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.”

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 Council 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.”