free lunch

For 40 cents a meal, Colorado could feed a lot more middle school students

PHOTO: Seth McConnell/The Denver Post
Vanessa Briones serves fruit to first graders during lunch at Laredo Elementary School on August 16, 2017, in Aurora, Colorado.

Colorado students who qualify for a reduced price lunch can get it for free, thanks to a state program that covers the extra cost. But that’s only through fifth grade.

A bill sponsored by state Sen. Rhonda Fields, an Aurora Democrat, and state Sen. Bob Gardner, a Colorado Springs Republican, would extend this program to middle school students. State analysts estimate it would cover 1.4 million lunches at a cost of $564,000 in its first year.

In middle school, some Colorado school districts see a sharp decrease in the number of students eating school lunches, and school nutritionists don’t think that’s a coincidence or some adolescent preference.

To understand this, you need to know there are two kinds of free lunch in Colorado. The federal government picks up all the cost for families who earn very little, and some of the cost for families who earn a little more but not that much. Since 2008, the state has covered the difference for younger children, rendering their lunches free to them, but as those kids get older, that state benefit expires, and parents are expected to pay something. This change catches some families by surprise.

“Your financial situation has not changed, and the last thing you were thinking was that you would have to pay for lunch when your kid goes from fifth grade to sixth grade,” said Danielle Bock, nutrition services director for the Greeley-Evans school district.

In Greeley, roughly 75 percent of elementary students eat school lunch but only 46 percent of middle school students do. At the same time, it’s not uncommon to hear students who come back from the weekend saying they’ve barely eaten since Friday, Bock said. Meanwhile, in the Cherry Creek School District, which provides its own lunch subsidies to students, middle school lunch participation goes down only 8 percent.

Bock said she’s also seeing an increase in the number of students who qualify for a reduced price lunch, as opposed to a free lunch. These are usually students who used to just pay for lunch but whose families are struggling more now, she said, not students from lower-income families whose parents are earning more money.

Currently, households that earn less than 130 percent of the federal poverty level, or $31,980 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 $45,510 for a family of four, qualify for a reduced price lunch, but students still have to pay 40 cents per meal.

For some families, that’s a struggle. In 2014, bipartisan legislation extended the original state program from second grade through fifth grade. Now, school nutritionists and advocates for children’s welfare want to expand it again to cover sixth, seventh, and eighth graders. The bill authorizes the state to spend between $500,000 and $750,000 a year for these lunches.

“Just because you get to sixth grade doesn’t mean your parents’ wages go up,” Fields said.

Fields arrived at this bill in a slightly circuitous way. She was hearing from constituents – parents and children – about the practice of “lunch-shaming,” in which districts serve unappealing and less nutritious “alternative” meals to children whose parents owe lunch debt.

After a public outcry, Denver promised last year to serve all kids hot lunch and work out payment issues with parents. Private donations paid off outstanding lunch debt, allowing all kids to start the year fresh. Some states have gone further, with New Mexico banning the practice at the state level.

Fields said school administrators and nutritionists told her lunch-shaming isn’t a widespread problem in Colorado, but childhood hunger is. They told her the best way to reduce lunch-shaming is to pay for lunch for more kids.

Community activists say lunch-shaming still occurs, but they support this bill to expand access to free lunch as a first step that can gain bipartisan support. For her part, Fields said school officials have promised her they’ll work to change their policies.

Many advocates have always wanted this program to go all the way through 12th grade.

Fields would like to see that too, but probably not this session.

“We do things incrementally,” she said. “We try to be bipartisan and be successful.”

Youth members of Padres y Jovenes Unidos said they’ve been in the same shoes as the students this bill would help.

“This bill is important, at least for me, because I have younger siblings, and I don’t want to have to worry if they’re eating or not,” said Jasmine Gonzalez. “I just want them to have a good middle school experience, and that includes having the correct nutrition in their lunch.”

Gonzalez remembers being served an alternative lunch when she was younger – “that just made me feel like an outsider, that I wasn’t equal to the other students” – and she has friends who go hungry now.

“You can see the impact it has on them during the school day,” said Gonzalez, now a junior at DSST: College View. “They can’t focus on their work, and you hear their stomach growling.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story overstated the number of students who would benefit from this bill. The allocation would cover 1.4 million reduced-price lunches, not feed 1.4 million children.

mental health matters

Colorado lawmakers say yes to anti-bullying policies but no to suicide prevention efforts

PHOTO: Denver Post file

It was the suicide late last year of 10-year-old Ashawnty Davis that prompted state Sen. Rhonda Fields to call on state education officials to develop better anti-bullying policies.

Ashawnty, a fifth-grade student at Sunrise Elementary School in Aurora, took her own life after a video of her confronting a bully was posted to social media. As Fields met with grieving constituents, she felt like she didn’t know enough to act.

