The Other 60 Percent

A hard sell: walking and biking to school

girl, mom and friend walking
First-grader Jordan Walker, family friend Barbara Billings and Jordan’s mother Melissa Walker pause as they wait to cross Colfax Ave. on the way to Colfax Elementary School.

On a sunny Friday morning, first-grader Jordan Walker donned her pink Dora the Explorer backpack and set off for school with her mother, Melissa Walker.

The two walked through the quiet side streets of Denver’s West Colfax neighborhood. Halfway to Colfax Elementary they met up with a family friend, Barbara Billings, who accompanied them the rest of the way.

Despite an abundance of neighborhood children who attend the school, the three were alone on the 15-minute walk until they were just across Colfax Avenue from the school, alongside a used car lot. A few other walkers appeared there, but many more kids climbed out of idling cars in front of the school.

It’s a fact that frustrates and demoralizes Melissa Walker. Last fall, she organized a “walking school bus,” so Colfax students could gather at designated meeting spots and walk to school with parents or other adult chaperones like Billings or her husband Jeff. The project, which included seven children at its height, fell apart after a couple months.

“The parents weren’t that interested,” said Walker.

Walker started the walking bus in the interest of safety. She’d seen unaccompanied kindergarten and first grade children escorting younger siblings to school. She’d seen the alarm on children’s faces when encountering a mentally ill man shouting gibberish. She’d worried about the heavy traffic on Colfax and, until it was adjusted mid-year, the short green light that would sometimes turn yellow then red while kids were still crossing. Although some school staff had also expressed concern about these problems, Walker said the administration wasn’t particularly supportive of her plan.

The lone bike at Colfax Elementary on a recent school day.
The lone bike at Colfax Elementary on a recent school day.

Walker’s experience demonstrates some of the unique challenges involved in getting children to walk or bike to school in urban neighborhoods where concerns about traffic safety, stranger danger or criminal activity often trump concerns about children not getting enough fresh air and exercise. Even professionals who advocate for active transportation like biking and walking, admit that overcoming parental fears, not to mention a car-oriented culture, can be daunting.

Tackling the culture shift

Lauren Croucher, the injury prevention coordinator at Denver Health, has led the seven-year-old Denver Safe Routes to School Coalition since 2011. She said the toughest thing about getting kids to walk or bike to school is overcoming cultural norms that make walking and biking a back-up plan instead of the first choice.

At schools where walk- and bike-to-school efforts have been successful, she said “There’s really been a critical mass that helps tip this thing in the right direction…The places that have been successful are the places that have addressed the culture shift.”

Croucher, who has increasingly focused on shaping policy to encouraging walking and biking, said achieving that shift can be very difficult for a lone parent like Walker.

Liz Van Nostrand, the school nurse at Colfax, can attest to that, naming a litany of ills that impact the school. Test scores are low, attendance is spotty and parent engagement is “really pathetic.” Of the school’s 420 students, 97 percent are eligible for free- or reduced-price meals. About 83 percent live within a mile of the school.

“It’s just a really tough area,” she said. “You have families who are not functioning at the top of the scale and their lives are really chaotic.”

And previous special events, like a walk-to-school day, haven’t made much impact.

“I don’t think it got very far,” said Gertraud Torrez, a preschool teacher at Colfax.

Torrez said that about three of her 15 students walk to school most days. The rest don’t because of safety concerns, she said as she leafed through a stack of parent surveys where that worry surfaced repeatedly.

New pedestrian push in Denver

Over the years, various Denver schools, including Colfax, have received mini-grants or safety programming funded by the National Safe Routes to School program, which was created in 2005. But schools were often referred by word of mouth and the work was done in a fragmented way, said Jenna Berman, education director for Bicycle Colorado.

DPS schools getting Safe Routes to School money

  • Amesse
  • Doull
  • Schmitt
  • College View
  • Godsman
  • Johnson
  • Harrington
  • Cole Arts and Sciences Academy

Now, Berman and other advocates are hoping a new $117,000 Safe Routes to School grant will usher in a new, more strategic effort to encouraging biking and walking among children in high-needs pockets of Denver.

Eight elementary schools, including five in southwest Denver, will benefit from the grant. All were chosen based on their ranking in a new data matrix created by Croucher that prioritizes all DPS elementary, middle and K-8 schools based on need. The matrix weighs factors such as the number of pedestrians involved in car accidents near a school, the percentage of low-income students and the percentage of students living within one mile of the school.

