Healthy School yardstick

New school health data system ramps up

PHOTO: Chris Hinger
Pagosa Springs Middle School purchased this gaga pit— used to play a fast-paced version of dodgeball—using money from its Healthy School Champion awards.

About 350 Colorado schools will try out a new survey this year that measures how well they incorporate health and wellness into all aspects of school life, from curriculum and meals to student services and school culture.

The online tool, Healthy Schools Smart Source, is meant to give school leaders information about how their practices in areas such as nutrition, physical activity and social-emotional health stack up to those at other public schools in the state.

Citing the link between student health and achievement, advocates say Smart Source will help schools identify and track practices that make students better learners.

It was first piloted last year with 77 schools. This year’s expanded pilot represents a second opportunity for project leaders to fine tune the survey.

Unlike the Healthy Kids Colorado Survey, which sparked a protracted debate last spring about whether parental consent should be required before students take part, Smart Source isn’t a student survey and doesn’t collect student-level data.

Pagosa Springs Middle School participated in Smart Source last year and will do so again this fall. Principal Chris Hinger believes the tool will ultimately help correct what he views as the state’s single-minded focus on academics and test scores.

“Smart Source … has the potential to swing that pendulum back to where we build into our accountability systems and our improvement plans health and wellness,” he said.

“If you value something, you measure it.”

Smart Source is a collaboration between the Colorado Education Initiative, the state health and education departments and Kaiser Permanente, which provided $3 million for the project in 2013.

The new survey collapses various school health questionnaires — including one from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — into a single tool. It asks about topics ranging from school salad bars and food-related fundraisers to daily recess time. There are also questions related to social-emotional health, such as whether schools conduct universal mental health screenings and have bullying prevention efforts.

Amy Dyett, director of Health and Wellness at the Colorado Education Initiative, said the tool appears to be unique nationally and has prompted interest from groups like the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and Action for Healthy Kids.

In Colorado, the tool replaces the five-year-old Healthy School Champions Score Card, a similar survey that was primarily used to determine winners of an annual healthy schools contest. That contest will continue with Smart Source as a key yardstick.

Like the Score Card, Smart Source will be voluntary, but project leaders hope that eventually about 75 percent of Colorado public schools will use it. That’s about 1,400 schools, in contrast to the 75 to 100 that routinely filled out the Score Card.

One of the biggest incentives to participate in Smart Source will be the crisp results report that participating schools receive.

“The number one thing that they want is a nice report. They want the data back,” said Dyett.

Hinger, whose school has won back-to-back Healthy School Champions awards, said he appreciates  comparative data from other Colorado schools on the Smart Source report.

“‘Where is the rest of the state?’ is always a question I’m asking,” he said.

For now, only participating schools will receive the results report, but project leaders hope eventually to make them available to the public.

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.