First Person

This week's healthy schools highlights

Jamie OliverQ&A with Jamie Oliver about the ‘Food Revolution’

Like Jamie Oliver or hate him, there are not a lot of celebrity chefs doing what he’s doing right now – going on television to tell Americans that they’re fat and the way schools feed their kids is shameful. Read it in the Chicago Tribune.

CDC: More risky behaviors among gay high school students

One of the first and largest national studies of the behaviors of American high school students finds that those who identify as gay, lesbian or bisexual are more likely than their heterosexual peers to take unhealthy risks. Read more in US News & World Report.

‘Let’s Move’ initiative underway in Indian Country

PHOENIX – Some people in Indian Country are addressing the obesity problem by simply moving. Read more in the Native Times.

Brighton forbids school staff from recommending psychotropic drugs

BRIGHTON – Brighton School District 27J says it has tightened existing policy forbidding teachers and administrators from recommending psychiatric drugs for students after a watchdog group complained. Read more in the Denver Post.

Lafayette Elementary students Lining up to plant school garden.Aurora’s fifth block students learn about gardening

More than 60 students from Boston and Crawford elementary schools took part in an exerciseabout gardening last week at the Beeler Street Community Garden. Read more in Your Hub.

Childhood trauma linked to higher rates of mental health problems and obesity

STANFORD, Calif. — New research has shown that children’s risk for learning and behavior problems and obesity rises in correlation to their level of trauma exposure, says the psychiatrist at the Stanford University School of Medicine and Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital who oversaw the study. The findings could encourage physicians to consider diagnosing post-traumatic stress disorder rather than attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder, which has similar symptoms to PTSD but very different treatment. Read all about it in the Health News Digest.

Culinary camp moves school cafeterias toward fresh meals

School may be out for kids, but class is in session for food services staff members in Colorado Springs School District 11 participating in a Cook for America Culinary Boot Camp at Coronado High School.

“We’re not just opening bags of lettuce, we’re cooking for people’s most prized possession — their children,” said Denise Wojcik, kitchen manager at Trailblazer Elementary School. Read more in the Colorado Springs Gazette.

LiveWell Colorado’s plan to expand Go, Slow, Whoa! gets national honor

A LiveWell Colorado-developed business plan designed to expand the Go, Slow, Whoa program from eight Colorado schools to 258 is one of six finalists in a national competition aimed at helping nonprofits grow programs with potential.

The 2011 Business Plan Competition, sponsored by The Social Impact Exchange, required U.S.-based social sector nonprofits to outline and submit comprehensive business plans for scaling already-in-progress initiatives to serve a larger audience. If chosen as one of two winners, LiveWell Colorado will receive financial and consulting awards to support the Go, Slow, Whoa expansion.

For more information about Go, Slow, Whoa, click here.

Summer food program feeds hungry kids at area schools

DENVER – Hungry kids across the state have a place to turn this summer, thanks to food service programs working out of schools in many districts. 

In Denver, for instance, kids can get a free breakfast and lunch at about 40 school sites. Kids ages one to 18 eat for free five days a week.

“Definitely, there’s a financial benefit,” said mother Susette Balderas. Check out FOX31.

USDA encouraging wider use of summer food program

The United States Department of Agriculture has made it easier for organizations to access funds to feed children in low-income areas during the summer, officials said on Tuesday. Read more at Reuters.

U.S. schools serving healthier lunches, but falling short in P.E.

A new study by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, Bridging the Gap, reveals middle and high schools across the country are making a concerted effort to provide healthier lunch options for their students.

Thanks to the National School Lunch Program, schools are providing more fruits and vegetables and less processed and frozen foods. However, despite the increase in healthier meals, students are still not given adequate time for physical activity during and after school.

Some of the key findings from the study include:

  • Although virtually all schools offered vegetables and fresh fruits some days or most/every day, the same was also true for pizza.
  • Compared with the previous school year, more students were offered whole grains and fewer were offered french fries as part of the National School Lunch Program.
  • More than one-half of secondary students had access to snacks like candy, chips, cookies and ice cream through the National School Lunch Program.
  • Sugar-sweetened beverages were available to 71 percent of middle school and 92 percent of high school students in vending machines, à la carte lines, stores or snack bars on campus.
  • Physical education was required for some part of the school year for 83 percent of middle school and only 35 percent of high school students.
  • Participation in interscholastic and intramural physical activity programs was low, especially among students at less affluent schools and schools that had a majority Black or Latino student body.