“The issue is very complex, and I felt like I couldn’t move forward on some of the suggestions because I hadn’t done the research,” said Fields, an Aurora Democrat. “If we really want to reduce incidents of bullying, it has to be tied to evidence-based practices and research so that schools know what works.”

Relatives of Ashawnty and of other children who had attempted suicide provided emotional testimony to the Senate Education Committee Wednesday morning. In a bipartisan, though not unanimous, vote, committee members advanced legislation that would require the Colorado Department of Education to research and write an anti-bullying policy that school districts could use as a model. A few hours later, the Senate’s “kill” committee, one to which members of Republican leadership send bills they don’t want to get a full vote, rejected a separate bill that would have provided grants of between $5,000 and $10,000 to school districts to help train teachers, students, and others in effective suicide prevention.

“You vote for anti-bullying policies, you vote for $7 million for interoperable radios, and you can’t support suicide prevention,” said an angry state Sen. Nancy Todd in the hallway after the vote. Todd, an Aurora Democrat, was a sponsor of the suicide prevention bill, and she and state Sen. Owen Hill both serve on the education committee. Hill, a Colorado Springs Republican, also serves on State Affairs and voted yes on the anti-bullying bill and no on the suicide prevention bill.

Ashawnty Davis was the youngest of a series of children to die by suicide last year, and before the session started, lawmakers pledged to provide more support to schools and students.

Experts caution against drawing a direct line between bullying and suicide. Studies have found that children who are bullied – as well as children who engage in bullying – are at higher risk of harming themselves, but most children who are bullied don’t try to take their own lives. There are often multiple factors involved.

Nonetheless, the testimony heard by the Senate Education Committee focused on preventing bullying as a way to prevent suicide.

Kristy Arellano, whose daughter suffered a severe brain injury in a suicide attempt that occurred after being bullied, said neither she nor her daughter’s teachers had the tools they needed.

“We need to arm our schools and their faculty with the tools for how to stop bullying,” she said. “I think my daughter just didn’t know how to deal with the hateful things that were said to her, and I didn’t know how to help her either.”

Trembling as he described his family’s loss, Dedrick Harris, Ashawnty’s uncle, said passing this legislation and putting better anti-bullying policies in place would give some meaning to his niece’s death.

“My niece became a statistic,” he said. “I support this because it’s all I can do.”

Dew Walker, a family preservation specialist and grief counselor based in Denver, said current policies aren’t helping children, and they can feel like they have no way out.

“I’m here because there are children who don’t have a voice,” she said. “They reported their bullying, but they felt like nothing was being done. They didn’t report it to the right people, or they just weren’t that important. They go silent. They wear a mask. And they know about zero tolerance, and they worry that if they defend themselves, they’ll be in trouble, not the bully.”

The anti-bullying bill was co-sponsored by Fields and state Sen. Kevin Priola, a Brighton Republican who, back when he was still a representative in the state House, sponsored the 2011 legislation that created the Department of Education’s current bullying prevention program.

School districts are required to have anti-bullying policies that meet certain criteria, and the department makes resources and information about best practices available on its website.

The department also has provided $4.1 million in grants from marijuana tax money to 73 schools to develop anti-bullying programs.

Melissa Colsman, associate commissioner for student learning for the Colorado Department of Education, said that because so many other states have developed model policies, she believes the work can be done without needing additional resources and may be of value to school districts.

“We know that other states have seen this as valuable,” she said.

While Colsman said she isn’t qualified to talk about the link between bullying and suicide, “the concerns of children committing suicide are something that we all need to be thinking about.”

The suicide prevention bill would have made grants available for up to 25 interested school districts, public schools, or charter schools each year at a cost of roughly $300,000. Todd said that it was her intention that the bulk of the money come from gifts, donations, and grants, though the bill language also allowed for a general fund appropriation. The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment already gets $539,000 in state money for suicide prevention efforts, as well as a $736,000 from a five-year federal grant to reduce youth suicide in eight Colorado counties, according to a fiscal analysis. Attorney General Cynthia Coffman recently launched a $200,000 initiative targeted at four counties with the highest suicide rates.

Todd’s bill would have made money available specifically to schools in all parts of the state.

Like other Western states, Colorado has a suicide rate that is higher than the national average, and suicide is the second leading cause of death for people aged 10 to 24.

The bill would have allowed schools to design their own programs, and the grant money could have been used for training for parents and teachers, to help students recognize warning signs in their peers and know how to respond, and for the development of curriculum and educational materials.

In voting no, Hill cited concerns about how the grant program would be paid for, while state Sen. Vicki Marble, the Fort Collins Republican who chairs the State Affairs committee, said it sounded like a government solution to a family and community problem.

