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.”

How I Help

Why this high school counselor asks students, ‘What do you wish your parents knew?’

Today, we launch a new series called “How I Help,” which features school counselors, social workers and psychologists across Colorado. It is a companion to our popular “How I Teach” and “How I Lead” series.

Through “How I Help,” we hope to give readers a glimpse into the professional lives of school staff members who often work behind the scenes but nevertheless have a big impact on the day-to-day lives of students.

Our first “How I Help” features Cassie Poncelow, a counselor at Poudre High School in Fort Collins. She was the 2016 Colorado School Counselor of the Year and is one of six finalists for the 2018 National School Counselor of the Year award.

Poncelow talked to Chalkbeat about how she creates a legacy of caring, what teens want their parents to know and why peer-to-peer mentoring is better than a social-emotional curriculum taught by adults.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.

Why did you become a school counselor?
I was incredibly fortunate to have many powerful educators shape my life in my time as a student, but none did more so than my school counselors. My counselor from high school remains a dear friend and mentor. I knew that I wanted to be a part of what is happening in education and loved the diversity of the school counselor job. They get to collaborate with so many different stakeholders, get to know students in really cool ways and be involved with so many aspects of making change.

Cassie Poncelow

Tell us about an effort or initiative you spearheaded at your school that you’re particularly proud of.
Three years ago, we noticed that students were dropping out continuously because they were short on graduation credits and tired of taking the same classes over and over again. I worked with a team to create Opportunities Unlimited, which is a dropout recovery program for students ages 17-21 that is focused on GED completion and concurrent enrollment opportunities. A fifth cohort started this fall and the program has graduated 26 students in two years.

Is there a tool, curriculum or program you couldn’t live without in your job?
Our Ambassadors program is in many ways the backbone of our climate and culture at Poudre High School. This program trains 50 upperclassmen to mentor freshmen through a year-long curriculum that includes topics like stress management, suicide prevention and sexual assault. This mentoring model means that every freshman has an ambassador that is connecting with them for almost three hours each month. The ambassadors deliver comprehensive, peer-to-peer education that is far beyond and better than any social-emotional learning curriculum that counselors could facilitate. As the co-leader for this program, I also couldn’t live without the hope that this crew gives me. They are the best part of my job.

What’s the biggest misconception you’ve encountered about your role in the school(s) where you work?
I am grateful to work in a place and with people who see the vital role of school counselors and are eager to partner with them. In my time at Poudre High School we have added two new school counseling positions, further demonstrating our school’s belief in the work we do. I have worked at schools in the past that created a lot of systemic barriers to accessing school counselors and I think this was based on a misconception that we were a more frivolous part of services for students.

You spend lots of time with students. Knowing what you know, what advice would you give to parents?
I often ask my students, “What do you wish your parents knew?” What I hear consistently is a plea for them to remember what it was like to be 16: How painful and awkward it was, how boys were all the rage and not getting invited somewhere really was the actual worst.

So, I advise parents to remember that. And remember that a lot of what they dealt with at 16 is even more complicated by the world our kids are experiencing. Social media wasn’t a reality when they were kids and our current students have never known a world where mass shootings haven’t happened often. I know it’s no, “I walked uphill both ways without shoes in the snow,” but this is a scary time to be student — different, but equally hard. Our kids need us to hear them in that. And believe that they can change it.

Tell us about a time when you managed to connect with a challenging student or a student facing a difficult situation. How did you do it?
At my core, I think we all thrive on authentic relationships and I do whatever I can to create these with my students. I want each of my students to feel like I am truly in their corner and a champion not only of what they do but more so of who they are. I hope to not only live this, but to model it for my students in ways that inspire them to do the same.

This semester I have a freshman boy who was consistently skipping class (who knew gas station tacos were such a draw?) and failing multiple classes. His “consequence” is that he has to spend a period working on missing work in my office. I also have a slew of seniors who have made my office their home during this fifth hour, many who are excellent students and are just looking for a place to study. They have taken this freshman under their wing and are committed to his success far beyond what I could ever be. They are constantly asking about his upcoming exams, what he needs help with and celebrating his rising grades with him. I think I have built really authentic relationships with these upperclassmen who then remember what it means to feel connected and cared for and are passionate about showing this student just that. I often stress “legacy” to my students and this seems like a clear picture of that.

