The Other 60 Percent

DPS fitness centers open to community

Bruce Randolph School student Juan Lujan, 13, works out at his school's fitness center.

Denver Public Schools social studies teacher Heidi Hursh spent the summer not going to her neighborhood recreation center to work out, despite all her best intentions otherwise.

“I had to wait in line for the equipment,” she said. “And there were a lot of very athletic-type people there who were somewhat intimidating. It seemed like people were trying to outdo each other. It felt just like a commercial fitness center, and I got discouraged and ended up not going.”

She was ecstatic when the fitness center at her school, Denver Center for International Studies, re-opened in October. The fitness center – one of four that opened last year in Denver Public Schools thanks to a grant from the Anschutz Foundation – is in use by P.E. students during the school day, but is open four afternoons a week for use by others.

Students and faculty can use it from 3-4:30 p.m., and it’s open to all Denver residents and DPS employees from 4:30-7:30 p.m. Monday through Thursday. Personal trainers staff the fitness centers in the afternoons to provide workout guidance and one-on-one coaching.

Since she started working out there regularly early this year, Hursh has managed to shed 35 pounds. And she’s brought other friends in to take advantage of one of the best fitness deals available: DPS staff can use the state-of-the-art centers for $10 per semester.

Community members pay $15 per semester. It’s free for students.

“I’ve said repeatedly that this is the best thing DPS has ever done for me in my 37 years of teaching,” said Hursh. “I’ve never been able to get time to go to a gym regularly because I stay late at school a lot. The fact that this is here is a wonderful advantage.”

As far as DPS physical education coordinator Eric Larson can determine, the centers – which are located at Abraham Lincoln High School, Bruce Randolph School and George Washington High School in addition to DCIS –  are unique in Colorado, and possibly in the country.

“There’s nothing in the state that compares to these that are open to the community and to parents as well as students. We searched, and across the nation, we didn’t find anyone else doing this,” he said.

Nina Rivera, 14, works out in the fitness center at Bruce Randolph School.

The district is now seeking grants to expand the fitness centers into 12 high schools over the next four years. Cost to build and equip each fitness center is roughly $80,000.

During the school day, the fitness centers stay almost constantly busy with P.E. students. Charlie Gorman, P.E. teacher at Bruce Randolph, says his students like working with the equipment, and he encourages them to use it.

“It runs itself at this point,’ he said. “They come in here and they know they’re expected to work. These are our sweatiest days, when classes use the fitness center. We can play basketball for 40 minutes and not work up a sweat like this.”

Gorman said he hopes that students who are introduced to fitness center workouts at an early age will carry the knowledge into adulthood.

“Hopefully, when they join a gym in the future they won’t be so intimidated by the equipment,” he said. “They won’t have to ask ‘How do you use this stuff?’ Hopefully this will lead to a lifetime commitment to fitness.”

Larson said he hopes the fitness centers will entice parents to come in and work out with their children. But so far, community response has been slow, particularly at the Bruce Randolph Center.

Anavia Young, 13, works to improve her strength in the Bruce Randolph School fitness center. The center offers $50,000 worth of new equipment for student, staff and community use.

Part of the reason is lack of marketing, said Mary Lou Miller, the Sound Body Sound Mind project coordinator for DPS who coordinates all the centers.

“We’re schoolteachers, not marketers,” she said.

She hopes that a marketing plan put together by business students at CEC Middle College of Denver will help the district spread the word about the centers.

But also dampening adult enthusiasm for using the fitness centers is the school district’s requirement that community members obtain a doctor’s OK before working out there.

“We had 17 parents who came to (Randolph School) for a fitness boot camp class, and none were willing to get a health screening,” Larson said. “Most said they couldn’t afford it.”

So for the next two Saturdays, health care providers will offering free health screenings at Bruce Randolph’s school-based health center.

“We think community use will pick up after that,” Larson said.

For questions or to learn more about the Fitness Centers, contact Mary Lou Miller at 720-423-4207 or [email protected].

Free for All

A benefit of free lunch for all: fewer students get repeatedly suspended, new study suggests

PHOTO: Anthony Lanzilote
Students eat lunch at the Paul Robeson Malcolm X Academy in Detroit.

