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.

school support

When students miss school, they fall behind. Here’s how one group is curbing absenteeism.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Two of Agape's staff members work with students on reading at Whitney Achievement Elementary School. The staff members, though employed by the Memphis nonprofit, are integrated into school life.

When Crystal Bullard moved to Memphis from the Bahamas last year, she was looking for a new life and a better education for her three young children.

What she found was an overwhelming school system that was hard to navigate, and an environment where her children felt like outsiders.

Her children, ages 4, 7 and 9, were initially bullied at Whitney Achievement Elementary School, the North Memphis school she chose because it was closest to her home. The bullying meant her kids didn’t want to go to school. For Bullard, missing a day or two was a common problem at the beginning of last school year.

“When I came here, I didn’t know nothing. I had nothing,” Bullard said. “I came to this school because it was the first I found. But it was so hard to get the kids up and here every day. We struggled with that for many weeks.”

Bullard is not alone in her daily battle to get the kids to school. Almost a fifth of Memphis students are considered chronically absent, which means they missed at least 18 days during the school year. Research has shown chronic absenteeism is linked to negative outcomes for students, including lower test scores, higher dropout rates, and even a greater risk of entering the criminal justice system.

Absenteeism has such a large impact on learning, districts are under pressure from new national legislation to include chronic absenteeism data in how they evaluate schools.

In Memphis, a local nonprofit is working to improve attendance numbers. Agape Child & Family Services places its employees in schools throughout Memphis to help with attendance, behavior, and academic issues.

Bullard said her life began to change when her family joined the Agape program. The three full-time Agape workers at Whitney walked Bullard through why it was crucial for her kids to come to school every day. They provided her with school supplies and uniforms, and tutored her children. Agape also provided counseling for Bullard and her children through another part of its organization.

“My kids have too many friends now,” Bullard said. “They aren’t afraid, they’re excited to come to school. My kids are 100 percent better now than when we came. We still have issues to work out, but we feel welcome.”

For schools like Whitney Elementary, days of missed instruction can quickly put students behind academically. Whitney was taken over in 2012 by the state’s Achievement School District, which is trying to turn around Tennessee’s worst-performing schools. Every day of instruction matters in their efforts to boost student achievement, Whitney principal LaSandra Young said.

“Our attendance is low at the start of the year because students have transferred or moved,” said Young. The school currently enrolls 263 kids — Agape helps the school track students down.

Agape, Whitney Elementary, Memphis
PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Crystal Bullard’s children started preschool and elementary school at Whitney last year.

“Sometimes it’s as simple as they don’t have school supplies yet or are struggling with transportation,” Young said. “The extra support they provide is crucial because every day of attendance really does matter.”

Charity Ellis, one of Agape’s staff members at Whitney, said her job can look very different day-to-day, but working closely with students is consistent. Some days Agape pulls students out of class to work intensely on reading or math skills. Or if students are struggling with behavior in class, Agape staff members will pull the students into the hallway to speak with them and calm them down.

Agape staff also try to stay in constant communication with parents, especially if their kids are missing school, Ellis said.

If parents are running late, they might decide to keep their student at home rather than bring them for a half day, Ellis said. “But when we communicate with them how important every hour of learning is, they get that. Sometimes all it takes is one conversation and how deeply we care about their kids.”

Agape worked with 82 kids at Whitney Elementary last year, who were chosen by the school, including Bullard’s three children. About 90 percent of those students are now attending at least 90 percent of the school year, said David Jordan, CEO of Agape.

The program has grown every year from when it began in 2013 with 113 students. Now, more than 550 students are a part of Agape programs in 16 schools throughout the Frayser, Raleigh, Hickory Hill, and Whitehaven neighborhoods — and they are all now at school for at least 85 percent of the school year. This is just shy of their goal for Agape students to attend more than 90 percent of the year.

For comparison, 57 percent of all students in Shelby County Schools and the Achievement School District attend school for more than 90 percent of the year, Jordan said.

Jordan emphasized that keeping kids in school goes beyond daily attendance — the program also helps students with academics and behavior, so they don’t miss school because of suspensions. Agape helps out parents, too.

Agape, Whitney Elementary, Memphis
PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Whitney Principal LaSandra Young (right) hugs a student who is pulled out of class to work with Agape.

“A lot of our parents are underemployed and dealing with trauma,” Jordan said. “We provide family therapy, but also job coaching and help. We see this as a two-generation approach, the parents and their children are in this together.”

Bullard said the family counseling provided by Agape at Whitney has made a huge difference in her family’s mental health. When they first moved in 2017, Sergio, her oldest child, struggled with his behavior at school and he was sometimes pulled out of class.