“Next year is kind of a launching of a new push,” said Berman.

While Denver Health is the official grant recipient, staff from Bicycle Colorado and BikeDenver will provide bike and walking safety education in each school’s physical education classes next year. In addition, WalkDenver will conduct walkability audits around each school that examine infrastructure issues such as missing sidewalks, high speed traffic or not enough green light time for crossing streets.

Gosia Kung, executive director of WalkDenver, said the combination of safety education and infrastructure assessments represents a more comprehensive approach. She hopes that once infrastructure problems are identified, capital improvement grants will be sought to continue the momentum.

This countdown meter was installed by Colfax Elementary School this year.
This countdown meter was installed by Colfax Elementary School this year.

Van Nostrand knows firsthand the challenges of getting infrastructure needs addressed. Last fall, after complaints from the school’s wellness team about the short green light at the corner of Colfax and Tennyson, she repeatedly contacted the city to increase its length and secure a countdown meter indicating the number of seconds left for a safe crossing.

“I basically just harassed somebody,” she said.

That kind of persistence may well be another key ingredient for pedestrian-friendly neighborhoods. Next year, Berman hopes that besides educating students about walking and biking safety at the eight schools, the work will impact parents too.

“Then we can arm them and support their process in accessing local government,” she said.

Who cares if kids walk to school?

Does it matter if kids walk or bike to school? Advocates say it’s a public health issue, affecting childhood obesity rates, mental health and environmental health.

“You walk around, you see a lot of overweight kids,” said Van Nostrand. “Getting exercise and fresh air is good for mental health. It’s good for physical health.”

Although Colorado’s adult population is among the fittest in the nation, Colorado ranks 23rd for childhood obesity. In addition, despite recommendations that children ages 6 to 17 get an hour of physical activity a day, only 49 percent of Colorado children ages  5 to 14 reached that threshold, according to 2011 data from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.

A recent study published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, found that walking or biking to school does make a difference. That study, which quantified how many minutes of physical activity various policy or built environment changes represent, found that active commuting to school added 16 minutes to a child’s day. Of the nine interventions reviewed, the three most effective were daily physical education classes, classroom activity breaks, and walking or biking to school.

A different Denver experience

At Bill Roberts School, a pre-K-8 school in Stapleton, the student population and the neighborhood is a lot different than West Colfax, but until recently, the problem was the same. Although about two-thirds of the school’s nearly 800 students lived within a mile of the school and sidewalks are wide and ubiquitous, not many kids were walking or biking to school.

In 2010, parent Kristen Klaassen decided to do something about it. She’d heard about an innovative Boulder-based program called Boltage while listening to NPR and soon began raising money to implement it at Bill Roberts. The program’s key technology is a $5,000 solar-powered machine called the “Zap” that’s erected outside a school and, with the help of backpack tags containing computer chips, records which students walk or bike to school each day. Students earn prizes like shoelaces and wristbands as they rack up more trips.

Bike racks at Bill Roberts School after the Boltage program began. Photo courtesy of Kristin Klaassen.
Bike racks at Bill Roberts School after the Boltage program began.<em> Photo courtesy of Kristen Klaassen</em>.

Boltage launched at Bill Roberts in April 2011 and today records about 60 trips a day. That number is down in recent months partly because of bad weather and partly because Klaassen hasn’t been as active about advertising it. Last year, the number of daily trips was about 80.

“It definitely has made an impact,” she said, adding that she’d like to see it attract even more kids. “It just reminds me that to change attitudes and expectations, you have to be on them all the time.”

In contrast to Melissa Walker’s experience at Colfax, Klaassen enjoyed widespread support as she spearheaded Boltage, from the school’s administration, its Green Team and from many parents and teachers.

But Berman, of Bicycle Colorado, said she empathizes with Walker’s struggles. “It’s an uphill battle,” she said.

Despite the overall success of the program at Bill Roberts, Berman said Boltage is too expensive for many schools, particularly the high-priority schools being targeted by the new grant. She noted that a similar but lower-tech trip-tracking tool is available for free through a new program called “Fire Up Your Feet,” sponsored by Kaiser Permanente, the Safe Routes to School National Partnership and the National PTA.

The program, which can be used as a fund-raising tool, allows students to earn prizes by keeping track of pedestrian trips to and from school as well as physical activity during the school day on the program’s website.

