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.

Business of education

Memphis leaders say diversifying school business contracts will help in the classroom, too

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Winston Gipson confers with his wife and daughter, who help run Gipson Mechanical Contractors, a family-owned business in Memphis for 35 years.

Winston Gipson used to do up to $10 million of work annually for Memphis City Schools. The construction and mechanical contracts were so steady, he recalls, that his minority-owned family business employed up to 200 people at its peak in the early 2000s.

Looking back, Gipson says being able to build schools was key to breaking through in the private sector.

“When we got contracts in the private sector, it’s because we did the projects in the public sector,” said Gipson, who started Gipson Mechanical Contractors with his wife in 1983. “That allowed us to go to the private sector and say ‘Look what we’ve done.’”

But that work has become increasingly scarce over the years for him and many other minorities and women. The program designed to address contract disparities in Memphis City Schools was cut during its 2013 merger with Shelby County Schools.

A recent study found that a third of qualified local companies are owned by white women and people of color, but such businesses were awarded just 15 percent of the contracts for Shelby County Schools in the last five years.

It was even worse for black-owned construction companies, like Gipson’s, which make up more than a third of the local industry but were awarded less than 1 percent of contracts.

The disparity is being spotlighted as the city prepares to mark the 50th anniversary of the death of civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr., who was assassinated in Memphis while trying to fight for the rights of minority workers in 1968.

On Jan. 25, Chalkbeat will co-host a panel discussion on how Shelby County Schools, as one of the city’s largest employers, can be an economic driver for women- and black-owned businesses. Called “Show Me The Money: The Education Edition,” the evening event will be held at Freedom Preparatory Academy’s new Whitehaven campus in conjunction with MLK50 Justice Through Journalism and High Ground News.

Community leaders say school-related business contracts are a matter of equity, but also an education strategy. Since poverty is a crucial factor in why many Memphis students fall behind in school, the lack of job opportunities for their parents must be part of the discussion, they say.

The district already is taking steps to improve its record on minority contracting, starting with setting new goals and resurrecting the city district’s hiring program.

Big district, big opportunity

Shelby County Schools is Tennessee’s largest district. With an annual budget of more than $1 billion, it awards $314 million in business contracts.   

An otherwise dismal 1994 study of local government contract spending highlighted Memphis City Schools’ program to increase participation of historically marginalized businesses as one of the county’s most diverse, though some areas were cited as needing improvement. The same study criticized the former county school system, which lacked such a program, for its dearth of contracts with Minority and Women Business Enterprises (MWBEs).

But when the two districts merged in 2013, the program in Memphis City Schools disappeared.

“We had to cut, cut, cut,” said school board member Teresa Jones. “We were trying to stay alive as a district. We did not focus as we should have.”

Jones, a former school board chairwoman, said it’s time to revisit the things that were working before the merger. “We have to get back,” she said, “to make sure there’s equity, opportunity, access, and an atmosphere that promotes business with Shelby County Schools.”

District and community leaders say the consolidated district has lost its ability to develop relationships with qualified minority-owned businesses.

“There was an infrastructure where African-Americans felt comfortable enough approaching the school system” for work, said Melvin Jones, CEO of Memphis Business Contracting Consortium, a black business advocacy group formed in 2015. “There was trust. During the merger, they dropped the infrastructure.”

Brenda Allen

Without the outreach, “we’re seeing the same vendors,” said Brenda Allen, hired last summer as procurement director for Shelby County Schools after working in Maryland’s Prince George County Public Schools, where she oversaw a diversity contracting program.

“We’re not marketing the district like we should,” she told school board members in November.  

Shelby County Schools is not alone in disproportionately hiring white and male-owned companies for public business. Just 3 percent of all revenue generated in Memphis goes to firms owned by non-white people, even though people of color make up 72 percent of the city’s population, according to a 2016 report by the Mid-South Minority Business Council Continuum.

Not coincidentally, district and community leaders say, Memphis has the highest rate of young adults who aren’t working or in college, and the highest poverty rate among the nation’s major metropolitan areas. About 60 percent of students in Shelby County Schools live in poverty and all but three of the district’s schools qualify for federal funding for schools serving high-poverty neighborhoods.

Jozelle Luster Booker, the CEO of the MMBC Continuum, developed an equity contracting program for the city utility company following the 1994 study that was so critical of the city. The program funneled half a billion dollars to minority-owned businesses — an example of how government policies can promote equitable contracting, and grow businesses too.

“When that happens, you could basically change the socioeconomic conditions of that community, which impacts learning,” Booker said. “They’re ready to learn when they come to school.”

Shelby County Schools plans to hire a consulting firm to help develop a procurement outreach program and set diversity goals for its contractors and subcontractors. The program will launch in July, and Allen plans to hire three people to oversee it.

PHOTO: Brad Vest/The Commercial Appeal
Bricklayers from TopCat Masonry Contractors LLC work on an apartment complex in downtown Memphis in 2014.

The district also is part of a city-led group that provides a common certification process for businesses seeking contracts with city and county governments, the airport, the transit authority, and Memphis Light Gas & Water. The city’s office of business diversity and compliance also has a list of qualified minority businesses, offers free business development courses, and accepts referrals from other government entities to reduce redundancy.

“As you spend public dollars, you always want those dollars to be spent in your neighborhoods because that money comes back into your economy,” Allen said. “When people have jobs, you should see crime go down. You should see more people wanting to do business in the community if you have a good program.”

