Close your eyes

How Colorado schools are helping kids calm down — and learn — through mindfulness

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

On a recent Thursday afternoon, school psychologist Amy Schirm stood before two-dozen fifth-graders in a classroom at Denver’s Munroe Elementary School. Piano music played softly in the background and a string of white holiday lights twinkled on the wall behind her.

“Close your eyes,” Schirm said. “I’m going to ring the bell three times. Just focus all your attention on the sound.” She struck a small metal bowl with a mallet.

“Let your body kind of feel heavy, like you’re sinking down into your chair,” she said. “Just take a minute to check in with yourself. How are you doing in this moment?”

The students were practicing mindfulness — concentrating on their present thoughts, emotions and environment. The concept is catching on in schools in Colorado and nationwide as a way to help students better focus their attention, process their emotions and develop compassion.

Advocates say mindfulness can be especially valuable in high-poverty schools such as Munroe, where many students face difficult home lives and need strong social and emotional skills.

Nearly all the students Schirm was addressing that afternoon followed her instructions intently, some with eyes serenely closed and others with hoods pulled low over their faces. `

“We’re constantly telling kids to pay attention, but we never teach them how, or what that means,”  said Schirm, who spearheaded the school’s foray into mindfulness last year.

PHOTO: Ann Schimke
A fifth-grader in Fallon Newman’s class practices mindfulness at Munroe Elementary School in Denver.

Mindfulness fills that gap, helping kids tune in to instruction and their own emotional lives.

At least 40 Denver schools are weaving mindfulness into the school day, district officials say. Last year, DPS began offering staff trainings on the topic and purchased two mindfulness curriculums: MindUP for elementary students and Learning to Breathe for secondary students.

“We’re definitely moving in a direction where we’re realizing and acknowledging that social emotional learning is essential to academic success,” said Meredith Furtney, supervisor of the district’s department of social work and psychological services.

Munroe teacher Fallon Newman said she’s seen a big difference in her students since introducing mindfulness, both through “mindful minutes” each morning and during Schirm’s Thursday afternoon visits.

They’re more articulate about how they’re feeling and better able to cope with stress. That means more time for learning instead of hours given over to pent-up emotion, Newman said.

She’s also noticed a greater sense of empathy among students. A glimpse of that came during Schirm’s recent lesson when she had students pair up and gaze intently at their partners.

There were giggles and some students said they felt silly, but there were also moments of connection.

PHOTO: Ann Schimke
Two boys at Munroe Elementary in Denver practice “mindful seeing.”

“I felt like I know the things she knows,” said one girl, as the class debriefed.

Newman said some of her students have also become more attuned to her. She experienced it on a recent day when she temporarily took on seven fifth-graders from another class in addition to her own 26.

One of her students asked a surprising question: Was she feeling anxious about supervising the extra kids?

Newman admitted that she was a little apprehensive about the bigger group.

The boy responded, “OK, I’ll be on my best behavior.”

It was a heart-warming sign that mindfulness is paying off.

“It’s powerful stuff,” Newman said.

For some Munroe students, the practice instills a sense of calm that is often lacking in their lives. Take Chris, a fifth-grader with an impish smile who joined Schirm as she headed to a first-grade class to lead a brief mindfulness lesson last week.

For a long time, he’d been disruptive and noisy during such lessons in his own classroom. When Schirm finally asked why it was so hard for him, he told her he wasn’t used to the quiet.

Chris has an easier time of it now. In the first grade classroom, he stood tall in front of his smaller schoolmates, opening and closing a big expandable ball in time with their slow breaths.

At the 135-student charter school Carbondale Community School, the nudge toward mindfulness came last year from the school’s wellness committee. A teacher who was studying the practice as part of her graduate program led the charge.

Principal Tom Penzel said students and staff circle up in the commons area at the beginning of each week for a 15-minute “Mindful Monday” session. There’s a few minutes of guided meditation and then maybe a discussion about real-life scenarios where mindfulness could come in handy.

Examples include how to react when the least athletic kid wants to join the game or what to do when you feel a flash of anger toward a classmate. Penzel said it was students who asked that more time to be devoted to such scenarios.

“I’ve been amazed over time how much the kids are bought into it,” he said.

red zone

Traffic pollution: an invisible health risk for dozens of Denver schools

PHOTO: Google Maps - Street View
Interstate 70 is clearly visible from the playground outside Swansea Elementary School in Denver.

Just a few hundred feet from the front doors of Highline Academy Charter School’s southeast Denver campus is Interstate 25, where more than 200,000 vehicles rush by each day.

At Swansea Elementary School in north Denver, kids frolic near the busy Interstate 70 overpass that abuts the playground. Three miles west, at a charter school called STRIVE Prep – Sunnyside, the same highway looms just past a chain link fence next to the school.

The three schools are among 29 in Denver Public Schools — 10 of them charters — that sit near high-traffic roads and the invisible air pollution those routes generate daily. Experts say such pollution can stunt lung development, aggravate asthma and contribute to heart disease, but there’s little public awareness about the problem and mitigation efforts are sparse.

