First Person

Parent blog: 2012 healthy schools champs

In this Confessions of a Partially Proficient Parent blog post, EdNews Colorado editor and writer Julie Poppen calls out some committed Colorado moms who are making our schools healthier.

Few people would argue that childhood obesity is a major threat to our nation on many levels, not the least of which is the health and wellbeing of our children as they grow up. But how many parents out there are really willing to put in the time and get down and dirty (in some cases quite literally in a school garden) to make a difference for our kids?

Denver students sampling healthy food options. Photo courtesy Colorado Action for Healthy Kids

In Colorado, plenty.

So, let’s take some time to honor some parents who are making the health of our children a top priority. What better place for a parent to really make healthy change than at school? Public education. The great equalizer. All children come through our educational system and it’s the best way to catch them while they’re young and impressionable.

Colorado Action for Healthy Kids is giving parents the tools they need to make improvements at school in terms of both physical activity and exercise and healthier school lunches, snacks and birthday party treats, and thriving school gardens, too.

The press release announcing these often unsung school volunteers states: “…These heroes have demonstrated exceptional dedication and service towards the vision, mission, and goals of Action for Healthy Kids through volunteer work in their schools.”

Award winners will receive a $500 health and wellness grant for their school.

Drum roll please…..

2012 Healthy School Heroes

The nonprofit organization’s Parents are the Power Healthy School Heroes for 2012  (and details written about them by their peers) are:

Linda Bartels, Cottonwood Creek Elementary (Cherry Creek): Linda has been a tireless volunteer working to make health and wellness a focus at her school and in her district for many years. This year she organized bike to school days, and she developed and implemented the school’s first Healthy Choices Week – a week-long event that focused on nutrition and physical activity.

Tracy Edwards, Bradley International Elementary (Denver): Tracy coordinated 16 volunteers and worked with local grocery stores, food banks and community partners to provide a bag of food – a “backpack” – for 50 students to take home each week. Her infectious grace and drive inspired other parents to donate their time and energy to make sure the kids most in need got the nutritious foods they needed through the Backpack Program.

Ire Evans, Challenge School (Cherry Creek): Ire has volunteered hundreds of hours preparing healthy snacks for the students and parents at her school and working with Nutrition Services to better understand the policy and procedures around school food so that she can support healthier meals. Ire started a health and wellness team at her school and is working on getting a school garden up and running.

Francine Loomiller, Carl Sandburg Elementary (Littleton): An avid gardener, Francine took it upon herself to work with several community partners to start a garden at her school. In collaboration with students, Francine came up with the idea of a “pizza garden” and now they are growing all the toppings needed for a delicious pizza. Francine is teaching the kids where their food comes from and helping them to better understand the importance of what they eat.

Cindy Pignatore, Blue Heron Elementary (Jeffco): Cindy’s nomination comes directly from the school principal. She has been an outstanding leader of wellness at both the school and district level. Cindy was instrumental in the successful application for a school garden grant and she coordinated a “Harvest Bar” in the school cafeteria that features fresh fruits and vegetables. The kids love it.

Julie Strain, Greenwood Elementary (Cherry Creek): Julie recognized a need for a focus around health and wellness at her school, so she jumped in as PTCO President to better direct the effort. Under Julie’s leadership the school started a health and wellness team, expanded a morning running club to meet year-round, held its first school-wide fun run in which over 400 kids participated, and most importantly, got discussions going around the school’s values related to health and wellness.

Deirdre Sullivan, O’Dea Core Knowledge Elementary (Poudre): Deirdre works professionally as a health educator and carries that passion over to volunteer work in her children’s school. In 2009 Deirdre recognized the need for more physical activity in her school. She developed a “PE for Me Campaign” and got the initiative on the mill levy ballot. In 2010 it passed and those funds are being used to support more PE, health services and interventions that include physical activity.

Congratulations to all these Colorado moms.

In Colorado, despite its reputation for being lean and mean, we’ve still got issues. According to LiveWell Colorado, nearly 58 percent of Colorado adults and a quarter of our children are overweight or obese. If trends continue, only 33 percent of Colorado adults will be a healthy weight by 2020.

So, let’s all roll up our sleeves and get to work. (A lot of this work is fun and tasty, too).

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.

First Person

I’m a Houston geography teacher. This is my plan for our first day back — as soon as it arrives

PHOTO: Creative Commons / Texas Military Department
Texas National Guard soldiers arrive in Houston, Texas to aid citizens in heavily flooded areas from the storms of Hurricane Harvey.

Hurricane Harvey has upended so many things here in Houston, where I am starting my third year as a teacher. One of them is the lesson I am planning for the first day of school — as soon as it arrives.

This upheaval is nothing compared to what people across the city have faced, including my students, who have been sending me photos of evacuation boats going past their houses.

But it is fundamental to the task of being a teacher at a time of crisis. As an A.P. Human Geography teacher, my job is to help students make connections between the geography concepts we are learning in class and their real lives: Does Houston look like the models of urban development we study? Does their family history include a migration?

Before the storm, my thinking went like this: I am white and was born in England and most of my students are Hispanic, many with parents who were born in other countries. I was excited for us to share and compare our different stories. My students last year were shocked and fascinated when they discovered that my white, middle-aged father who is a university professor was applying for a green card, just as many of their family members were.

Now, Hurricane Harvey has underlined for me the importance of those real-world connections. As I looked at the photos from my students, I was struck by how geography concepts can affect us in very real — even life-threatening — ways.

I had planned to teach a lesson at the end of the year about how urbanization affects the environment. The lesson looks at how urbanization can exacerbate flooding: for example, how paving over grassy areas can increase the speed with which rain reaches the bayous, causing the water levels to rise faster. I would then have students evaluate different policies cities can adopt to mitigate that risk, such as encouraging the building on brownfield rather than greenfield sites and passing laws to protect farmland — options that have significant benefits but also significant costs.

I have decided to move this lesson up in the curriculum and teach it when we have school again. School is scheduled to start again on Tuesday, though at this stage everything is provisional, as each hour we find out about more families that have had their homes destroyed by the rising waters. It is still unclear how all our staff, let alone students, will get to school.

I am worried that the lesson could re-traumatize students who have experienced so much trauma in the past few days. I know I will need to make an active effort to make students feel comfortable stepping into the hall if they are feeling overwhelmed. However, my experiences with the recent presidential election make me think that this lesson is exactly what some students might need.

After the election, many students were genuinely confused about what had happened. One question in particular was on their minds: How you can you win the popular vote but not the election? We talked through the Electoral College together, and having clarity about what had happened and why it happened seemed to give them a firmer foundation to build on as they processed their emotions. I am hopeful that teaching about flooding will help ground them in a similar way.

This lesson about flooding was once simply another lesson in the curriculum, but now it has taken on a new urgency. In moments of disaster, it is easy to feel powerless; I certainly could not help the people I saw posting on Facebook that they were been on hold with 911 for hours while standing on their roofs.

Yet teachers have a unique power — the power to shape the minds of future generations to solve the problems that we face. Houston’s location means that it will always be susceptible to flooding. But by teaching about the flood I hope I can play a small role in helping our city avoid repeating some of the tragic scenes I witnessed this week.

Alex McNaughton teaches history and geography at YES Prep Southeast in Houston.

Looking to help? YES Prep is collecting donations to support its students and their families. Houston ISD and KIPP Houston are also soliciting donations for their students.