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 I learned about the limits of school choice in New York City from a mother whose child uses a wheelchair

PHOTO: Patrick Wall

As a researcher interested in the ways online platforms impact learning and educational decision-making, I’ve been trying to understand how New York City parents get the information to make a crucial decision: where to send their children to school.

So for the past six months, I’ve been asking local parents about the data they used to choose among the system’s 1700 or so schools.

I’ve heard all sorts of stories about the factors parents weigh when picking schools. Beyond the usual considerations like test scores and art programs, they also consider the logistics of commuting from the Bronx to the East Village with two children in tow, whether the school can accommodate parents and children who are still learning English, and how much money the parent-teacher association raises to supplement the school’s budget.

But for some families, the choice process begins and ends with the question: Is the building fully accessible?

The federal Americans with Disabilities Act requires public buildings constructed after 1992 to be fully accessible to people in wheelchairs. However, most New York City public school buildings were constructed prior to that law, and high construction costs have limited the number of new, fully accessible buildings.

As a result, a shocking 83 percent of New York City schools have been found non-compliant with the ADA, according to a two-year federal Department of Justice investigation whose findings the city Department of Education largely disputes. Recently, the city’s Office of Space Management has begun surveying buildings for full accessibility, but more work remains to be done.

One parent’s struggle to find a school suitable for her son, who has a physical disability but no cognitive issues, illustrates what a major role accessibility plays in some families’ decision-making.

Melanie Rivera is the mother of two and a native New Yorker living in Ditmas Park in Brooklyn’s District 22 who shared her story with me — and gave me permission to share it with others. Here is what she told me, in her own words:

My son Gabriel is seven years old. He was born with a condition called arthrogryposis, which affects the development of his joints. His hips, knees, and feet are affected and he has joint contractures, so his legs don’t bend and straighten the way most people’s do. In order to get around, he uses a combination of crutches and a wheelchair.

Before I had my differently-abled son, I was working in a preschool for children with special needs. The kids I worked with had cognitive developmental disabilities.

Despite my professional experience, I was overwhelmed when it was my turn to help my child with different abilities navigate the public school system. I can only imagine the students falling by the wayside because their parents don’t have that background.

When I was completing my son’s kindergarten application, I couldn’t even consider the academics of the school. My main priority was to tour the schools and assess their level of accessibility.

There are only a couple of ADA-accessible schools in my district, and there was no way of indicating on my son’s kindergarten application that he needed one. When we got the admissions results, he was assigned to his zoned school – which is not accessible.

I entered lengthy and extensive mediation to get him into an ADA-accessible school. At that point, I knew I would just have to take what I could get. For families whose children have special needs, “school choice” can ring hollow.

The process of finding any accessible school was a challenge. The DOE website allows families to search for ADA-accessible schools. But the site describes most schools as “partially accessible,” leaving it up to parents to call each school and say, “What do you mean by this?”

When I called the schools and asked, “Are you a barrier-free school?” the staff in the office didn’t know what the term meant. They might reply, “Oh yeah, we have a ramp.” I’d have to press further: “But can you get to the office? Can you get to every floor in the building?” The response was often, “Oh, I don’t know.”

Even the office staff didn’t know. But for my son’s sake, I needed to know.

Gabriel deserves the full range of academic and social experiences. So every day I make sure he’s learning in the least-restrictive environment — from the classroom, to phys ed, to field trips.

I believe the Department of Education also wants to make schools accessible and to place students with different abilities in settings where they’ll flourish, but the current system is not equipped to follow through on those good intentions. While I see gradual changes, I still know that if I don’t find the best placement for my son the system definitely won’t.

At the school level, administrators should know the details of their own school’s accessibility. Teachers should learn to include children with different abilities in their classrooms. Such a commitment means recognizing the value of inclusivity — not viewing accessibility as something ADA says you must do.

Before I had Gabriel, I never thought about accessibility. I never looked at street cutouts or thought about how to enter a store with steps. We’re probably all guilty of perpetuating exclusion at one point or another.

Recognizing that will allow us to change the status quo. It will allow every individual with a physical disability to fully participate in the public school system.

