The Other 60 Percent

Putting a piece of the past back into childhood play

Dan Higgins, a retired physical education teacher, is six-foot-two with white hair and a white mustache. Given his stature and his no-nonsense manner, it’s hard to imagine him as a young Kansas boy climbing trees and playing Tarzan in the 1950s.

Dan Higgins helps a girl climb an 18-foot hanging rope.
Dan Higgins helps a girl climb an 18-foot hanging rope.

But that’s exactly where he got the inspiration for Rope World, a popular program he began at Longmont’s Rocky Mountain Elementary School 34 years ago and continues to run today.

To understand the long-standing appeal of Rope World, imagine setting kids free in a gym packed with ropes, ladders, zip lines, tunnels and cargo nets. Aside from a few basic rules, they’re allowed to be as daring as they like.

Earlier this week, about two-dozen children from Longmont, Boulder, Broomfield and even Fort Morgan scampered around the mat-covered gym as Higgins doled out high fives or offered a helping hand to tentative explorers. Some kids shimmied up the 18-foot hanging rope, drawing a round of applause when they rang the bell at the top. Others shot across the zip line again and again, trying it backwards when they wanted a change of pace.

“As a kid I played outside all the time, had treehouses, rope bridges from tree to tree, swinging ropes,” said Higgins, who began teaching at Rocky Mountain in the late 1970s. “When I came here… I just realized kids didn’t really… play in their environment.”

His goal was to bring the outdoors of his youth inside for students to experience. He started with a cargo net, a rope bridge and a zip line, and Rope World quickly became part of his physical education curriculum.

“I happened to be at the right place at the right time with the right principal and she just said, ‘dream.’”

In 1982, a few years after establishing Rope World for his students, he opened it up to the public the day after Thanksgiving.

“We were swamped that morning, about 50 kids and 50 parents,” he said.

In the three decades since, Higgins, and a small army of volunteers have run Rope World for two-week sessions four times a year (the current session ends Friday). The cost for an hour of climbing, swinging and zipping has risen from about $1 per child to $4, but most parents still consider it a bargain.

In addition to four public sessions a day, Rope World also provides closed sessions for daycare centers, camps and birthday parties. The program has attracted visitors from as far away as Nebraska.

On Tuesday, Kellie Ward, of Fort Morgan, reminisced about her own experiences at Rope World as she watched her two young daughters tackle the cargo net.

“There’s not much I remember about my childhood…but I remember this,” she said. “So it’s fun to bring my girls.”

A blast from the past

Parents like Rope World for the same reasons they like bounce house playgrounds and trampoline gyms. It’s fun for their kids and a good outlet for their endless energy. But many also appreciate that it’s a throwback of sorts, harkening back to a time when play was less structured and liability waivers didn’t preface every activity.

A boy pulls himself along a pole between two ladders.
A boy pulls himself along a pole between two ladders.

Kate Repsher, who came to Rope World with her two- and five-year-old daughters earlier this week, said, “They just get a lot energy out and do some stuff that they can’t do anywhere else”

In today’s world, she added, “Everybody’s so protected.”

Nearby, Verna Wallberg, the mother of two boys, mused about how uniquel Rope World is.

“We moved here from Dallas a year ago and Dallas has everything… but I’ve never seen this before.”

Noting her six-year-old’s excitement upon making it across a rope bridge strung between two cargo nets about 10 feet off the ground, she talked enthusiastically about the program’s confidence-boosting powers.

“At first they’re a little nervous, but then they overcome that.”

Higgins said Rope World also gives parents the confidence to step away from their children and let them master skills they probably wouldn’t in a natural environment. Exhibit A: The 18-month-old girl in a purple sun dress who gamely braved the zip line after being lifted up so she could reach the handles.

“We empowered her to do something there was no way that mom was going to allow her to do by herself,” said Higgins. “So we had that space of drawing parents away from kids … That’s invaluable, one of the most invaluable parts of Rope World.”

In addition to exercising young muscles and cultivating courage, both Higgins and Stephen Hoel, principal of Rocky Mountain Elementary, say Rope World also works out the brain.

“I think it ties their minds and their bodies together,” said Hoel. “It’s really more than crawling around. It’s a lot of planning.”

