First Person

This week's healthy schools highlights

Dad blogger chronicles son’s school lunch

The food editor for The Associated Press, J.M. Hirsch, is documenting what he sends his second-grade son for lunch every day in a blog. The blog is called “Lunch Box Blues: 180 days. 180 meals. Making it out … well fed.” Check it out.

Colorado schools extend healthier options to vending machines

vending machineLittle by little, food offered in schools is becoming healthier.

This year, some Colorado schools are bringing their vending machines up to par with the healthful food they have been offering in the cafeteria.

“Kids do gravitate to vending machines, so schools wanted to continue their health programs into their vending machines,” said Patrick Donovan, regional vice president for Revolution Foods, developers of “healthy” vending machines. Read more in the Denver Post.

Boulder and Denver school boards consider later starts

Denver Public Schools’ Board of Education took a first step Thursday night toward limiting member spending and set up a process to track it — but discussion started slowly. Read more in the Denver Post. Boulder Valley schools are also considering a later start. Read more in the Daily Camera.

Melons cut from school lunches

Pueblo County District 70 and Pueblo City Schools no longer are serving cantaloupe to students as part of their school lunch programs. District 70 officials eliminated cantaloupe from the lunch menu Tuesday as a result of the recent reports linking cantaloupe to a listeria outbreak. Read more in the Pueblo Chieftain.

Healthy school lunch recipes for even the pickiest of eaters

School is back in session, to the relief of many parents.  But sometimes getting your kids to eat a healthy meal can be almost as hard as getting them to the bus stop on time.

These recipes will get them to indulge in good-for-you food that tastes great. Check out this Fox News report.

Packing school lunches safely

Next time you pack a lunch for your child, you might want to add some extra ice packs or make sure it gets refrigerated. A recent study in the science journal Pediatrics has found that most of the lunches kids bring to school and day care are being stored at unsafe temperatures. This can lead to the growth of harmful bacteria that cause food poisoning. Read more in the Chicago Tribune.

Books packed with ideas for fixing bad lunches

paper sack lunchIf you want to work on improving the meals at your kids’ schools, much help is available.  Just in, for example:

From the Center for Ecoliteracy: Rethinking School Lunch: Cooking with California Food in K-12 Schools: a Cookbook and Professional Development Guide. You don’t have to be in California to take advantage of this resource.  It’s full of recipes and good ideas, as are other resources from the Center. Read more in The Atlantic.


School-based health clinics play vital role in childrens’ lives

Treating skinned knees and stomachaches is part of the drill at any school nurse’s office or school-based health center. But healthcare providers at these sites do much more than treat everyday aches and pains: They give checkups and vaccinations, make sure kids take their insulin shots and antidepressants on time, and teach them how to manage chronic conditions such as asthma. Read more in the Los Angeles Times.

How to raise healthier, smarter, fitter children

Schools have become hazardous health zones full of empty calories, junk food and stripped-down physical education programs that are cultivating a nation of fatter, dumber and more aggressive kids. In the film, “The Social Network,” Mark Zuckerberg tells his friend that there are more geniuses in China than there are people in the United States. The Cold War gave us the missile gap, but now we have something much more threatening to our future and our children’s future — the achievement gap. Read more in the Huffington Post.

States scramble to pay for healthier school food

The biggest overhaul to school lunches in the past 15 years is giving states heartburn. The federal government has mandated a healthier menu, and state and school officials are trying to figure out how to cope with the added costs. Read more in Stateline.

Action for Healthy Kids seeks parent wellness advocates

Action for Healthy Kids is looking for 20 “parent wellness advocates” in elementary schools across Colorado to promote healthy eating and increase physical activity during the 2011-12 and 2012-13 school years.

Selected parents will receive leadership training, coaching, stipends, and funding to implement school wellness projects and serve as spokesparents and mentors for creating healthier school cultures.  Parents, grandparents, or guardians of elementary school students in schools that have at least 40% participation in free/reduced priced school meals are eligible to apply.  See if your school meets this requirementJoin CAFHK for a 30-minute webinar at 2 p.m. Oct. 3 to learn more. If you know this job is right for you, apply now!