How I Help

Why this high school counselor asks students, ‘What do you wish your parents knew?’

Today, we launch a new series called “How I Help,” which features school counselors, social workers and psychologists across Colorado. It is a companion to our popular “How I Teach” and “How I Lead” series.

Through “How I Help,” we hope to give readers a glimpse into the professional lives of school staff members who often work behind the scenes but nevertheless have a big impact on the day-to-day lives of students.

Our first “How I Help” features Cassie Poncelow, a counselor at Poudre High School in Fort Collins. She was the 2016 Colorado School Counselor of the Year and is one of six finalists for the 2018 National School Counselor of the Year award.

Poncelow talked to Chalkbeat about how she creates a legacy of caring, what teens want their parents to know and why peer-to-peer mentoring is better than a social-emotional curriculum taught by adults.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.

Why did you become a school counselor?
I was incredibly fortunate to have many powerful educators shape my life in my time as a student, but none did more so than my school counselors. My counselor from high school remains a dear friend and mentor. I knew that I wanted to be a part of what is happening in education and loved the diversity of the school counselor job. They get to collaborate with so many different stakeholders, get to know students in really cool ways and be involved with so many aspects of making change.

Cassie Poncelow

Tell us about an effort or initiative you spearheaded at your school that you’re particularly proud of.
Three years ago, we noticed that students were dropping out continuously because they were short on graduation credits and tired of taking the same classes over and over again. I worked with a team to create Opportunities Unlimited, which is a dropout recovery program for students ages 17-21 that is focused on GED completion and concurrent enrollment opportunities. A fifth cohort started this fall and the program has graduated 26 students in two years.

Is there a tool, curriculum or program you couldn’t live without in your job?
Our Ambassadors program is in many ways the backbone of our climate and culture at Poudre High School. This program trains 50 upperclassmen to mentor freshmen through a year-long curriculum that includes topics like stress management, suicide prevention and sexual assault. This mentoring model means that every freshman has an ambassador that is connecting with them for almost three hours each month. The ambassadors deliver comprehensive, peer-to-peer education that is far beyond and better than any social-emotional learning curriculum that counselors could facilitate. As the co-leader for this program, I also couldn’t live without the hope that this crew gives me. They are the best part of my job.

What’s the biggest misconception you’ve encountered about your role in the school(s) where you work?
I am grateful to work in a place and with people who see the vital role of school counselors and are eager to partner with them. In my time at Poudre High School we have added two new school counseling positions, further demonstrating our school’s belief in the work we do. I have worked at schools in the past that created a lot of systemic barriers to accessing school counselors and I think this was based on a misconception that we were a more frivolous part of services for students.

You spend lots of time with students. Knowing what you know, what advice would you give to parents?
I often ask my students, “What do you wish your parents knew?” What I hear consistently is a plea for them to remember what it was like to be 16: How painful and awkward it was, how boys were all the rage and not getting invited somewhere really was the actual worst.

So, I advise parents to remember that. And remember that a lot of what they dealt with at 16 is even more complicated by the world our kids are experiencing. Social media wasn’t a reality when they were kids and our current students have never known a world where mass shootings haven’t happened often. I know it’s no, “I walked uphill both ways without shoes in the snow,” but this is a scary time to be student — different, but equally hard. Our kids need us to hear them in that. And believe that they can change it.

Tell us about a time when you managed to connect with a challenging student or a student facing a difficult situation. How did you do it?
At my core, I think we all thrive on authentic relationships and I do whatever I can to create these with my students. I want each of my students to feel like I am truly in their corner and a champion not only of what they do but more so of who they are. I hope to not only live this, but to model it for my students in ways that inspire them to do the same.

This semester I have a freshman boy who was consistently skipping class (who knew gas station tacos were such a draw?) and failing multiple classes. His “consequence” is that he has to spend a period working on missing work in my office. I also have a slew of seniors who have made my office their home during this fifth hour, many who are excellent students and are just looking for a place to study. They have taken this freshman under their wing and are committed to his success far beyond what I could ever be. They are constantly asking about his upcoming exams, what he needs help with and celebrating his rising grades with him. I think I have built really authentic relationships with these upperclassmen who then remember what it means to feel connected and cared for and are passionate about showing this student just that. I often stress “legacy” to my students and this seems like a clear picture of that.

