More Colorado kindergarteners are fully immunized

PHOTO: Zaldylmg

State health officials believe a 2014 immunization law and last winter’s high-profile measles outbreak contributed to increases in Colorado’s kindergarten immunization rates.

Last year, 73.4 percent of kindergarteners were up-to-date on required shots, up from 63.7 percent the previous year, according to an annual survey conducted by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.

Although the survey has a relatively small sample size—350 children—officials say the increase is statistically significant. In contrast, a slight jump in the percentage of kindergarteners exempted from shots by their parents—from 4.6 percent to 5.4 percent—is not statistically significant.

The report detailing the new survey numbers has not yet been published, but the department provided the numbers at Chalkbeat’s request.

Stephanie Wasserman, executive director of the Colorado Children’s Immunization Coalition, said of the jump in kindergarten immunization rates, “We applaud great news like that. It’s probably a convergence of reasons. One being the unfortunate measles outbreak.”

Required kindergarten shots
There are varying dose requirements for the immunizations below.
  • DTaP (Diphtheria, Tetanus and Pertussis)
  • MMR (Measles, Mumps, Rubella)
  • Polio
  • Hepatitis B
  • Varicella

“Anecdotally, we heard a lot of parents who would have previously delayed or refused vaccines were getting up to date.”

The multi-state outbreak, which started at Disneyland last December, was linked with 117 cases of measles nationwide, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, or CDC.

Diana Herrero, deputy chief of the state health department’s immunization branch, said heightened awareness about immunizations surrounding the passage of House Bill 14-1288 is also likely a factor in the rate increase.

One of the law’s key provisions, which took effect in the 2014-15 school year, required schools to release immunization and exemption rates to the public. The new mandate prompted much greater scrutiny of how well schools collect and track students’ immunization data.

“I do think House Bill 1288…prompted some schools to be a little more diligent,” Herrero said.

Wasserman said the law holds schools publicly accountable for their rates and gives parents the opportunity to advocate for better compliance.

It’s well known that Colorado has lower immunization rates and higher exemption rates than most other states. An annual state-by-state report from the CDC, which draws on Colorado’s annual 350-child survey, reveals that Colorado’s immunization rates are in the mid-80 percent range for three of the five required kindergarten shots. In many other states, the rates for those three shots are 90-95 percent, the threshold typically needed for herd immunity.

Various factors contribute to Colorado’s low immunization rates, including the fact that historically it’s been easy for parents to opt their children out of some or all shots by claiming “personal belief” exemptions. In addition, state laws requiring childhood immunization records for school entry lack teeth and haven’t been widely enforced.

School-by-school immunization compliance and exemption rates, available for the 30 largest districts in this Chalkbeat database, can provide a valuable yardstick for parents, particularly those with babies, young children or immunosuppressed family members who are more vulnerable to disease.

In 2016-17, the state health department will launch a public database of immunization and exemption rates for schools and child care facilities statewide. In preparation for that, the department will pilot the new system in December with any interested districts.

Herrero said multiple districts asked to participate in the database this year so administrators have somewhere to direct parents and the public when immunization inquiries start coming in.

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.