One of the more shocking pieces of information revealed in the study identified that schools and districts with students at an increased risk for obesity (based on economic status, race or ethnicity) were less likely to have a wellness policy in place.

Chefs Move to Schools celebrated in Texas

FRESNO, Calif. – Hundreds of chefs and culinary professionals converged on the south steps of the Texas State Capitol this week to mark the first anniversary of Chefs Move to Schools (CMTS).  This celebration also marked the creation of a new grant program for CMTS, administered by The Culinary Trust, the philanthropic arm of the International Association of Culinary Professionals, with initial funding from the California Table Grape Commission. Read more in the PR Newswire.

Manitou, other districts awarded funds for health programs

Manitou Springs School District 14 and five other Colorado school districts on Thursday were awarded funds to advance best practices in health and wellness.

The Colorado Legacy Foundation will give $120,000 over two years to the districts as part of an initiative that also provides guidance, financial resources and technical assistance. Read more in the Colorado Springs Gazette.

 

First Person

I spoke with our governor during his TNReady listening tour. Here’s what I hope he heard.

PHOTO: TN.gov
Tara Baker raises her hand to talk during Gov. Bill Haslam's Sept. 4 roundtable discussion about state testing challenges. An assistant principal at Nashville's McGavock High School, Baker was among about 150 educators invited to participate in Haslam's six-stop "listening tour," which began Aug. 31 in Knoxville and ends Sept. 18 in Gibson County.

As the testing coordinator for a large high school in Nashville, I was in the eye of the proverbial storm this spring as tens of thousands of Tennessee students slogged through technical snafus and breakdowns in the state’s return to online testing.

It was ugly.

The daily stops and starts sucked the joy of learning right out of our school community. And the testing platform was not the only thing that broke down. Students were frustrated to the point of tears after their hard work disappeared behind a spinning blue cursor.

Students and their teachers should never feel that level of exasperation and futility.

That’s why I was thrilled to be invited — along with about 150 other educators from across Tennessee — to troubleshoot testing problems with Gov. Bill Haslam this month during his six-stop “listening tour” on TNReady, the assessment that’s now entering its fourth year.

I wanted the governor and his education commissioner, Candice McQueen, to know just how bad testing went at my school, and to hear observations and ideas from ground zero for moving forward.

I talked about our school’s disappointment and tears as we persevered through a rocky start, with already overtested students exasperated by what felt like unending technical difficulties. “They were defeated,” I told the governor. “It crippled us before we really ever got started.”

I shared how only 36 out of 500 students in our English III classes were able to successfully submit their essays for one part of their online exam. Imagine working for over an hour to read and examine an article and construct an in-depth response, only to have your computer freeze or shut down before you could finish. Our sophomores had more success, but we still had almost 150 incomplete submissions in that class after multiple attempts. The stories were similar for students in Integrated Math, Chemistry, and U.S. History. While I can’t know for sure, I believe the intensity of the problems contributed significantly to our school being rated recently at the state’s lowest possible level for academic growth — a devastating blow to me and my colleagues.  

The governor’s 90-minute roundtable discussion, held in a middle school media room in the town of Franklin, was cathartic for many of us present at the fourth listening tour stop. We realized that we were not alone in our frustrations and concerns.

PHOTO: TN.gov
Educators in Middle Tennessee participate in the governor’s fourth roundtable discussion at Freedom Middle School in Franklin.

Gov. Haslam and Commissioner McQueen listened intently, and I was grateful for the opportunity to share my school’s experience. But a lot of ideas and emotions were compressed into a relatively short amount of time. At the end of the day, here’s what I hope they heard:

We spend too much time on testing and not enough on educating students. Teachers talked about using class time to take practice tests in the fall, the long three-week testing window in the spring, and the sheer number of tests that students are required to take.

We should still test; we just have to do it better. Teachers want valid data. We want useful and meaningful feedback. But we need to know that the information provided is a true representation of what our students know. And we should be able to accomplish that with shorter, more thoughtful tests that cut down on subparts, testing times, and the number of questions. The current testing regimen isn’t working. It stresses out our students, teachers, and families.

We are not ready for online assessments in Tennessee. Computer-based testing generates faster results, but it introduces many factors that currently are beyond school or district control. Dead batteries, network updates, lack of internet connectivity and bandwidth — these are not things that schools can regulate with certainty, and they directly impact testing. Most importantly, until we have enough computers so that every student has one-to-one access to a device, we should have other options and school-level contingency plans in place. This could mean having paper backups on hand or quickly available.