President proclaims September as Childhood Obesity Awareness Month

President Obama has marked September 2011 as the first “National Childhood Obesity Awareness Month,” calling on all Americans to “promote healthy eating and greater physical activity by all our nation’s children.”

“By taking action to address the issue of childhood obesity,” the president went on, “we can help America’s next generation reach their full potential.” Read more in this Seattle Post-Intelligencer blog.

Fuel Up to Play 60 kicks off healthy school year

The White House has declared September National Childhood Obesity Awareness Month, a reminder to all Americans that instilling physical activity and healthy eating habits among our nation’s youth is more important than ever before. The month also kicks off the third season of Fuel Up To Play 60 and a new school year of motivating students to take charge of their well-being. Read more in the Digital Journal.

Denver schools celebrate Colorado Proud School Meal Day

Denver Public Schools (DPS) Wednesday celebrated local farmers by highlighting Colorado products on the school menu as part of Colorado Proud School Meal Day, as proclaimed by Gov. John Hickenlooper. DPS is promoting Colorado agriculture by serving green beans and cucumbers from DiSanti Farms in Pueblo, peaches from Palisade Produce, pears from Wacky Apple of Hotchkiss, natural beef from Ranch Foods Direct in Colorado Springs, and milk and eggs from Sinton Dairy on the school lunch menu.

To educate students about agriculture, DPS Food and Nutrition Services sent a Colorado map to schools that identifies the towns/farms that provide Colorado-grown products. In addition, DPS Food and Nutrition Services features fresh Colorado produce from school gardens and urban farms in the school salad bars and coordinates dairy farmer presentations in the classroom through the Western Dairy Association.

Sunflowers at Crestview gardenAlso in celebration of Colorado Proud Day, at select DPS schools (Bradley, Brown, Bromwell, Fairmont, Fairview, Gilpin, Lowry, McGlone), representatives from Slow Food Denver and Denver Urban Gardens led students in school garden tours. After the garden tours, healthy recipes were prepared utilizing school garden produce or Colorado-grown produce. Some of these schools held cooking demonstrations in the cafeteria by local chefs, while others featured hands-on cooking demos after the garden tours. Steele Elementary students shared a Colorado Proud lunch with residents of the Denver Zoo.

To connect students at McGlone Elementary School to a bountiful garden in their own back yard, Quint Redmond, an urban farmer who is growing vegetables on the McGlone School grounds, spoke to students about farming in an urban setting, while Andy Nowak of Slow Food Denver led a school garden and greenhouse tour. Tim Burleigh, Markets Division Director of the Colorado Department of Agriculture, spoke with students about the Colorado agriculture industry, and school food service staff served students a wonderful lunch highlighting school-garden and Colorado-grown produce.

Jeffco schools celebrate locally grown food, too

Colorado pride runs deep in Jeffco – that’s the idea behind Jeffco’s Food and Nutrition Services new Colorado Proud Days campaign.

Every second Wednesday of the month, cafeterias will feature a meal with foods grown, raised or processed by Rocky Mountain farms and companies. The first menu on Wed., Sept. 14, features a beef and pinto bean chili with beef from Castle Rock Meat Company and BBQ Foods in Commerce City, sweet potato rolls from Denver’s Harvest Moon Bakery, fresh veggie sticks from local farms, paired with milk from the local Robinson Milk Company.

“Jeffco Schools is a member of the national organization School Food Focus,” said Jeffco’s Food and Nutrition Services Executive Director Linda Stoll. “Its goal is to help large, urban school districts change to less processed, more locally sourced and sustainably produced foods.”

Stoll says Jeffco’s parents want freshly-baked, homemade, scratch cooking for their kids.  “We are trying to change our kitchen technology and train our workforce to create that healthy environment,” said Stoll. “We think it’s important to shop in Colorado to put the money back in the community.”

Rocky Ford cantaloupe had been a feature item on the menu, but because of a recent local Listeria outbreak, Colorado cantaloupe has been removed as a safety precaution.

