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].

Police in schools

The Denver school district is exploring the idea of creating its own police officers

PHOTO: Photo by Katie Wood/The Denver Post via Getty Images

School safety patrol officers in the Denver district would get the authority to arrest students and write tickets under an idea being explored by the district’s safety department.

The head of Denver Public Schools’ safety department says the goal would actually be to end the “school-to-prison pipeline” that criminalizes students for misbehavior at school.

The idea is that giving more authority to school safety officers who have experience with children and training in the district’s restorative justice model would mean outside police get called less often, even for matters that are potentially criminal.

This is not yet a formal proposal, but the idea is already generating pushback.

Local organization Padres y Jóvenes Unidos has worked for years to reduce harsh disciplinary practices in the district, and its staff say certifying safety patrol officers as police officers would represent a big step backward.

“To do this would undo everything you have stood on national platforms bragging about,” said Monica Acosta, the organizing director at Padres y Jóvenes Unidos. “Going down this road would double down on policing and criminalizing students of color.”

About 77 percent of the 92,600 Denver Public Schools students are children of color. Approximately 67 percent of students come from low-income families.

Police in schools is a controversial topic in Denver. Staff and students at an alternative school called RiseUp Community School are speaking out this week about an incident in which Denver police searched for a student the principal told them wasn’t there. The principal said police officers pulled their guns on a teacher during the search.

The incident sparked intense backlash – and an apology from Denver Public Schools Superintendent Tom Boasberg.

“What happened should not have happened,” he said at a school board meeting Thursday night. He said the district will participate in a city investigation of the incident and work “to ensure something like this does not ever happen again.”

RiseUp student Mary Jimenez said she and her peers were left feeling disrespected and unsafe.

“Because we are students of color and students of low-income, we get harassed and pushed around and we’re expected not to fight back,” Jimenez told the school board.

Although the incident involved city police officers, not district safety officers, community activists said it’s an example of why law enforcement doesn’t belong in schools. Armed officers create a hostile learning environment, they said.

But Denver Public Schools Chief of Safety Mike Eaton said school policing is different than municipal policing. Whereas city police would be more likely to use the criminal justice system to respond to a report of a student getting into a physical fight or having illegal drugs on campus, Eaton said district officers would be trained to first look to the discipline policy.

The policy emphasizes that consequences should be age-appropriate and that the focus should be on correcting student behavior. “Interventions should provide students an opportunity to learn from their mistakes,” the policy says, “and re-engage the student in learning.”

The district safety department employs about 135 staff members, Eaton said. Of those, 35 are armed safety patrol officers who are not assigned to a particular school but respond to incidents across the district. Those are the only officers the district would seek to certify as police, he said. Unarmed school-based campus safety officers would not be certified.

Authorizing any new group as police officers requires approval from state lawmakers.

Denver Public Schools already has 16 “school resource officers,” which are city police officers assigned to work in its large high schools and a few middle schools. Eaton said his aim would not be to increase the number of school resource officers but rather to give the district’s own security staff the discretion to handle police matters.

“We have the opportunity to directly impact the school-to-prison pipeline, to eliminate or reduce it,” Eaton said. School policing, he said, “focuses on restorative and redemptive practices in dealing with students. Students are young. They’re going to make mistakes.”

Several large, urban school districts across the country have their own police forces, including districts in Cleveland, Atlanta, and Miami. Before moving forward with a proposal in Denver, Eaton said he’d seek input from students, parents, and community members.

He has floated the idea by the Denver school board. The board president and vice president said they’re open to discussing any ideas that would make students safer. But president Anne Rowe said she understands why the community might be concerned.

“I can appreciate the initial reaction of folks when they think about an urban district thinking about certifying their officers,” she said. “That’s going to require a lot of community engagement and getting down to: What are we trying to accomplish by doing that?”

Road map

A new guide aims to help Colorado school districts offer mental health support to students

First-graders at Denver's Munroe Elementary do a mindfulness exercise led by school psychologist Amy Schirm.

A new toolkit to be officially released Monday will help Colorado educators, parents, and district administrators infuse mental health support into classrooms and schools.

The 60-page online guide from the nonprofit Mental Health Colorado comes out at a time when many school leaders say they desperately need help addressing students’ mental health needs and districts have increasingly emphasized social and emotional skills.

The guide includes 10 key practices for promoting mental health in schools, including offering services in school-based health centers, reducing the stigma around mental health treatment and prioritizing suicide prevention. Besides listing effective curriculums and programs, it provides examples of how Colorado schools and districts are using proven practices.

The kit also includes suggestions on how to secure funding for school mental health initiatives.

“There are ways to do that and examples of how to do that because most people have no idea how to get the ball rolling,” said Jen Marnowski, spokeswoman for Mental Health Colorado, which advocates for the prevention and treatment of mental health and substance use disorders.

Leaders in the Jeffco and the Estes Park districts are among those who’ve expressed enthusiasm about the toolkit so far.

“It’s great. It’s the right work,” said Jon Widmier, Jeffco’s student services director.

He said the kit, which the district will pilot in two elementary schools next year, lines up with the district’s emphasis on educating the whole child.

“The mental health piece of that is huge … This is so right in line with what we’re trying to accomplish on that,” he said.

Marnowski said the genesis of the toolkit was a listening tour the organization conducted in communities across Colorado two years ago. The group’s leaders heard from parents, educators, public officials and law enforcement officers who voiced concerns about the lack of access to mental health care, the desire for more mental health support in schools, and the state’s high suicide rate.

The toolkit is meant to give districts a roadmap from addressing some of the problems community members cited.

“Kids are in school so many hours a day that’s it’s very effective to do this when they’re [there], to get them the help they need,” she said.

Widmier said he sees the kit as a useful tool for all kinds of districts.

“We’re very fortunate in Jeffco because we ‘ve got a school board that really supports the mental health needs of our students … There’s a lot of school districts out there that haven’t focused on it that much and I think this is going to be such a great resource for them as well.”