“We’ve been through a lot,” Bullard said. “When Sergio first came here, he had a mean spirit in him. A don’t-care attitude. But at our sessions, he opened up and up. He’s still fighting with his sister, but it isn’t the rage it used to be. He’s calmed down a lot.”

Sergio also had a habit of hiding his school work from her, Bullard said. That’s changed, too, and he enjoys showing off what he’s learning to his mom.

“Now he likes to say big words that he knows I don’t know,” Bullard said. “But it’s great. We’ve never had this kind of support before.”

Jordan said that stories like Bullard’s are encouraging but acknowledges there’s still a lot of work to be done. He said he’s hopeful Agape will be able to add more and more students to the program every year.

“We know that keeping kids in school consistently is one of the things that works,” Jordan said. “We also know that students in under-resourced neighborhoods in our city need more support. The schools need more people who can help. We can provide that.”

Here’s the full list of schools Agape is in, broken down by neighborhood:

out of pocket

Pencils, shelving, wiggly chairs: What Colorado teachers bought for their classrooms — and why

PHOTO: Laura Henry
Aurora kindergarten teacher Laura Henry provided the pencil totes, floor dots, balls and wiggle seats, and everything you see on the shelves out of her own pocket.

The rugs and bean bag chairs, the workboxes full of hands-on learning games, the file folders that help her track student progress — all came out of special education teacher Laura Keathley’s own pocket.

Robyn Premo, a high school science teacher, buys styrofoam and cans, glass rods and balloons, patches of fur and s’mores ingredients — just about all the materials except beakers that her students need to do hands-on experiments.

Marcea Copeland-Rodden, a middle school social studies teacher, bought an air-conditioning unit for her classroom because it was so hot students were getting bloody noses.

And everyone buys loads and loads of pencils.

“I don’t think that not having a pencil is a reason a kid should not learn today,” Premo said.

There’s nothing new about teachers spending money on their classrooms, but as rising housing prices and stagnant wages put more pressure on working families and as academic expectations rise even in kindergarten, teachers have to dig deep to meet their students’ basic needs and outfit their school rooms.

A national survey by the U.S. Department of Education found that 94 percent of teachers spend their own money for their students, with the average teacher spending $479 in the 2015-16 school year, the most recent data available.

When the Colorado Education Association surveyed more than 2,000 members in 2017, they reported spending an average of $656 out of their own pocket on classroom supplies.

The usual caveat applies: These numbers are self-reported.

To better understand what this looks like in Colorado classrooms, Chalkbeat reached out to teachers around the state to ask how much they spent out of pocket, what they bought, and why.

The teachers who responded to Chalkbeat’s survey work in districts large and small, urban and rural, and spent anywhere from $75 to $2,000. Most respondents spent several hundred dollars, and the majority said they do not get a stipend for school supplies.

Their spending covers the most basic of classroom supplies — pens, pencils, glue sticks, crayons, paper, folders, notebooks — but also the things that make classrooms feel inviting, that make learning engaging, that help a kid get through the day. Teachers bought snacks and spare clothes, earbuds for students to listen to audio books as part of reading lessons, wiggly chairs and yoga balls for fidgety learners, classroom decorations, tissues and wipes, prizes for good work and good behavior, fish for the fish tank, storage bins and shelving and fabric for makeshift blinds.

Premo teaches chemistry and physics at Westminster High School. Her department gets a $3,000 supply budget for the high school’s 2,400 kids. She emphasizes that she thinks her school is doing everything it can, but if she didn’t reach into her own pocket, her students would mostly experience science in online simulations.

“That is not, in my opinion, sufficient for rigorous, authentic science instruction, so I make the personal contributions to give my kids those learning opportunities,” she said.

Premo spent $2,000 getting ready for the school year, the most of any teacher who responded to Chalkbeat’s survey. She said she’s able to contribute more than many teachers, so she does.

“There are some fantastic online simulations, but kids learn better when they get to put their hands on things,” she said.

Fur patches help demonstrate static electricity, and s’mores help illustrate principles of chemical reactions. All these materials add up, and many of them are consumed in the process of lab work.

If Premo didn’t spend her own money, “we would run out of pencils very quickly. And we would run out of lab materials, and they would not be able to do anything hands-on. And we would lose our ability to be creative. We would work very bare-bones. It would be a lot of listening, a lot of videos.”

Laura Henry teaches kindergarten in Aurora Public Schools. It’s her 29th year in the classroom, and as kindergarten has moved away from play and more toward academics, she’s spent more and more of her own money on curriculum supplies.

Her school provides $500 a semester to each grade level, which has to be shared among three teachers, and the money goes fast. Teachers also get $10 a month for copying, which she burns through quickly, so she bought her own printer just for school use.