Poudre schools celebrate wellness

A couple upcoming events will have kids and adults alike having fun and learning to make healthier choices at the same time. First is the annual Fall Family Wellness Day at Laurel Elementary School of Arts and Technology, 1000 E. Locust St. It runs from 4 to 7 p.m. Friday, Sept. 23.

Some events include: bike rodeo; obstacle course and bouncy slide; area health and wellness information; door prizes; and dinner.

Then, a week later, check out some wellness activities at Irish Elementary, 515 Irish Dr. Students will do physical activities to promote healthy living and support the new cancer center at Poudre Valley Hospital.

The Friday events will be the culmination of a week of cancer awareness and learning how to live a healthy life. Pledges for the cancer center will be taken and bright green bracelets for the PVHS cancer center will be sold. Contact: Irish teacher Jeannie Craft at 488-6900.

First Person

What we’ve learned from leading schools in Denver’s Luminary network — and how we’ve used our financial freedom

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Cole Arts and Science Academy Principal Jennifer Jackson sits with students at a school meeting in November 2015.

First Person is a standing feature where guest contributors write about pressing issues in public education. Want to contribute? More details here

Three years ago, we were among a group of Denver principals who began meeting to tackle an important question: How could we use Colorado’s innovation schools law to take our schools to the next level?

As leaders of innovation schools, we already had the ability to make our own choices around the curriculum, length of school day, and staffing at our campuses. But some of us concluded that by joining forces as an independent network, we could do even more. From those early meetings, the Luminary Learning Network, Denver’s first school innovation zone, was born.

Now, our day-to-day operations are managed by an independent nonprofit, but we’re still ultimately answerable to Denver Public Schools and its board. This arrangement allows us to operate with many of the freedoms of charter schools while remaining within the DPS fold.

Our four-school network is now in its second year trying this new structure. Already, we have learned some valuable lessons.

One is that having more control over our school budget dollars is a powerful way to target our greatest needs. At Cole Arts & Science Academy, we recognized that we could serve our scholars more effectively and thoughtfully if we had more tools for dealing with children experiencing trauma. The budget flexibility provided by the Luminary Learning Network meant we were able to provide staff members with more than 40 hours of specially targeted professional development.

In post-training surveys, 98 percent of our staff members reported the training was effective, and many said it has helped them better manage behavioral issues in the classroom. Since the training, the number of student behavior incidents leading to office referrals has decreased from 545 incidents in 2016 to 54 in 2017.

At Denver Green School, we’ve hired a full-time school psychologist to help meet our students’ social-emotional learning goals. She has proved to be an invaluable resource for our school – a piece we were missing before without even realizing how important it could be. With a full-time person on board, we have been able to employ proactive moves like group and individual counseling, none of which we could do before with only a part-time social worker or school psychologist.

Both of us have also found that having our own executive coaches has helped us grow as school leaders. Having a coach who knows you and your school well allows you to be more open, honest, and vulnerable. This leads to greater professional growth and more effective leadership.

Another lesson: scale matters. As a network, we have developed our own school review process – non-punitive site visits where each school community receives honest, targeted feedback from a team of respected peers. Our teachers participate in a single cross-school teacher council to share common challenges and explore solutions. And because we’re a network of just four schools, both the teacher council and the school reviews are small-scale, educator-driven, and uniquely useful to our schools and our students. (We discuss this more in a recently published case study.)

Finally, the ability to opt out of some district services has freed us from many meetings that used to take us out of our buildings frequently. Having more time to visit classrooms and walk the halls helps us keep our fingers on the pulse of our schools, to support teachers, and to increase student achievement.

We’ve also had to make trade-offs. As part of the district, we still pay for some things (like sports programs) our specific schools don’t use. And since we’re building a new structure, it’s not always clear how all of the pieces fit together best.

But 18 months into the Luminary Learning Network experiment, we are convinced we have devised a strategy that can make a real difference for students, educators, and school leaders.

Watch our results. We are confident that over the next couple of years, they will prove our case.