“Our children have a respect problem,” she said. “They aren’t what they used to be.”

Marble said she knows the guilt that survivors carry because 10 members of her extended family have taken their own lives.

“Government is not the answer,” she said. “What I see in this bill is the same bureaucracy of reports and advisory groups and grants and money, but no solutions.”


Resources

Colorado Crisis Line: 1-844-493-8255, coloradocrisisservices.org. Chat online or text TALK to 38255.

Mental Health First Aid: mhfaco.org. Get trained to recognize the signs and how to respond.

American Foundation for Suicide Prevention: afsp.org. Join one of their upcoming walks for awareness in Colorado.

Crisis Text Line: crisistextline.org. Text 741741 from anywhere in the nation to reach a counselor.

 

Carrots and sticks

No pizza parties, no raffle tickets: Bill would bar Colorado schools from offering rewards to test-takers

Students in the Sheridan School District practice for the 2015 PARCC tests (Craig F. Walker, The Denver Post).

Update: This bill was amended to remove the penalties and received unanimous support from the Senate Education Committee on Feb. 14.

It’s already illegal in Colorado for schools to penalize students who don’t take state assessments. Now a bill before the legislature would make it illegal to reward students who take the tests and would penalize schools who offer such incentives.

“The school can’t say you can’t play on the team or go on the field trip,” said Senate Majority Leader Chris Holbert, who opted to keep his own sons from taking state assessments. “This bill addresses something that’s come up recently: If you take the assessment, you get to go to the party or go on the field trip or maybe even get to play on the sports team. It’s the same message, but the other way around.”

That’s just as wrong, said Holbert, a Republican from Parker who sponsored the bill with state Sen. Andy Kerr, a Lakewood Democrat.

Kerr is a teacher who serves on his school’s accountability committee, and he said another teacher raised this idea – supposedly used at a different school – as they discussed how to get more students to take the tests.

“We know that we can’t do negative consequences, but at this school, every student who takes the test gets a raffle ticket and the winner of the raffle gets a widescreen TV,” Kerr said. “This was given as an example of a positive reinforcement to take the test.”

The widescreen TV in this example was donated; no taxpayer dollars went to reward test-taking and the luck of the draw.

Under the bill, schools could still have parties after testing is over, but they couldn’t exclude students who didn’t take the tests.

Colorado has been at the center of the opt-out movement nationally, and its partisans include people on the left and the right – students in conservative Douglas County as well as liberal Boulder County. How Colorado handles accountability for schools with high opt-out rates has been a point of contention with the federal government.

The State Board of Education has a policy that the state won’t lower the quality rating of schools who miss the 95 percent participation mark, while the federal Department of Education wants those students counted as “not proficient.” In a compromise, Colorado agreed to keep two lists of schools, one that complies with state law and one that complies with federal law, but Colorado is still waiting for approval from the federal government of its Every Student Succeeds Act plan.

Matt Cook, director of public policy and advocacy for the Colorado Association of School Boards, said his organization doesn’t have a position on the bill, but he does have a few questions: “Who are the bad actors?” and “Does this need to be a law?”

“I don’t want to pick on anybody in particular,” Holbert said, declining to name any schools or districts. He characterized the problem as “more than one, but not widespread.”

The Colorado PTA, the Colorado Education Association, the Colorado Association of School Executives, and the State Board of Education all support the idea behind the bill.

“We certainly believe students who have the family discussion to not take the test should not have any inappropriate hook dangled before them,” Nate Golich, director of government affairs for the teachers union, told the Senate Education Committee. “They should not feel stigmatized or ostracized because there’s a pizza party or a granola bar or orange slices.”

But there is a point of dispute: how to enforce such a law.

The original version of the bill calls for the Colorado Department of Education to make a note in the performance report of any schools found in violation, and to “impose a significant penalty” on the accreditation rating of any school that violates the law three or more times in a year.

Dana Smith, a spokeswoman for the Department of Education, said that provision would be difficult to enforce. The department collects a lot of data, but it doesn’t know which schools hold pizza parties for kids who take state assessments. Doing enforcement on a complaint basis could create an unfair situation in that schools whose parents complain are punished while schools with the same practices whose parents don’t complain go unpunished.

Lisa Escárcega, executive director of the Colorado Association of School Executives, called docking a school’s rating over this issue “using the jaws of life to go after a minnow.”

“We would not want a school to lose an entire accreditation point if three people call CDE,” Golich said.

The Senate Education Committee heard testimony about the bill Thursday but postponed a vote.

Holbert and Kerr said they’re open to removing the penalty, but that raises the question of what the law even means.

“What happens if we pass a bill that has no particular penalty or enforcement mechanism and parents are frustrated because they’re seeing these consequences?” asked state Sen. Tim Neville, a Littleton Republican.