Claire Fontaine is a researcher at Data & Society, a research institute in New York City focused on social, cultural, and ethical issues arising from technological development. Kinjal Dave is a research assistant at Data & Society. You can read more about their project, which seeks to better understand the ways in which diverse New York City parents draw on school performance data, online dashboards, and school review websites when researching schools for their children.

First Person

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Grace Tatter covers a press conference at the Tennessee State Capitol in 2015.

For three years, I covered the Statehouse for Chalkbeat Tennessee, reporting on how policies from Nashville trickled down into more than 1,800 public schools across the state.

Now I’m starting back to school myself, pursuing graduate studies aimed at helping me to become a better education journalist. I’m taking with me six things I learned on the job about public education in Tennessee.

1. Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.

I heard from hundreds of parents, educators, and students who were passionate about what’s happening — good and bad — inside of schools. I covered crowded school board meetings and regularly scrambled for an open seat at legislative hearings where parents had filled the room after driving since dawn to beat the opening gavel. Not incidentally, those parents usually came from communities with the “worst” schools and the lowest test scores. While many disagreements exist about the best way to run schools, there is no shortage of people, particularly parents and educators, who care.

2. Tennessee has one of the most fascinating education stories in America.

I’ve had a front-row seat to massive changes in K-12 education under reforms ushered in by Race to the Top — an overhaul being tracked closely well beyond the state’s borders. But the national interest and import doesn’t end with changes stemming from the $500 million federal award. Tennessee is home to some of the nation’s premier education researchers, making its classrooms laboratories for new ideas about pre-K, school turnaround, and literacy instruction, just to name a few. And at the legislature, more lobbyists are devoted to education than to most any other cause. A lot of eyes are on Tennessee schools.

3. The education community is not as divided as it looks.

During the course of just a few years, I watched state lawmakers change their positions on accountability and school vouchers. I witnessed “anti-charter” activists praise charter leaders for their work. I chronicled task force meetings where state leaders who were committed to standardized testing found middle ground with classroom educators concerned that it’s gone too far. In short, a lot of people listened to each other and changed their minds. Watching such consensus-building reminded me that, while there are no simple debates about education, there is a widespread commitment to making it better.

4. Money matters.

Even when stories don’t seem to be about money, they usually are. How much money is being spent on testing, teacher salaries, school discipline reform? How much should be available for wraparound services? Why do some schools have more money than others? Is there enough to go around? Tennessee leaders have steadily upped public education spending, but the state still invests less than most other states, and the disparities among districts are gaping. That’s why more than a handful of school districts are battling with the state in court. Conversations about money are inextricable from conversations about improving schools.

5. Race is a significant education issue, but few leaders are willing to have that conversation.

More than 60 years after Brown v. Board of Education, Tennessee’s schools are largely racially segregated. Yet most policymakers tread lightly, if ever, into conversations about achieving real racial integration. And in many cases — such as a 2011 law enabling mostly white suburban Shelby County towns to secede from the mostly black Memphis district — they’ve actually gone backwards. Then there’s the achievement data. The annual release of test scores unleashes a flurry of conversation around the racial achievement gap. But the other 11 months of the year, I heard little about whether state and local policies are closing those gaps — or contributing to them — or the historical reasons why the gaps exist in the first place. To be sure, state leadership is trying to address some of Tennessee’s shortcomings. For example, the State Department of Education has launched modestly funded initiatives to recruit more teachers of color. But often, race and racism are the elephants in the room.

6. Still, there’s lots to celebrate.

If there were unlimited hours in the day, I could have written thousands of stories about what’s going right in public education. Every day, I received story ideas about collaborations with NASA in Oak Ridge, high school trips to Europe from Memphis, gourmet school lunches in Tullahoma, and learning partnerships with the Nashville Zoo. Even in schools with the steepest challenges, they were stories that inspire happiness and hope. They certainly inspired me.

Grace Tatter graduated from public schools in Winston-Salem, N.C., and received her bachelor’s degree in history from the University of North Carolina. She’s now pursuing a master’s degree in specialized studies at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.