What is the hardest part of your job?
Kid stuff is hard. I hurt for kids a lot, as I think all educators do. They live lives far beyond our walls and far beyond what we could imagine and ever control. That’s the hardest. Close second would be trying to operate in a system that seems to be driven by folks who aren’t doing the work. I recognize that there are so many moving pieces and would love to have some of the actual “decision-makers” come spend the day in our role and better understand the work we do.

Tell us about a memorable time — good or bad — when contact with a student’s family changed your perspective or approach.
A year ago, I had a student who was really struggling with some significant mental health issues. I knew that we needed to bring in a parent but the girl was very anxious about this idea, to the point where she had literally crumpled up on my office floor. After calling her mom to meet with us, I joined her on the floor of my office to talk more. Her mom walked in shortly after, assessed the scene and sat right down on the floor with us, despite the chair-filled room. This move shifted everything and I was so grateful for her wisdom to be where her kid was at. It was a good reminder to me to do that always: be where kids are at.

You spend your days trying to help students and staff with any number of things. How do you wind down after a stressful day?
A lot of my unwinding still includes my students as I announce volleyball games or attend other sporting events or performances. I love these opportunities because they let me see my kids in a different light and remind me how awesome they are. I also spend as much time outside as possible, whether it’s going for a quick hike with my pup or a bike ride. Beyond traveling and reading, I cheer hard for the CSU Rams! Go State!

Big money

Millions in grant dollars will bring more counselors to Indiana’s underserved students

KIPP Indy was one of several schools in the county to receive a counseling grant.

Scores of Indiana schools were awarded private grants that will allow them to bolster counseling services for students, many of whom are lacking help for an increasing portfolio of problems, including fallout from the state’s drug epidemic and basic needs like advice on college applications.

The $26.4 million in grants, decided last month, include six for Marion County districts and charter schools. They were awarded by Lilly Endowment, a prominent Indianapolis-based philanthropy founded by key players in the pharmaceutical giant Eli Lilly.

The grants went to 52 school districts and five charter schools, covering about a third of the state’s counties. Based on enrollment, they ranged from about $68,000 to almost $3 million.

Lilly began its push to help schools build better counseling programs last year.

“The response from school corporations and charter schools far exceeded the Endowment’s expectations,” said Sara B. Cobb, the Endowment’s vice president for education. “We believe that this response demonstrates a growing awareness that enhanced and expanded counseling programs are urgently needed to address the academic, college, career, and social and emotional counseling needs of Indiana’s K-12 students.”

As Chalkbeat previously reported, school counselors have been stretched exceedingly thin in recent years, both in Indiana and across the country. On average, each Hoosier counselor is responsible for 630 students, making Indiana 45th out of 50 states and the District of Columbia for counselor-to-student ratios. The American School Counselor Association recommends a ratio of no higher than one counselor for every 250 students.

So far, state-led efforts to expand counseling have fallen short; a bill proposed in 2015 to require a counselor in every school was withdrawn for further study, and the issue hasn’t resurfaced significantly in the legislature since. At the time, cost was the sticking point.

Schools and districts had to apply for the grants and show how they would use the money. Lilly reported that mental health and business partnerships, mentoring programs, improving curriculum and adding in more training for staff were all strategies that grant-winners have proposed.

Initially, 254 districts and charter schools applied, many pointing out how Indiana’s recent opioid crisis has increased social and emotional challenges for students. Counselors have to juggle those serious needs with college and career advising and, increasingly, responsibilities that have nothing to do with counseling, such as overseeing standardized tests.

Because of the level of interest, Lilly is planning a second round of grants, which would total up to $10 million.

“Because the implementation grant process was so competitive, the Endowment had to decline several proposals that had many promising features,” Cobb said. “We believe that with a few enhancements, many of these proposals will be very competitive in the second round of the Counseling Initiative.”

These are the districts and schools in Marion County that received counseling grants. (Find the full list here.)

  • Indianapolis Public Schools: $2,871,400
  • KIPP Indianapolis: $100,000
  • Lawrence Township: $1,527,400
  • Pike Township: $1,114,700
  • Neighborhood Charter Network: $68,312
  • Southeast Neighborhood School of Excellence: $99,870

IPS said in a news release that it planned to use the grant money to build counseling centers in each of the district’s high schools, which would begin operating in 2018 after IPS transitions to four high schools. Superintendent Lewis Ferebee said counselors are “critical” for students as they prepare to graduate high school and pursue higher education and careers.

“We’re thrilled that the students and families we serve will benefit from this gift,” Ferebee said.