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

I’m a principal who thinks personalized learning shouldn’t be a debate.

PHOTO: Lisa Epstein
Lisa Epstein, principal of Richard H. Lee Elementary, supports personalized learning

This is the first in what we hope will be a tradition of thoughtful opinion pieces—of all viewpoints—published by Chalkbeat Chicago. Have an idea? Send it to [email protected]

As personalized learning takes hold throughout the city, Chicago teachers are wondering why a term so appealing has drawn so much criticism.

Until a few years ago, the school that I lead, Richard H. Lee Elementary on the Southwest Side, was on a path toward failing far too many of our students. We crafted curriculum and identified interventions to address gaps in achievement and the shifting sands of accountability. Our teachers were hardworking and committed. But our work seemed woefully disconnected from the demands we knew our students would face once they made the leap to postsecondary education.

We worried that our students were ill-equipped for today’s world of work and tomorrow’s jobs. Yet, we taught using the same model through which we’d been taught: textbook-based direct instruction.

How could we expect our learners to apply new knowledge to evolving facts, without creating opportunities for exploration? Where would they learn to chart their own paths, if we didn’t allow for agency at school? Why should our students engage with content that was disconnected from their experiences, values, and community?

We’ve read articles about a debate over personalized learning centered on Silicon Valley’s “takeover” of our schools. We hear that Trojan Horse technologies are coming for our jobs. But in our school, personalized learning has meant developing lessons informed by the cultural heritage and interests of our students. It has meant providing opportunities to pursue independent projects, and differentiating curriculum, instruction, and assessment to enable our students to progress at their own pace. It has reflected a paradigm shift that is bottom-up and teacher led.

And in a move that might have once seemed incomprehensible, it has meant getting rid of textbooks altogether. We’re not alone.

We are among hundreds of Chicago educators who would welcome critics to visit one of the 120 city schools implementing new models for learning – with and without technology. Because, as it turns out, Chicago is fast becoming a hub for personalized learning. And, it is no coincidence that our academic growth rates are also among the highest in the nation.

Before personalized learning, we designed our classrooms around the educator. Decisions were made based on how educators preferred to teach, where they wanted students to sit, and what subjects they wanted to cover.

Personalized learning looks different in every classroom, but the common thread is that we now make decisions looking at the student. We ask them how they learn best and what subjects strike their passions. We use small group instruction and individual coaching sessions to provide each student with lesson plans tailored to their needs and strengths. We’re reimagining how we use physical space, and the layout of our classrooms. We worry less about students talking with their friends; instead, we ask whether collaboration and socialization will help them learn.

Our emphasis on growth shows in the way students approach each school day. I have, for example, developed a mentorship relationship with one of our middle school students who, despite being diligent and bright, always ended the year with average grades. Last year, when she entered our personalized learning program for eighth grade, I saw her outlook change. She was determined to finish the year with all As.

More than that, she was determined to show that she could master anything her teachers put in front of her. She started coming to me with graded assignments. We’d talk about where she could improve and what skills she should focus on. She was pragmatic about challenges and so proud of her successes. At the end of the year she finished with straight As—and she still wanted more. She wanted to get A-pluses next year. Her outlook had changed from one of complacence to one oriented towards growth.

Rather than undermining the potential of great teachers, personalized learning is creating opportunities for collaboration as teachers band together to leverage team-teaching and capitalize on their strengths and passions. For some classrooms, this means offering units and lessons based on the interests and backgrounds of the class. For a couple of classrooms, it meant literally knocking down walls to combine classes from multiple grade-levels into a single room that offers each student maximum choice over how they learn. For every classroom, it means allowing students to work at their own pace, because teaching to the middle will always fail to push some while leaving others behind.

For many teachers, this change sounded daunting at first. For years, I watched one of my teachers – a woman who thrives off of structure and runs a tight ship – become less and less engaged in her profession. By the time we made the switch to personalized learning, I thought she might be done. We were both worried about whether she would be able to adjust to the flexibility of the new model. But she devised a way to maintain order in her classroom while still providing autonomy. She’s found that trusting students with the responsibility to be engaged and efficient is both more effective and far more rewarding than trying to force them into their roles. She now says that she would never go back to the traditional classroom structure, and has rediscovered her love for teaching. The difference is night and day.

The biggest change, though, is in the relationships between students and teachers. Gone is the traditional, authority-to-subordinate dynamic; instead, students see their teachers as mentors with whom they have a unique and individual connection, separate from the rest of the class. Students are actively involved in designing their learning plans, and are constantly challenged to articulate the skills they want to build and the steps that they must take to get there. They look up to their teachers, they respect their teachers, and, perhaps most important, they know their teachers respect them.

