First Person

New twist on PE: More schools offering yoga

A Wellness Initiative yoga student shows off his flexibility. Photos provided by The Wellness Initiative.

Tom Barela, the physical education teacher at Denver’s Colfax Elementary School, grew up playing football and basketball in his gym student days. But on Monday, he was down on the floor alongside a class of kindergarteners roaring like a baby dragon, then hissing like a cobra, then steadying himself like a frog on a lily pad.

Leading the class was yoga instructor Allyson Levine, who started coming to the west Denver school four years ago to offer three classes a week to supplement the school’s P.E. offerings. This year, she’s leading 12 classes a week at the school, thanks to a partnership between DPS and The Wellness Initiative, a four-year-old Boulder-based nonprofit that provides yoga instruction to more than 2,000 students in 20 predominantly low-income schools.

For 45 minutes, Levine put the students through a series of breathing exercises, stretching and flexibility routines, creative visualization, and movements to improve balance and focus.

Preliminary findings of research on the effects of TWI’s yoga instruction in public schools indicate that at least half of the students who participate report improved physical prowess as well as more self-confidence and optimism, and that 60 to 70 percent used the breathing and visualization exercises they learned in yoga to help them outside of gym class.

PE teacher goes from reluctant to enthusiastic

Barela couldn’t be more pleased, even though the yoga takes up a third of his students’ gym class time each week. “At first, I wasn’t quite sure about it. But now I think it’s great,” he said. “Even though it isn’t vigorous exercise, it is moderate activity, and it improves the students flexibility. It also helps them learn to rest and to focus better.”

“Not every child is an amazing athlete, but I have some who are amazing at yoga,” he said. He’s had some physically disabled students who excel at the activity. “Our fifth graders do beautiful yoga because they’ve been doing it for a couple of years now.”

Yoga isn’t new, of course. But many schools have been slow to adopt it into the physical education curriculum. “Years ago, there were protests about bringing yoga into the schools because people were afraid it was religious,” said Mara Rose, executive director of TWI. “But what we’ve done is to train teachers in a curriculum that takes all the Sanskrit words out, so it won’t freak anybody out. That’s a promise we make to schools. We make it comfortable for teachers and students alike.”

No Sanskrit in the new yoga ed

The strictly secular “Yoga Ed” curriculum is now taught in more than 150 schools around the country. Rose said principals now typically report one to two students in each school who opt out of the yoga classes, but so far no parental protests have arisen.

Rose says yoga’s benefits extend to three areas of student life: physical health, emotional well-being, and academic performance. “The kids get stronger and more flexible, and the athletes say that after yoga they feel faster and more capable,” she said. “Emotionally, they feel the can better manage stress and control anger. Their academic performance is mostly related to their ability to focus, to calm themselves in the classroom. We’ve worked with teachers and students prior to CSAPs to help them develop techniques they can use to focus during the tests, and the proctors say they’ve never seen the kids to calm and focused before.”

The Wellness Initiative is not the only organization pushing yoga in Colorado public schools. Another Boulder group, Calming Kids: Creating a Non-violent World, promotes yoga in school as an anti-bullying tool. Storytime Yoga, which integrates children’s yoga and storytelling, poetry and healthy eating, is also based in Boulder County. And at a two-day gathering of physical education teachers from across the state last week in Loveland, at least three workshops dealt with in-school yoga.

TWI does serve the most children, however, Rose said. In addition to it yoga classes for students, TWI offers a two-hour Tools for Teachers workshop to provide classroom teachers with simple yoga-based techniques they can introduce into academic classrooms; and on-site yoga classes for teachers and school staff members before or after regular school hours.

Teaching students, but teaching teachers too

Yoga classes for students run the gamut, from year-long regular exposure to yoga as part of the PE curriculum to less-intensive elective classes, sometimes offered during the school day and sometimes offered before or after school. Cost to provide the yoga instruction averages about $70 per class, but the cost to the school varies depending on students’ ability to pay. “In schools where there’s a high percentage of low-income students, we subsidize a large percentage of the cost,” Rose said. “In schools that serve more affluent students, we rely on the school or the parents to support the program.”