Teachers and test administrators need to know the plan! As the link with our stakeholders, we need training to make sure the information that we provide students and parents is correct. It’s our job to promote the assessments to the community but, to do that, we should completely understand the process and be appropriately trained, including what to do when things go wrong.  

Tests need to reflect the diversity of our students. Reading selections should be varied to address students’ abilities, experiences, and lifestyles. For example, Jane Eyre is not relatable to any of my urban high school students. Could we pull from some high-interest contemporary novels, such as Jason Reynolds’ “Long Way Down,” about a black teenager whose brother dies in a shooting?

PHOTO: TN.gov
Gov. Bill Haslam listens during his Sept. 4 roundtable discussion. An advisory team is using the feedback to develop principles and recommendations for consideration by his and the next administration.

This school year, the stakes are higher than ever to get testing right. No one has confidence in last year’s scores or results. How could they when we learned on the third day of testing that the scores wouldn’t count? And this wasn’t our first rodeo with TNReady problems, either. For the new school year, we must get it right to rebuild confidence in the assessment. To the state’s credit, the Department of Education already has made some good moves — for instance, bringing aboard ETS, a reputable testing company, and planning stress tests for online assessments in the fall and spring. I welcome the on-the-ground input of 37 educators serving as our state’s new TNReady ambassadors, as well as steps to improve customer service before and during the next round of testing.

But will it be enough? The above list of concerns represents what I heard at this month’s roundtable discussion and from other educators, too.

Thanks for listening, Gov. Haslam. I hope that yours and the next administration consider this a call to action.

A former English teacher, Tara Baker is an assistant principal at McGavock High School, a 2,400-student learning community in Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools.

First Person

We’ve come a long way in addressing student stress and trauma. I could use help, too.

PHOTO: Jose M. Osorio/Chicago Tribune/TNS via Getty Images

There’s an old adage, “You can’t pour from an empty cup.” But as a paraprofessional in Chicago, my cup is almost drained.

Each day, I provide academic, emotional, and behavioral support for over 200 students. The amount of mental and emotional energy it takes to calm a single student down, redirect or remove them from the class, and provide appropriate consequences is overwhelming — even with experience — when there are 11 other six-year-olds in a classroom that need my help.

Related: Chicago teachers, take our back-to-school survey

I look forward to coming to work in the morning, but by the time I get home, I barely have the energy to make my own dinner or plan activities for the next day. I tune out almost everything and everyone. While I love what I do, it is hard.

This heavy responsibility affects my mental health and the health of all educators, and it certainly impacts our ability to properly teach and support students. In the wake of Chicago’s teacher assistant layoffs this summer, my colleagues and I have dealt with the added stress of job uncertainty, too.

But we haven’t acknowledged the effects of that stress on educators, and we aren’t equipped with support to manage it.

The good news is that we are having a conversation about the effects of stress and trauma on our students. I’ve watched advocates successfully push for change: Educators for Excellence-Chicago, an educator-led organization I am involved with, brought some of these issues to light last June. Since then, we have held citywide problem-solving forums in partnership with the district’s Office of Social Emotional Learning and successfully advocated for the passage of two school state resolutions to ensure that student trauma is appropriately recognized throughout Illinois.

The recent focus on social-emotional learning — also known as “soft skills” — in our classrooms is also helping schools better prepare students for challenges that no child should face, but many do.

Those challenges are real: In my classroom, one student is a caregiver for his parent, another has lost multiple siblings to gun violence, and many others have parents that work long hours and are rarely around. These experiences have a considerable impact on their learning; often, students don’t have the tools to cope with this stress, and so they express their frustration by acting out in disruptive ways.

And yet, amid all this advocacy for our students’ mental health, we neglect our own. I worry that without a healthy state of mind, educators can’t offer their best teaching and attention to students, perhaps causing additional harm to kids already dealing with heavy burdens outside of school.

I don’t think it has to be this way. If more funding was allocated to our schools for student counseling, it would allow educators more time to focus on teaching. Our schools could provide social and emotional support to our students and staff to help them learn coping mechanisms. We would be able to hold self-care activities for the entire school. Support staff could give students and parents tools to support them outside of school.

To ensure students’ well-being, we need our own help.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said it best: “Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. This is the interrelated structure of reality.” Student and educator mental wellness are deeply interconnected, and we all must make sure we help educators be the best they can be for their students.

Shakita Smith is a teacher’s assistant at Pablo Casals School of Excellence in Humboldt Park. She is also a member of the Chicago Teachers Union and Educators for Excellence, a national teacher policy and advocacy organization.