Higgins said it also provides foundational skills in academic subjects like math.

For example, he said, “Math skills are distances: ‘How far do I have to jump before I land on that mat? When do I have to let go here? Where do I need to put my foot on the next rung of the ladder?’” We just don’t think of them as math concepts, but they are the beginning blocks of math.”

Liability

Rope World is hardly a slick commercial operation. Parents don’t have to sign liability forms upon entering and Higgins simply tucks the cash from admission fees into a box decorated with Spiderman paper.

Still, the possibility of injuries or lawsuits isn’t lost on Higgins or Hoel. That’s one reason why Higgins starts out every session by laying out the rules. He’ll tick them off again for latecomers and doesn’t hesitate to turn down the radio and blow his whistle to stop errant behavior.child on zip line

“We’ve had a few kids get a fractured wrist or fractured leg,” said Higgins. “It does happen, but I mean, monkeys fall out of trees.”

While there was once an unsuccessful lawsuit after a child broke a leg after falling awkwardly from a series of monkey bar-like rings, there have been few complaints over the years.

When Hoel took over as principal of Rocky Mountain six years ago, he said he wasn’t nervous about having Rope World at his school. In fact, it was a place he’d taken his own kids many times.

“I was very comfortable with it,” he said. Then, he added, “It is definitely something that we have to be careful about.”

While Hoel believes the benefits outweigh any risks, it’s a mindset that’s not universal.

Higgins said schools in Fort Lupton and Brighton at one point approached him about creating something similar in their districts, but the idea didn’t get much support. In one case, the school board voted down the plan.

“I think the liability is a big part for principals,” he said.

The future of Rope World

Higgins, 62, retired from teaching five years ago, but still supervises Rope World during the eight weeks a year it operates. Not only is the program self-supporting, it brings in $3,000 to $4,000 a year to support less profitable school activities such as the after-school jogging club or computer classes.

Higgins clearly relishes his time with the kids, often learning their names almost instantly. Still, he’s slowing down a little. He says he’ll probably run the program for at least a few more years, but will drop the October session this year.girl on rope bridge

“The parents would have me keep it going till I’m 95,” he joked.

While Hoel said it might be possible some other staff member could take over Rope World when Higgins steps down, he doesn’t sound convinced.

“There’s a lot more to it than just standing out there and supervising it. Dan knows so much about it. There’s some knowledge there that we don’t have.”

Then, he added with a laugh, “I certainly don’t want to be the person who is in charge when it goes away because it is very, very popular.”

Police in schools

The Denver school district is exploring the idea of creating its own police officers

PHOTO: Photo by Katie Wood/The Denver Post via Getty Images

School safety patrol officers in the Denver district would get the authority to arrest students and write tickets under an idea being explored by the district’s safety department.

The head of Denver Public Schools’ safety department says the goal would actually be to end the “school-to-prison pipeline” that criminalizes students for misbehavior at school.

The idea is that giving more authority to school safety officers who have experience with children and training in the district’s restorative justice model would mean outside police get called less often, even for matters that are potentially criminal.

This is not yet a formal proposal, but the idea is already generating pushback.

Local organization Padres y Jóvenes Unidos has worked for years to reduce harsh disciplinary practices in the district, and its staff say certifying safety patrol officers as police officers would represent a big step backward.

“To do this would undo everything you have stood on national platforms bragging about,” said Monica Acosta, the organizing director at Padres y Jóvenes Unidos. “Going down this road would double down on policing and criminalizing students of color.”

About 77 percent of the 92,600 Denver Public Schools students are children of color. Approximately 67 percent of students come from low-income families.

Police in schools is a controversial topic in Denver. Staff and students at an alternative school called RiseUp Community School are speaking out this week about an incident in which Denver police searched for a student the principal told them wasn’t there. The principal said police officers pulled their guns on a teacher during the search.

The incident sparked intense backlash – and an apology from Denver Public Schools Superintendent Tom Boasberg.

“What happened should not have happened,” he said at a school board meeting Thursday night. He said the district will participate in a city investigation of the incident and work “to ensure something like this does not ever happen again.”

RiseUp student Mary Jimenez said she and her peers were left feeling disrespected and unsafe.

“Because we are students of color and students of low-income, we get harassed and pushed around and we’re expected not to fight back,” Jimenez told the school board.