The Wellness Initiative is working with the Center for Policy Research to conduct research on the effects of yoga instruction in the schools. Rose expects a significant amount of data to be available within the year, but she has some preliminary findings based on a survey of 47 high school students from four schools who participated in 6 to 42 yoga sessions. Their average age was 15, and 70 percent had no previous exposure to yoga.

Among the findings:

  • More than three-fourts of the students agreed strongly or somewhat with the statement “I feel stressed out a lot of the time.”
  • About two-thirds agreed strongly or somewhat with the statement “I put a lot of pressure on myself.”
  • Following participation in yoga classes, at least half the students noted improvements in physical flexibility; feeling positive and optimistic; feeling physically strong; standing up for oneself; self-confidence; being nice to other students and family.
  • When asked their reaction to yoga, 63 percent said they “love it” or “like it a lot,” while 24 percent said they “like it somewhat,” and 13 percent said they did not like it at all.
  • More than a third of the students reported improvement in how they felt about their body; their ability to concentrate; feeling good about themselves; feeling less stress; feeling frustration; eating less junk food; and putting too much pressure on themselves.
  • When asked how often they used various yoga practices outside the class, more than half reported using the breathing exercises; more than 70 percent reported using visualization; about 45 percent practiced positive statements about themselves; and 44 percent practiced yoga poses.

Schools participating in The Wellness Initiative yoga classes:

Adams County: Welby New Technology High School, High Point Academy

Arapahoe County: East Elementary School, Pathways Program

Boulder County: Columbine Elementary, Crest View Elementary, Fairview High School, Louisville Middle School, Mesa Elementary, Southern Hills Middle School, Whittier Elementary

Denver: Colfax Elementary, Denver CAMP, Florence Crittenton School, KIPP Sunshine Peak Academy, Knapp Elementary, Munroe Elementary, North High School.

First Person

I’ve been mistaken for the other black male leader at my charter network. Let’s talk about it.

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

I was recently invited to a reunion for folks who had worked at the New York City Department of Education under Mayor Michael Bloomberg. It was a privilege for me to have been part of that work, and it was a privilege for me to be in that room reflecting on our legacy.

The counterweight is that only four people in the room were black males. Two were waiters, and I was one of the remaining two. There were definitely more than two black men who were part of the work that took place in New York City during that era, but it was still striking how few were present.

The event pushed me to reflect again on the jarring impact of the power dynamics that determine who gets to make decisions in so-called education reform. The privileged end up being relatively few, and even fewer look like the kids we serve.

I’m now the chief operating officer at YES Prep, a charter school network in Houston. When I arrived at YES four years ago, I had been warned that it was a good old boys club. Specifically, that it was a good old white boys club. It was something I assessed in taking the role: Would my voice be heard? Would I truly have a seat at the table? Would I have any influence?

As a man born into this world with a black father and white mother, I struggled at an early age with questions about identity and have been asking those questions ever since.

As I became an adult, I came to understand that being from the suburbs, going to good schools, and being a lighter-skinned black person affords me greater access to many settings in America. At the same time, I experience my life as a black man.

Jeremy Beard, head of schools at YES, started the same day I did. It was the first time YES had black men at the leadership table of the organization. The running joke was that people kept mistaking Jeremy and me for each other. We all laughed about it, but it revealed some deeper issues that had pervaded YES for some time.

“Remember when you led that tour in the Rio Grande Valley to see schools?” a board member asked me about three months into my tenure.“That wasn’t me,” I replied. I knew he meant Jeremy, who had worked at IDEA in the Valley. At that time, I had never been to the Valley and didn’t even know where it was on the map.

“Yes, it was,” he insisted.

“I’ve never been to the Valley. It wasn’t me. I think you mean Jeremy.”

“No, it was you, don’t you remember?” he continued, pleading with me to recall something that never happened.

“It wasn’t me.”

He stopped, thought about it, confused, and uttered, “Huh.”

It is difficult for me to assign intent here, and this dynamic is not consistent with all board members. That particular person may have truly been confused about my identity. And sure, two black men may have a similar skin tone, and we may both work at YES. But my life experience suggests something else was at play. It reminds me that while I have the privilege of sitting at the table with our board, they, as board members, have the privilege of not having to know who I am, or that Jeremy and I are different black dudes.

