Speaking Up

George Washington High student shares views on tolerance, inclusion and wearing a head scarf

PHOTO: Colorado Education Initiative
Haneen Badri, a senior at Denver's George Washington High School, during her speech at the Colorado Education Initiative's Healthy Schools Summit.

Haneen Badri, a senior at Denver’s George Washington High School, earned a standing ovation after a poignant speech last week in which she discussed the need for tolerance and inclusiveness in schools and society.

Her parents, who are Sudanese, immigrated to the United States in 1995 with Haneen’s older sister. They first settled in Washington, D.C., where her older brother was born, and later moved to Denver, where Haneen was born.

Haneen, 17, said her parents came to the U.S. because they wanted better educational opportunities for their children.

Haneen is president of the mock trial and pep clubs at school, leads the Colorado Muslim Society’s girls youth group and is a youth representative for an association of Young Sudanese. Next year, she hopes to study pre-law and international relations at Colorado State University, Arizona State University or Washington University in St. Louis.

She spoke with Chalkbeat after her speech at the Colorado Education Initiative’s Healthy Schools Summit. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What decision did you make in seventh grade about how you would dress?

Muslim women, it’s religious that you wear a head scarf and you get to choose when you do that. During seventh grade it just felt right for me.

It was just really odd as soon as I started wearing it, I was a completely different person to everyone. They didn’t see me as Muslim until after I started wearing it. The ignorance, the fear of how I’m different caused some of my relationships to fall apart.

In your speech, you mentioned a startling playground incident that felt like an assault on your dignity. What happened?

During the spring of that year, we had lunch and while we were outside a female peer ripped [my head scarf] off.

Do you know why did she did it?

No. I never really did get a clear answer, but I did get an apology. I did get the chance to educate her about Islam.

What was it like to educate her about Islam?

I guess I was kind of used to it because my parents taught us to be open about who we are. We met up the summer of that year. It was me and my parents and her parents and her. We just sat down and talked and let them ask all the questions that they had and answered them.

How did that incident impact you?

It made me realize that it happens more often and that we don’t really talk about it. Once I started the (Colorado Muslim Society) girls youth group, other girls came forward about, “This has happened to me before and I haven’t been able to talk about it because I thought I was the only one.”

It was kind of eye-opening about how much pressure we put on students not to talk about their personal experiences. And that developed me in a way where I do like talking to groups who are underrepresented or traditionally not accurately portrayed in our classrooms and I do like including them in all lessons and decisions.

What do people assume about you?

Usually, they think I’m angry or that I’m close-minded or I’m biased because of my religion or that I’m intolerant of other people or other races. It’s kind of funny because I’m completely the opposite.

You talked about feeling that inclusiveness is lacking in schools. How so?

The norm in our society is a white, rich male who’s Christian, who’s straight. If you don’t really fit into that norm, you’re an exception. Society tends not to accurately portray you and so it’s in our media, in television, in children’s books, in education.

We spend only two days on African-American history, and only discuss slavery and civil rights, and the rest of the year we discuss the creation of America from Christopher Columbus all the way until now. We don’t discuss Native American history besides the Trail of Tears. Latino history is rarely discussed at all.

It’s just kind of heartbreaking that we do want to promote diversity but we aren’t doing any actions to show that.

In years past, there’s been tension at George Washington because of a sense of separation between students in the International Baccalaureate program and the traditional program. How’s that going?

We’ve started a Safe Zone panel, which is once every semester. We have a panel of students and it’s student-led. Teachers come and ask us questions about how they could make their room more inclusive and how they could integrate students of all backgrounds in their classrooms. It’s a great start, but I think there could be more.

Over the summer, we started the student ambassador program and that was a week-long process at (the University of Denver.) The first two days were just ambassadors—sophomores, juniors and seniors—and the last three days were “Freshman Academy,” where we taught the freshmen that inclusion is the key to succeeding in life and how to interact with students they don’t tend to identify with.

So far, I think it’s going great because yes, the (upper) classes are experiencing difficulties, but the freshman class tends to be more cohesive and understanding of each other. I think that’s the real key to changing George because once we keep on educating each incoming class then the student environment will be able to change.

If you could wave a magic wand and make one change at school, what would it be?

Definitely inclusion because I’ve noticed at George besides the segregation between IB and traditional (tracks), we tend to dismiss the special needs program. That personally angers me because our special needs department is in charge of recycling, they clean up after the school, they manage growing our trees. They’re just really underappreciated and dehumanized and demeaned…I think it’s just a matter of spreading more knowledge about there’s no difference between us and them and there’s no difference between traditional and IB.

How would you say you’ve changed since middle school?

In middle school it was really rough. I wasn’t able to speak up as I do now. It was hard finding my voice, but now—I do tend to shy away, but there’s my subconscious telling me, “No, go for it.”

It’s been great to see myself develop from this shy, timid girl to someone who can speak for herself and speak for others.

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.