Along the way, we’ve found that students respond favorably when adults treat them as individuals. When teachers make important decisions for them, they see learning as a passive exercise. But, when you make it clear that their needs and opinions will shape each school day, they become invested in the outcome.

As our students take ownership over their learning, they earn autonomy, which means they know their teachers trust them. They see growth as the goal, so they no longer finish assignments just to be done; they finish assignments to get better. And it shows in their attendance rates – and test scores.

Lisa Epstein is the principal of Richard H. Lee Elementary School, a public school in Chicago’s West Lawn neighborhood serving 860 students from pre-kindergarten through eighth grade.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect that Richard H. Lee Elementary School serves 860 students, not 760 students.

First Person

I’ve spent years studying the link between SHSAT scores and student success. The test doesn’t tell you as much as you might think.

PHOTO: Photo by Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images

Proponents of New York City’s specialized high school exam, the test the mayor wants to scrap in favor of a new admissions system, defend it as meritocratic. Opponents contend that when used without consideration of school grades or other factors, it’s an inappropriate metric.

One thing that’s been clear for decades about the exam, now used to admit students to eight top high schools, is that it matters a great deal.

Students admitted may not only receive a superior education, but also access to elite colleges and eventually to better employment. That system has also led to an under-representation of Hispanic students, black students, and girls.

As a doctoral student at The Graduate Center of the City University of New York in 2015, and in the years after I received my Ph.D., I have tried to understand how meritocratic the process really is.

First, that requires defining merit. Only New York City defines it as the score on a single test — other cities’ selective high schools use multiple measures, as do top colleges. There are certainly other potential criteria, such as artistic achievement or citizenship.

However, when merit is defined as achievement in school, the question of whether the test is meritocratic is an empirical question that can be answered with data.

To do that, I used SHSAT scores for nearly 28,000 students and school grades for all public school students in the city. (To be clear, the city changed the SHSAT itself somewhat last year; my analysis used scores on the earlier version.)

My analysis makes clear that the SHSAT does measure an ability that contributes to some extent to success in high school. Specifically, a SHSAT score predicts 20 percent of the variability in freshman grade-point average among all public school students who took the exam. Students with extremely high SHSAT scores (greater than 650) generally also had high grades when they reached a specialized school.

However, for the vast majority of students who were admitted with lower SHSAT scores, from 486 to 600, freshman grade point averages ranged widely — from around 50 to 100. That indicates that the SHSAT was a very imprecise predictor of future success for students who scored near the cutoffs.

Course grades earned in the seventh grade, in contrast, predicted 44 percent of the variability in freshman year grades, making it a far better admissions criterion than SHSAT score, at least for students near the score cutoffs.

It’s not surprising that a standardized test does not predict as well as past school performance. The SHSAT represents a two and a half hour sample of a limited range of skills and knowledge. In contrast, middle-school grades reflect a full year of student performance across the full range of academic subjects.

Furthermore, an exam which relies almost exclusively on one method of assessment, multiple choice questions, may fail to measure abilities that are revealed by the variety of assessment methods that go into course grades. Additionally, middle school grades may capture something important that the SHSAT fails to capture: long-term motivation.

Based on his current plan, Mayor de Blasio seems to be pointed in the right direction. His focus on middle school grades and the Discovery Program, which admits students with scores below the cutoff, is well supported by the data.

In the cohort I looked at, five of the eight schools admitted some students with scores below the cutoff. The sample sizes were too small at four of them to make meaningful comparisons with regularly admitted students. But at Brooklyn Technical High School, the performance of the 35 Discovery Program students was equal to that of other students. Freshman year grade point averages for the two groups were essentially identical: 86.6 versus 86.7.

My research leads me to believe that it might be reasonable to admit a certain percentage of the students with extremely high SHSAT scores — over 600, where the exam is a good predictor —and admit the remainder using a combined index of seventh grade GPA and SHSAT scores.

When I used that formula to simulate admissions, diversity increased, somewhat. An additional 40 black students, 209 Hispanic students, and 205 white students would have been admitted, as well as an additional 716 girls. It’s worth pointing out that in my simulation, Asian students would still constitute the largest segment of students (49 percent) and would be admitted in numbers far exceeding their proportion of applicants.

Because middle school grades are better than test scores at predicting high school achievement, their use in the admissions process should not in any way dilute the quality of the admitted class, and could not be seen as discriminating against Asian students.

The success of the Discovery students should allay some of the concerns about the ability of students with SHSAT scores below the cutoffs. There is no guarantee that similar results would be achieved in an expanded Discovery Program. But this finding certainly warrants larger-scale trials.

With consideration of additional criteria, it may be possible to select a group of students who will be more representative of the community the school system serves — and the pool of students who apply — without sacrificing the quality for which New York City’s specialized high schools are so justifiably famous.

Jon Taylor is a research analyst at Hunter College analyzing student success and retention.