It would be easy to just chalk this all up to racial politics in America and accept it as status quo, but I believe we can change the conversation on privilege and race by having more conversations on privilege and race. We can change the dynamics of the game by continuing to build awareness of diversity, equity, and inclusion. We can also advocate to change who has seats at the table and whose voices will be heard.

I remain hopeful thanks to the changes I have witnessed during my time at YES. The board has been intentional in their efforts to address their own privilege, and is actively working to become more diverse and inclusive.

Personally, I have worked to ensure there are more people of color with seats at the table by mentoring future leaders of color at YES Prep and other black men in this work. Jeremy and I also created Brothers on Books, a book club for black men at YES to find mentorship and fellowship. Through this book club, we can create a safe space to have candid discussions based on literature we read and explore what it means to be black men at YES.

When I think about privilege, I am torn between the privilege that has been afforded to me and the jarring power dynamics that determine who gets to have conversations and make decisions in so-called education reform. White people are afforded more voices and seats at the table, making decisions that primarily impact children of color.

It is not lost on me that it is my own privilege that affords me access to a seat at the table. My hope is that by using my role, my voice and my privilege, I can open up dialogue, hearts, minds, opinions, and perceptions. I hope that readers are similarly encouraged to assess their own privileges and determine how they can create positive change.

Recy Benjamin Dunn is YES Prep’s chief operating officer, overseeing operations, district partnerships, and growth strategy for the charter school network. A version of this piece was first published on YES Prep’s blog.

First Person

I’m a Bronx teacher, and I see up close what we all lose when undocumented students live with uncertainty

The author at her school.

It was our high school’s first graduation ceremony. Students were laughing as they lined up in front of the auditorium, their families cheering them on as they entered. We were there to celebrate their accomplishments and their futures.

Next to each student’s name on the back of those 2013 graduation programs was the college the student planned to attend in the fall. Two names, however, had noticeable blanks next to them.

But I was especially proud of these two students, whom I’ll call Sofia and Isabella. These young women started high school as English learners and were diagnosed with learning disabilities. Despite these obstacles, I have never seen two students work so hard.

By the time they graduated, they had two of the highest grade point averages in their class. It would have made sense for them to be college-bound. But neither would go to college. Because of their undocumented status, they did not qualify for financial aid, and, without aid, they could not afford it.

During this year’s State of the Union, I listened to President Trump’s nativist rhetoric and I thought of my students and the thousands of others in New York City who are undocumented. President Trump falsely portrayed them as gang members and killers. The truth is, they came to this country before they even understood politics and borders. They grew up in the U.S. They worked hard in school. In this case, they graduated with honors. They want to be doctors and teachers. Why won’t we let them?

Instead, as Trump works to repeal President Obama’s broader efforts to enfranchise these young people, their futures are plagued by uncertainty and fear. A Supreme Court move just last week means that young people enrolled in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program remain protected but in limbo.

While Trump and the Congress continue to struggle to find compromise on immigration, we have a unique opportunity here in New York State to help Dreamers. Recently, the Governor Cuomo proposed and the state Assembly passed New York’s DREAM Act, which would allow Sofia, Isabella, and their undocumented peers to access financial aid and pursue higher education on equal footing with their documented peers. Republicans in the New York State Senate, however, have refused to take up this bill, arguing that New York state has to prioritize the needs of American-born middle-class families.

This argument baffles me. In high school, Sofia worked hard to excel in math and science in order to become a radiologist. Isabella was so passionate about becoming a special education teacher that she spent her free periods volunteering with students with severe disabilities at the school co-located in our building.

These young people are Americans. True, they may not have been born here, but they have grown up here and seek to build their futures here. They are integral members of our communities.

By not passing the DREAM Act, it feels like lawmakers have decided that some of the young people that graduate from my school do not deserve the opportunity to achieve their dreams. I applaud the governor’s leadership, in partnership with the New York Assembly, to support Dreamers like Sofia and Isabella and I urge Senate Republicans to reconsider their opposition to the bill.

Today, Sofia and Isabella have been forced to find low-wage jobs, and our community and our state are the poorer for it.

Ilona Nanay is a 10th grade global history teacher and wellness coordinator at Mott Hall V in the Bronx. She is also a member of Educators for Excellence – New York.