Gym time

How PE classes are working to get kids with disabilities off the sidelines

PHOTO: Ann Schimke
Gabi, a student at Bruce Randolph School, works with a paraprofessional during a recent adapted physical education class there.

Ignacio wore a bright orange pedometer, but he wasn’t counting steps. The Denver seventh-grader was using the device strapped to his wrist to count each push of his wheelchair wheel as he circled the gym during warm-ups.

Later in the physical education class at Bruce Randolph School, Ignacio tossed a basketball back and forth with an aide and the pedometer tallied that movement too. His 19 classmates—with disabilities ranging from autism to cognitive delays—also wore pedometers.

The devices, which track both steps and physical activity minutes, represent one way that Denver Public Schools are ensuring that students with disabilities have equitable physical education experiences—comparable though not exactly the same as their general education peers.

Over the last five years, the district has made efforts to improve physical education for special needs students. The district spent about $50,000 on modified sports equipment—things like lighter-weight balls or balls that beep—for 56 district schools. It has also brought in out-of-state experts to run trainings on adapted P.E, most recently in 2014.

In part, the push has come from the district’s Health Agenda 2015—a five-year plan outlining key health priorities including improvements to physical education.

DPS officials say the district’s teacher evaluation system LEAP, launched districtwide in 2012, has also played a role by explicitly mandating differentiation—customized instruction based on student needs.

“Before, I think it was more of an implied understanding,” said Kelley Morrison, supervisor of the district’s occupational and physical therapy department. “There wasn’t as much emphasis, so we may not have been as aggressive…Now, it’s more spelled out.”

This ball is among $900 worth of modified sports equipment that Bruce Randolph School received with funding from the district’s Health Agenda 2015.

In the class at Bruce Randolph—an adapted P.E. class specifically for students with disabilities—there were plenty of choices and at least four staff members to help facilitate. It was the culmination of a ball sports unit and some students joined a fast-paced soccer game next to the bleachers. Others dribbled basketballs on the far side of the gym. A few practiced kicking and throwing on their own, or like Ignacio, with a paraprofessional.

When one boy, who wore leg braces under his jeans lingered off to the side with his arms folded across his chest, teacher Whitney Darlington quickly spotted him and said, “What’s up bud?”

He told her his legs were tired from hula-hooping during the warm up period. After a quick pep talk, he accepted what looked like an oversized orange volleyball from Darlington and began bouncing it off the wall to himself.

Not included

In another era, or even now in some districts around the country, Darlington’s students might have experienced a very different P.E. class.

Although the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act requires schools to provide physical education to students with disabilities, it’s not unheard of for them to be shunted aside when it comes time for class.

They might be set up with a game of chess or checkers, or scheduled for physical therapy during P.E.

David Martinez, an adaptive physical education specialist from Georgia who’s conducted trainings for Denver Public Schools staff, said kids are sometimes invited to participate in an empty way.

They’ll be told, “‘Today, you’re going to be the scorekeeper,” or ‘Today, you’re going to be the official.”

Worse yet, “Some students may not even make it to the gymnasium, they may be left in the classroom.”

Greeley-Evans teacher Kelly Kennedy, who was recently named Colorado’s Adapted Physical Education Teacher of the Year, said she believes physical education opportunities for students with disabilities have improved over the years.

“As a profession, we’ve gotten so much better at being able to adapt and modify for students,” she said.

It can be as simple as providing a ramp to roll a ball up instead of requiring a student to throw it. Or hanging a hula hoop from the the basketball hoop to create a more manageable target.

Bruce Randolph parent Melissa Smith said she’s been happy to see her daughter Alissa, who has a congenital heart defect and cognitive delays, get the same P.E. opportunities as her peers—things as small as learning how to jump rope.

“These kids are being treated a lot more like the general population,” she said.

Smith has heard “back-in-the-day” stories about special education students being sidelined during P.E., but said it’s never happened to Alissa.

In fact, physical education is her daughter’s favorite class, she said. 

More money, more guidance needed

While awareness is higher than it used to be, funding constraints and a dearth of teacher training remain challenges.

A 2010 report from the federal Government Accountability Office found that students with disabilities had similar opportunities to participate in P.E. as their general education peers, but that teachers didn’t always know how to fully include them, were unclear about requirements under federal law and didn’t have regular access to trainings on these topics.

Another problem is that more than two-thirds of states—including Colorado—don’t offer a teaching license or endorsement in adapted physical education. Kennedy, who holds an adapted P.E. teaching license from Minnesota, said a state advisory committee is working with the Colorado Department of Education to create that credential here. Currently, the department recommends that teachers interested in adapted P.E. positions seek a national credential from the National Consortium for Physical Education and Recreation for Individuals with Disabilities.

Ideally, every district would have at least one adapted physical educator, say Kennedy and Martinez. It’s a role that typically includes some teaching as well as consulting with general education P.E. teachers who have students with disabilities in their classes.

In Colorado, the state education department doesn’t track how many districts employ adapted physical educators. In Greeley-Evans, Kennedy is one of two such teachers. In Denver, there are no adapted P.E. teachers.

Personal improvement

At the end of Darlington’s P.E. class at Bruce Randolph, Ignacio and his classmates crowded around her to plug their pedometers into docking stations and check their results. The stats, which get posted on the gym bulletin board (by student numbers not name), students how hard they’re working during class and how they’ve improved over time.

Whitney Darlington, a physical education at Bruce Randolph School, looks at pedometer data with her students.
PHOTO: Ann Schimke
Whitney Darlington, a physical education teacher at Bruce Randolph School, looks at pedometer data with her students.

“I think I did more,” said Ignacio, when it was his turn.

He was right. The previous week he’d completed 4 minutes and 49 seconds of “moderate to vigorous physical activity” in the class, and now his numbers were up to 6 minutes and 13 seconds.

It was a far cry from the amount clocked by his most active soccer-playing classmate— nearly 29 minute in the moderate to vigorous range. But for Ignacio it was a win.

Before the pedometers, he liked to stick by Darlington’s side and talk at length about baseball. Now, he’s pushing himself a little harder.

“It’s pretty awesome,” 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.