Leveling the playing field

In order for it to work, there has to be consistent reports, measures and, most of all,  accountability, according to Janice Banks, CEO of Small Planet Works, who helped the district with its disparity study.

Gipson agrees.

A wall of his second-floor Memphis office is lined with photos of some of his most significant projects during his 35 years of business, including a multimillion-dollar mechanical contract with AutoZone when the Memphis-based car part company moved its headquarters downtown in the early 2000s.

The work was made possible, he said, because of public sector jobs like constructing nine schools under Memphis City Schools. But that work evaporated after the merger. “It’s mostly been Caucasian companies that do the work (now),” he said. “It’d be one thing if you didn’t have anyone qualified to do it.”

Shelby County Schools will have to show commitment, he said, if it wants to level the playing field.

“You have the mechanism in place to make a difference,” he said. “Now do you make a difference with that mechanism or do you just walk around, beat your chest, and say we have a disparity study and let things run the way they’ve been running?”

“If you don’t make it happen, it will not happen,” he said.

college plans

As Washington decides their fate, ‘Dreamers’ preparing for college are stuck in limbo

PHOTO: Joe Amon/The Denver Post
Randi Smith, a psychology teacher at Metro State University, marched to support Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals during a citywide walkout in downtown Denver, CO.

While many high schoolers spend spring of their senior year coasting through classes and waiting to hear back from colleges, undocumented students who hope to attend college spend their time calling lawyers, consulting school counselors, and scouring the internet in search of ways to pay for school without the help of federal financial aid or student loans — assuming they even get in.

That process, anxiety-provoking even in a normal year, has become incalculably more chaotic this admissions season — even traumatic — as these young undocumented immigrants watch President Trump and lawmakers wrangle over Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, the program that has until now allowed them to remain in the country without having to fear deportation.

As the policy battle nears a climax, these students aren’t just breathlessly waiting to learn whether they’ll be accepted into college — they’re waiting to see whether they have a future in this country.

“It’s different for me. It’s definitely more stressful and there are times when you want to give up,” said an undocumented student at KIPP NYC College Prep High School, who is graduating this year and applying to colleges. She requested anonymity because of her legal status. “But then I remind myself that regardless of what’s going on, I’m still going to do what I’ve set myself to do.”

High school counselors are also feeling the strain. They already faced the difficult task of helping undocumented students compete for private scholarships, and finding schools that will support those students once they’re on campus. Now those counselors also must monitor each twist and turn of the immigration debate in Washington, while, somehow, trying to keep their undocumented students focused on college.

One of those counselors is John Kearney, who works at Guadalupe Centers Alta Vista High School, a charter school in Kansas City, Missouri. Dozens of his soon-to-graduate students are beneficiaries of DACA, a program created under former President Obama that allows undocumented immigrants who were brought to the country as children to avoid deportation and work here legally. Lately, they have been asking him why they should even consider college when their fate in the U.S. is so uncertain.

“The big question is, ‘Why? Why go to college, and then I can’t even work, then why?’” said Kearney, who also helped start a nonprofit that provides scholarships to undocumented students. “It’s a really tough question.”

As of Friday, President Trump and lawmakers were still locked in heated negotiations over DACA, which Trump said this fall that he would eliminate unless Congress enshrined it in law. Without an agreement, it is set to expire March 5, just as graduating seniors firm up their college plans. If that happens, young immigrants, often called Dreamers, could lose the few crucial protections they have. For many, their DACA status has already lapsed.

Even with DACA’s protections, Dreamers face massive hurdles to enroll in college: They don’t qualify for federal aid or loans, and, in some states, are barred from receiving financial aid or even attending public universities. Out of the estimated 65,000 undocumented students who graduate from high school every year, only 5-10 percent enroll in college.

Following Trump’s announcement in September, counselors have also had to race against the clock counting down to DACA’s expiration: That meant juggling college application deadlines with the October cutoff for students to apply for renewed DACA status.

The KIPP charter school network received a donation this year to help students pay for the renewal fee, which has been a godsend for many students — including the young woman who is graduating from KIPP NYC College Prep High School.

As soon as she learned the school would pay the fee for her, she immediately called her father, who is also undocumented and repairs beauty-salon equipment for a living.

“My dad was definitely trying to round up the money before the deadline, so it was a blessing that the school was able to find a donor,” she said. “I told him not to worry about it and it was a relief — like a weight off his shoulders.”

If the girl was trying to relieve her father’s stress, her college counselor, Rob Santos, was trying to do the same for her. Even as she balanced college-application essays, transcripts, and the rest, she was also coming to realize how quickly her life would change if DACA is not extended.

“There was definitely extra emotional support that I’ve had to provide this year,” Santos said. “I definitely had my DACA student in my office, and tears were happening.”

Santos keeps a running list of the colleges that accept students who don’t have permanent legal status and the few scholarships available to them. Many of those scholarships require undocumented students to have DACA status. If the program ends, it’s unclear whether students will still be eligible.

Still, Santos said his dreamer student rarely talks about the political furor surrounding her future in the U.S. as she awaits her college-acceptance letter. Instead, she’s more likely to discuss her hope of one day studying business and fashion.

“Our DACA students are resilient. They’re optimistic,” Santos said. “But they’re also realistic for what could actually happen.”