. If you mess this up, this is it. It’s over with. You’re not going to see the light of day. Due to that, I ended up going to Northeast, and it still didn’t get better. In fact, I’m going to tell y’all the transitions of my schools. It started at ninth grade at Central, couldn’t come back to Central and I had to go to East , got kicked out of East and went to Northeast. Got kicked out of Northeast and now I’m back at Carver.

I’ll tell y’all, this school changed my life forever. I wouldn’t be here right now if it wasn’t for that school. It happened like this. There was a guy named Roger. We used to run together during the same time period. …

[During a presentation of past Carver graduates], an image of Roger popped up clear on the screen. It wasn’t up for nothing bad, he was on the road to making a six-figure [salary]. I was like, ‘This was the same person I used to shoot dice with?’… Now he’s living a life and I’m stuck here. I’m still doing the same stuff I’ve been doing and not getting no different result, and that’s called insanity… I took it, and I told myself if he can do it, I know I can.

Spillit, storytelling
PHOTO: Xzavier Bonds
Chatman speaks to a packed room during Chalkbeat’s storytelling event.