Because most of the students come from low-income families, the school tries to keep the school supply list modest, closer to $25, but only about three-quarters of the students bring in supplies.

PHOTO: Laura Henry
Aurora kindergarten teacher Laura Henry’s classroom after it has been cleaned during the summer. With the exception of the red shelf, a few alternative seating items, and the pencil coat rack, these items are school purchased.

She spent about $500 of her own money getting ready for the school year, on everything from folders to hold student poems to snacks and wipes to materials for dramatic play, building toys, puppet theater, books, and more.

“Kindergarten is supply-heavy because we use construction paper and glue like there is no tomorrow,” she said.

Many of our survey respondents said they don’t use online fundraisers like Donors Choose because the only people who donate are friends and family, and teachers feel bad hitting them up over and over again. Henry encounters the same dilemma, but she did turn to it this year for $550 in science and engineering supplies: gears, a light table, animal X-rays, a microscope and more.

Another advantage of Donors Choose: The money she puts into it herself is tax deductible, unlike the rest of what she spends on her classroom.

PHOTO: Laura Henry
Kindergarten teacher Laura Henry purchased the housekeeping table and chairs, everything on the wall and shelves, the books in the bin, tool bench, and playground buckets for her Aurora classroom.

Henry said she used to sometimes feel resentful about spending her own money, when her friends get reimbursed for their work expenses, but now she “rolls with it” as part of the teaching profession.

But she sees the lack of supplies as one more stumbling block for young teachers.

“I see these new teachers come in, and they’re so ready and eager to make a difference, and they don’t know how they get supplies or how they get copies,” she said. “I don’t know that our school board is even fully aware of how much we’re lacking at the classroom level. I don’t need 8,000 consultants to help me. I need my classroom funded.”

Keathley runs a multi-needs special education room with two paraprofessionals at Avery-Parsons Elementary in the Buena Vista district in the Arkansas Valley. She spent $485 getting the classroom ready this year. A lot of that money went to filing systems that help the teachers keep track of each student’s needs and progress. It also went to bulletin board supplies. These boards serve as the “411 wall” with everything kids need to know for the day, from what their classroom job is to what outside appointments they have.

PHOTO: Laura Keathley
The bulletin board in Laura Keathley’s Buena Vista classroom serves as a 411 wall for her students. She purchases all the supplies for the board herself.

Keathley and her team used their own money to outfit the “crash corner,” where students go when they need to decompress with fidget toys in a giant bean bag chair, and to make workboxes with activities that students can work on independently throughout the day.

Keathley said she hardly asks her parents for any school supplies.

“We know that a lot of times parents of kids with disabilities, we know their money goes other places and they spend so much on special things for their kids, we don’t want to ask them,” she said.

Without her own investment in the classroom, it would be a very different place.

“I could go with what the school provided me and stay within my budget, but my classroom would not be the place I would like it to be,” she said. “We wouldn’t have rugs. We wouldn’t have nearly the supplies to give snacks or do cooking in the classroom. Our desks would be much more utilitarian, and we wouldn’t have much on the walls.”

Copeland-Rodden teaches seventh grade social studies at Pueblo Academy of the Arts in southern Colorado.

She spent $500 this year, more than most, because she dropped $350 on the air conditioning unit. It might seem like an extravagance, but after years of buying more and more fans, for minimal relief, it felt like a necessity.

“It’s just really hot in the classroom,” she said. “We have kids get bloody noses, that’s how bad it is. By sixth and seventh period, everybody is done. They don’t do their work. They fall asleep. They get cranky and angry at each other. It makes it tough on everyone.”

She also bought materials for Civil War shadow puppets and other projects that will make history come alive, but most of her classroom spending is on basic supplies. She doesn’t feel like she can ask parents, most of whom are low-income, to pay for supplies when she only has their child for one period a day. Out of 130 students, one brought in a box of tissues at the start of the school year.

“I spend so much on pencils,” she said. “It’s not just once. I go through a big 50-pack of pencils every month. Every class there’s at least one kid who has lost a pencil. I’ve given up trying to get back the pencils.”

She used to ask kids for something in exchange for the pencil to prompt them to return it, but too many kids had nothing to give.

“One boy said, ‘Here’s a shoe,’ and I said, ‘I don’t want your shoe,’” she said. “I have kids walking from class to class with nothing.”

Teaching has been this way for a long time, and the teachers who talked to Chalkbeat don’t see it changing anytime soon.

“If we all collectively agreed we weren’t going to pay for school supplies, maybe eventually someone would do something,” Premo said. “But I don’t want to risk this year’s kids to make that point.”