Jennifer Jackson is the principal of Cole Arts & Science Academy, which serves students from early childhood to grade five with a focus on the arts, science, and literacy. Frank Coyne is a lead partner at Denver Green School, which serves students from early childhood to grade eight with a focus on sustainability.

First Person

Let’s be careful with using ‘grading floors.’ They may lead to lifelong ceilings for our students

PHOTO: Helen H. Richardson, The Denver Post

I am not a teacher. I am not a principal. I am not a school board member. I am not a district administrator (anymore).

What I am is a mother of two, a high-schooler and middle-schooler. I expect them both to do their “personal best” across the board: chores, projects, personal relationships, and yes, school.

That does not mean all As or Bs. We recognize the sometimes arbitrary nature of grades. (For example, what is “class participation” — is it how much you talk, even when your comments are off topic?) We have made it very clear that as long as they do their “personal best,” we are proud.

That doesn’t mean, though, that when someone’s personal best results in a poor grade, we should look away. We have to ask what that grade tells us. Often, it’s something important.

I believe grading floors — the practice (for now, banned in Memphis) of deciding the lowest possible grade to give a student — are a short-sighted solution to a larger issue. If we use grade floors without acknowledging why we feel compelled to do so, we perpetuate the very problem we seek to address.

"If we use grade floors without acknowledging why we feel compelled to do so, we perpetuate the very problem we seek to address."Natalie McKinney
In a recent piece, Marlena Little, an obviously dedicated teacher, cites Superintendent Hopson’s primary drive for grade floors as a desire to avoid “creat[ing] kids who don’t have hope.” I am not without empathy for the toll failing a course may take on a student. But this sentiment focuses on the social-emotional learning aspect of our students’ education only.

Learning a subject builds knowledge. Obtaining an unearned grade only provides a misleading indication of a child’s growth.

This matters because our students depend on us to ensure they will be prepared for opportunities after high school. To do this, our students must possess, at the very least, a foundation in reading, writing and arithmetic. If we mask real academic issues with grade floors year after year, we risk missing a chance to hold everyone — community, parents, the school board, district administration, school leaders, teachers, and students — accountable for rectifying the issue. It also may mean our students will be unable to find employment providing living wages, resulting in the perpetuation of generational poverty.

An accurate grade helps the teacher, parents, and district appropriately respond to the needs of the student. And true compassion lies in how we respond to a student’s F. It should act as an alarm, triggering access to additional work, other intervention from the teacher or school, or the use of a grade recovery program.

Ms. Little also illustrates how important it is to have a shared understanding about what grades should mean. If the fifth-grade boy she refers to who demonstrates mastery of a subject orally but has a problem demonstrating that in a written format, why should he earn a zero (or near-zero) in the class? If we agree that grades should provide an indicator of how well a student knows the subject at hand, I would argue that that fifth-grade boy should earn a passing grade. He knows the work! We don’t need grade floors in that case — we need different ideas about grades themselves.

We should also reconsider the idea that an F is an F. It is not. A zero indicates that the student did not understand any of the work or the student did not do any of the work. A 50 percent could indicate that the student understood the information half the time. That is a distinction with a difference.

Where should we go from here? I have a few ideas, and welcome more:

  1. In the short term, utilize the grade recovery rules that allow a student to use the nine weeks after receiving a failing grade to demonstrate their mastery of a subject — or “personal best” — through monitored and documented additional work.
  2. In the intermediate term, create or allow teachers to create alternative assessments like those used with students with disabilities to accommodate different ways of demonstrating mastery of a subject.
  3. In the long term, in the absence of additional money for the district, redeploy resources in a coordinated and strategic way to help families and teachers support student learning. Invest in the development of a rich, substantive core curriculum and give teachers the training and collaboration time they need.

I, like Ms. Little, do not have all the answers. This is work that requires our collective brilliance and commitment for the sake of our children.

Natalie McKinney is the executive director of Whole Child Strategies, Inc., a Memphis-based nonprofit that provides funding and support for community-driven solutions for addressing attendance and discipline issues that hinder academic success. She previously served as the director of policy for both Shelby County Schools and legacy Memphis City Schools.