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.”


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.”

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.”