What is the hardest part of your job?
Kid stuff is hard. I hurt for kids a lot, as I think all educators do. They live lives far beyond our walls and far beyond what we could imagine and ever control. That’s the hardest. Close second would be trying to operate in a system that seems to be driven by folks who aren’t doing the work. I recognize that there are so many moving pieces and would love to have some of the actual “decision-makers” come spend the day in our role and better understand the work we do.

Tell us about a memorable time — good or bad — when contact with a student’s family changed your perspective or approach.
A year ago, I had a student who was really struggling with some significant mental health issues. I knew that we needed to bring in a parent but the girl was very anxious about this idea, to the point where she had literally crumpled up on my office floor. After calling her mom to meet with us, I joined her on the floor of my office to talk more. Her mom walked in shortly after, assessed the scene and sat right down on the floor with us, despite the chair-filled room. This move shifted everything and I was so grateful for her wisdom to be where her kid was at. It was a good reminder to me to do that always: be where kids are at.

You spend your days trying to help students and staff with any number of things. How do you wind down after a stressful day?
A lot of my unwinding still includes my students as I announce volleyball games or attend other sporting events or performances. I love these opportunities because they let me see my kids in a different light and remind me how awesome they are. I also spend as much time outside as possible, whether it’s going for a quick hike with my pup or a bike ride. Beyond traveling and reading, I cheer hard for the CSU Rams! Go State!

Big money

Millions in grant dollars will bring more counselors to Indiana’s underserved students

KIPP Indy was one of several schools in the county to receive a counseling grant.

Scores of Indiana schools were awarded private grants that will allow them to bolster counseling services for students, many of whom are lacking help for an increasing portfolio of problems, including fallout from the state’s drug epidemic and basic needs like advice on college applications.

The $26.4 million in grants, decided last month, include six for Marion County districts and charter schools. They were awarded by Lilly Endowment, a prominent Indianapolis-based philanthropy founded by key players in the pharmaceutical giant Eli Lilly.

The grants went to 52 school districts and five charter schools, covering about a third of the state’s counties. Based on enrollment, they ranged from about $68,000 to almost $3 million.

Lilly began its push to help schools build better counseling programs last year.

“The response from school corporations and charter schools far exceeded the Endowment’s expectations,” said Sara B. Cobb, the Endowment’s vice president for education. “We believe that this response demonstrates a growing awareness that enhanced and expanded counseling programs are urgently needed to address the academic, college, career, and social and emotional counseling needs of Indiana’s K-12 students.”

As Chalkbeat previously reported, school counselors have been stretched exceedingly thin in recent years, both in Indiana and across the country. On average, each Hoosier counselor is responsible for 630 students, making Indiana 45th out of 50 states and the District of Columbia for counselor-to-student ratios. The American School Counselor Association recommends a ratio of no higher than one counselor for every 250 students.

So far, state-led efforts to expand counseling have fallen short; a bill proposed in 2015 to require a counselor in every school was withdrawn for further study, and the issue hasn’t resurfaced significantly in the legislature since. At the time, cost was the sticking point.

Schools and districts had to apply for the grants and show how they would use the money. Lilly reported that mental health and business partnerships, mentoring programs, improving curriculum and adding in more training for staff were all strategies that grant-winners have proposed.

Initially, 254 districts and charter schools applied, many pointing out how Indiana’s recent opioid crisis has increased social and emotional challenges for students. Counselors have to juggle those serious needs with college and career advising and, increasingly, responsibilities that have nothing to do with counseling, such as overseeing standardized tests.

Because of the level of interest, Lilly is planning a second round of grants, which would total up to $10 million.

“Because the implementation grant process was so competitive, the Endowment had to decline several proposals that had many promising features,” Cobb said. “We believe that with a few enhancements, many of these proposals will be very competitive in the second round of the Counseling Initiative.”

These are the districts and schools in Marion County that received counseling grants. (Find the full list here.)

  • Indianapolis Public Schools: $2,871,400
  • KIPP Indianapolis: $100,000
  • Lawrence Township: $1,527,400
  • Pike Township: $1,114,700
  • Neighborhood Charter Network: $68,312
  • Southeast Neighborhood School of Excellence: $99,870

IPS said in a news release that it planned to use the grant money to build counseling centers in each of the district’s high schools, which would begin operating in 2018 after IPS transitions to four high schools. Superintendent Lewis Ferebee said counselors are “critical” for students as they prepare to graduate high school and pursue higher education and careers.

“We’re thrilled that the students and families we serve will benefit from this gift,” Ferebee said.