Allowing an entire school to eat for free, instead of restricting free lunch to students whose families fill out forms, can reduce the number of students who get suspended multiple times, according to a new study.

It’s the latest evidence that universal meal programs, which have also been linked to higher test scores and better health in other research, help students.

“There are many potential benefits to providing universal free meals in high-poverty schools, including achievement impacts … and of course whatever reduction in kids going hungry comes with it,” said Nora Gordon of Georgetown University, who wrote the paper along with Krista Ruffini at the University of California at Berkeley.

The study, which was released last week by the National Bureau of Economic Research and has not been formally peer reviewed, focuses on the federal free lunch program’s “community eligibility” initiative, which allowed schools where many students qualified for free or reduced price lunch to provide the free meal to all students. This was designed to reduce the stigma of receiving the meals among low-income students, streamline paperwork, and ensure no student went hungry. (Previous research has shown that in California, for instance, 13 percent of students who were eligible for subsidized lunch didn’t receive it for one reason or another.)

Gordon and Ruffini took advantage of the fact the the program was rolled out slowly, starting in 2012. This allowed the researchers to compare the suspension rates of the initial schools that took up the program to those in states that adopted it later. The paper also tries to account for the fact that at this time, many states and districts were already making efforts to reduce exclusionary discipline.

The study estimates that in elementary school, the chances of being suspended multiple times fell by about a third of a percentage point in elementary school and half a percentage point in middle school. Those aren’t big changes, but only a small share of students receive multiple suspensions in the first place.

Gordon and Ruffini say community eligibility may have had broader effects because it helped students nutritionally and also because it improved “the social climate of the school by reducing the stigma associated with free meals.”

There was some evidence that making entire schools eligible for free lunch reduced in-school suspensions, too, but the program didn’t seem to reduce the number of students who were suspended just once or have any effect on suspensions in high school.

One limit of the study is that it relies on federal civil rights data, which only reports the share of a school’s students suspended once and the share suspended more than once. This data has also been shown to be inaccurate in some cases, as schools may input wrong information. The results also vary somewhat based on the group of schools that the researchers focus on.

But the finding is consistent with a handful of other studies pointing to benefits of community eligibility, including the preliminary data from other papers that have yet to be published. It’s also in line with other research showing that the timing of receiving food stamp benefits — and therefore, when families may be most able to eat well — affects poor students’ test scores and behavior.  

The community eligibility program has continued to grow. Still, in the 2016–17 school year nearly half of eligible schools didn’t participate.

extra support

Indianapolis’ new idea to get kids through college: Stop small stumbles from becoming big barriers

PHOTO: Christina Veiga

To reach the city of Indianapolis’ lofty goal of giving every resident access to college, it’s going to take more than money.

It’s going to take a lot of nudging.

Educators know that many students are capable of college coursework and could qualify for financial aid — but too many of them are failing at the logistics of getting into college and sticking with it until they graduate.

That’s why the city’s new education initiative, a key state scholarship program, and private organizations are all looking to improve those nudges — using a human touch to prepare students for college, encourage them to apply, and push them to graduate. The programs use a variety of approaches, such as text messages from business leaders to high schoolers or “college champions” who cheer students on to graduation.

“Whether you’re a first-generation college student, or you’re someone with a lot of college graduates in your family, the process is complicated,” said Matt Impink, executive director of Indy Achieves. “There’s a lot to know, and a lot of deadlines to hit. We want to give them simple guidance about how to get those things done.”

Indy Achieves, the city’s new education initiative, focuses on this need for a greater network of human support, and identifies where students need more check-ins and guidance, particularly students from low-income families who may face extra challenges along the way.

In addition to expanding financial aid opportunities for students, Indy Achieves calls for additional resources and strategies for school counselors, mentors at the high school level for the transition to college, and more guidance for adults seeking college credentials.

One area of focus will be on the state’s 21st Century Scholars program. Even though the needs-based scholarship program covers tuition at Indiana colleges, it’s hard to get students to sign up — more than half of eligible Hoosier students miss out on the opportunity to have the state pay for college.