Although the incident involved city police officers, not district safety officers, community activists said it’s an example of why law enforcement doesn’t belong in schools. Armed officers create a hostile learning environment, they said.

But Denver Public Schools Chief of Safety Mike Eaton said school policing is different than municipal policing. Whereas city police would be more likely to use the criminal justice system to respond to a report of a student getting into a physical fight or having illegal drugs on campus, Eaton said district officers would be trained to first look to the discipline policy.

The policy emphasizes that consequences should be age-appropriate and that the focus should be on correcting student behavior. “Interventions should provide students an opportunity to learn from their mistakes,” the policy says, “and re-engage the student in learning.”

The district safety department employs about 135 staff members, Eaton said. Of those, 35 are armed safety patrol officers who are not assigned to a particular school but respond to incidents across the district. Those are the only officers the district would seek to certify as police, he said. Unarmed school-based campus safety officers would not be certified.

Authorizing any new group as police officers requires approval from state lawmakers.

Denver Public Schools already has 16 “school resource officers,” which are city police officers assigned to work in its large high schools and a few middle schools. Eaton said his aim would not be to increase the number of school resource officers but rather to give the district’s own security staff the discretion to handle police matters.

“We have the opportunity to directly impact the school-to-prison pipeline, to eliminate or reduce it,” Eaton said. School policing, he said, “focuses on restorative and redemptive practices in dealing with students. Students are young. They’re going to make mistakes.”

Several large, urban school districts across the country have their own police forces, including districts in Cleveland, Atlanta, and Miami. Before moving forward with a proposal in Denver, Eaton said he’d seek input from students, parents, and community members.

He has floated the idea by the Denver school board. The board president and vice president said they’re open to discussing any ideas that would make students safer. But president Anne Rowe said she understands why the community might be concerned.

“I can appreciate the initial reaction of folks when they think about an urban district thinking about certifying their officers,” she said. “That’s going to require a lot of community engagement and getting down to: What are we trying to accomplish by doing that?”

Road map

A new guide aims to help Colorado school districts offer mental health support to students

First-graders at Denver's Munroe Elementary do a mindfulness exercise led by school psychologist Amy Schirm.

A new toolkit to be officially released Monday will help Colorado educators, parents, and district administrators infuse mental health support into classrooms and schools.

The 60-page online guide from the nonprofit Mental Health Colorado comes out at a time when many school leaders say they desperately need help addressing students’ mental health needs and districts have increasingly emphasized social and emotional skills.

The guide includes 10 key practices for promoting mental health in schools, including offering services in school-based health centers, reducing the stigma around mental health treatment and prioritizing suicide prevention. Besides listing effective curriculums and programs, it provides examples of how Colorado schools and districts are using proven practices.

The kit also includes suggestions on how to secure funding for school mental health initiatives.

“There are ways to do that and examples of how to do that because most people have no idea how to get the ball rolling,” said Jen Marnowski, spokeswoman for Mental Health Colorado, which advocates for the prevention and treatment of mental health and substance use disorders.

Leaders in the Jeffco and the Estes Park districts are among those who’ve expressed enthusiasm about the toolkit so far.

“It’s great. It’s the right work,” said Jon Widmier, Jeffco’s student services director.

He said the kit, which the district will pilot in two elementary schools next year, lines up with the district’s emphasis on educating the whole child.

“The mental health piece of that is huge … This is so right in line with what we’re trying to accomplish on that,” he said.

Marnowski said the genesis of the toolkit was a listening tour the organization conducted in communities across Colorado two years ago. The group’s leaders heard from parents, educators, public officials and law enforcement officers who voiced concerns about the lack of access to mental health care, the desire for more mental health support in schools, and the state’s high suicide rate.

The toolkit is meant to give districts a roadmap from addressing some of the problems community members cited.

“Kids are in school so many hours a day that’s it’s very effective to do this when they’re [there], to get them the help they need,” she said.

Widmier said he sees the kit as a useful tool for all kinds of districts.

“We’re very fortunate in Jeffco because we ‘ve got a school board that really supports the mental health needs of our students … There’s a lot of school districts out there that haven’t focused on it that much and I think this is going to be such a great resource for them as well.”