And while 21st Century Scholars are more likely to go to college and be ready for college-level courses, they often struggle to stay in school and graduate on time, if they do at all. Less than one-third of 21st Century Scholars graduate in four years, and about half graduate within an extended timeline of six years, according to state data. While that puts them ahead of their low-income peers, they’re still falling behind compared to students overall.

Indy Achieves plans to work with middle- and high-school counselors to increase federal financial aid and state scholarship sign-ups. The initiative will also recruit volunteers from the business community this winter to mentor high school seniors through the college transition with in-person meetings and scripted text reminders.

“They’ll be our eyes and ears on the ground with what students are having struggles with, and what we need to do to help point students toward services,” Impink said.

The Indiana Commission for Higher Education also plans to build similar supports into the 21st Century Scholars program next year, asking students to identify a college mentor or “champion” who will encourage them through college.

The tweak comes in part because of results from the Gallup-Purdue Index, which surveys students to measure college outcomes. The survey found that students with emotional support systems — such as mentors, or professors who they felt cared about their success — were more likely to succeed in college and in the workforce.

In recent years, the state has also placed AmeriCorps members — dubbed “ScholarCorps” — at college campuses to advise, coach, and mentor 21st Century Scholars. The program has boosted retention rates, said Jarod Wilson, the commission’s Director of Postsecondary Outreach and Career Transitions.

“If a student has a flat tire, that could just completely change their trajectory and their ability to complete classes that semester,” he said. “Emergency aid — the 21st Century Scholarship doesn’t cover those things, but we’re able to help them navigate the issues through it. There’s a lot more that happens on the holistic side of the student that’s more than just being able to pay for tuition and fees.”

The city and state programs also rely on a web of partner organizations that provide their own mentoring and support for students, such as Big Brothers Big Sisters, the Center for Leadership Development, 100 Black Men of Indianapolis, Boys II Men, and the Starfish Initiative.

The mentoring programs often try to find ways to work together, seeing themselves as complementary rather than competitive.

At the Starfish Initiative, an Indianapolis nonprofit focused on college access and readiness for low-income students, mentoring pairs are carefully curated to develop one-on-one relationships, which the organization said results in more than 75 percent of its students graduating from college. It’s a much more involved program than what the city and state can offer.

The program is serving more than 400 students this year, selecting high-achieving freshmen in need of both financial and emotional supports to match with volunteer mentors. Throughout high school, students participate in an annual leadership camp, make college visits, and talk regularly with their mentors, who take them out to restaurants, see concerts, or watch sports.

“If you think about investing, we believe these are the kids to invest in,” said Starfish Initiative president and CEO Gisele Garraway. “We think if you have a dollar, or if you have an hour of time, where might you get the best return on investment? We think it’s Starfish scholars.”

Through the program, students learn how to write professional emails, meet sign-up deadlines, and find friends with similar goals. They have someone to talk to about career paths, college choices, first loves, and family losses.

Catalina Lua wasn’t sure what to think when her son told her about the Starfish program. Hardly anyone she knew was familiar with the program, and she was wary of trusting her child to a stranger.

But her son, Alejandro, a 14-year-old freshman at Lawrence North High School, wanted to participate, and he was excited to go to the leadership camp and meet the older Starfish scholars. The Luas don’t have extended family living nearby, and Catalina worries about 14 being a tough age.

Alejandro had been playing football for years, but all of a sudden, this year he didn’t want to go. Catalina asked why, and all Alejandro said was that he was losing interest and wanted a break.

They met his mentor, an older man named Dave, who reminds Catalina of a grandpa and who has mentored before. He has stopped by the house to spend time with Alejandro’s family, and taken Alejandro out to restaurants.

He calls Alejandro to ask about school and his interests. They talk about wrestling, the sport that Alejandro got into when he stopped playing football.

“Sometimes I ask him, how was school? And he says just a few words. He doesn’t talk much,” Catalina said. “But I notice when he talks on the phone with Dave, I see he talks more. He says more. So I’m hoping maybe my son will be more comfortable speaking with him.”