A new online mapping tool, part of a joint investigative project by two nonprofit news organizations, the Center for Public Integrity and Reveal, puts the issue in stark relief. Residents across Colorado and the nation can easily check which schools fall into red zones where traffic volume, and the accompanying air pollution, is worst, and orange zones where traffic volume is lower, but still potentially problematic for kids and staff who may spend long hours at their schools.

PHOTO: Center for Public Integrity and Reveal
This screen shot of the mapping tool shows Highline Academy’s proximity to Interstate 25 with a blue pin.

The Center for Public Integrity provided Chalkbeat with raw data for schools with Denver addresses. While most were DPS schools, a couple dozen were schools in neighboring districts, including Cherry Creek, Aurora, Westminster, Mapleton, Sheridan and Jefferson County.

Eleven DPS schools — educating more than 8,000 students — fell into the red zone, which means they sit within 500 feet of roads carrying more than 30,000 vehicles a day on average. Those include charters such as Highline and Strive Prep – Sunnyside, and traditional public schools such as Swansea and Steele elementaries and George Washington, Lincoln and East high schools.

Another 18 district schools, plus one in the Cherry Creek district and one in the Adams 12 district, fall into the orange zone, which includes schools that are within 500 feet of roads carrying more than 10,000 vehicles and more than 500 trucks daily. The 18 DPS schools include two additional STRIVE – Prep locations, two schools inside the downtown administration building and the district’s magnet school for students designated as highly gifted: Polaris at Ebert Elementary.

DPS officials say air pollution resulting from schools’ proximity to busy roadways hasn’t been discussed previously and that mitigation measures — such as high-grade air filters — aren’t in place at most affected schools.

“We haven’t had this conversation before,” said district spokeswoman Alex Renteria.

Sometimes schools end up near busy roadways because that’s where districts can buy cheap land. But population growth, development trends and major transportation projects can also dramatically change the fabric of a school neighborhood. Swansea Elementary, for example, was built in 1957, before I-70 sliced through north Denver in the 1960s.

The problem of traffic-related air pollution near schools is not exclusive to big cities like Denver. It can be found in suburban and rural areas around the state and the rest of the country. Many school districts across Colorado — from Montrose to Steamboat Springs to Greeley — have at least one school within 500 feet of high-traffic routes.

Charters harder hit

The investigation by the Center for Public Integrity and Reveal, which looked at trends nationwide, found that charter schools are more likely than traditional public schools to be located close to busy roads.
That’s true in Denver, where 22 percent of the district’s charter schools were located near a busy road during the 2014-15 school year, compared to 13 percent of other district schools. Nationwide, about 9 percent of schools are near busy roads, according to the analysis.

Officials at the most impacted Denver charter schools had little to say about the issue of traffic pollution.

Christine Ferris, executive director of Highline Academy, wrote in an email: “We can’t really do much about our location and although it would be obvious to anyone who visits us, having the information highlighted on Chalkbeat isn’t my favorite idea.”

She canceled a subsequent interview with Chalkbeat.

Chyrise Harris, senior director of communications and marketing for the STRIVE Prep charter group, said via email, “STRIVE Prep operates all of its schools in district facilities and works collaboratively with the district to ensure that all students, regardless of where they live, have access to a safe, high quality school near them.”

Jessica Johnson, general counsel and director of policy for the Colorado League of Charter Schools, said in growing cities like Denver there’s limited inventory when it comes to school sites. Charter schools may end up along high-traffic routes because that’s where the chartering district has vacant space and also because such roads provide needed proximity to bus or train stops.

Of the 10 Denver charter schools near busy roads, seven are in district-owned buildings. The three that aren’t are Highline, Cesar Chavez Academy and Justice High School.

While Johnson said being close to busy roads is a fact of life for urban charter schools, she noted the impact of traffic-related air pollution is an important health and wellness issue — one that hasn’t been on the charter community’s radar.

“This isn’t an issue that we’ve seen a lot of research into locally or a lot of conversation on,” she said.

Mitigation measures

Vehicle exhaust contains a variety of harmful components, including small particles, carbon monoxide and carcinogenic compounds. While outdoor areas like school playgrounds and sports fields pose an obvious risk, the air inside buildings can suffer, too, because particles, vapors and gases often seep inside.
High-grade air filters — those rated MERV 16 — can make a big difference. According to the Center for Public Integrity and Reveal investigation, MERV 16 filters installed in California schools caught about 90 percent of fine and ultrafine particles, which are key contributors to traffic-related health problems.

Denver schools use lower-grade filters, those rated either MERV 8 or MERV 10, according to district officials.

Air-conditioning can also help somewhat, allowing schools to keep some pollution at bay by shutting doors and windows in hot weather. Of the 29 DPS schools most impacted by roadway pollution, only four don’t have at least partial air-conditioning. Those are Valverde and Steele elementaries, Polaris at Ebert Elementary and STRIVE Prep – Sunnyside. While a handful of the 29 schools will get additional air-conditioning with funds from Denver’s recent voter-approved bond, those four are not on the list.

Swansea Elementary, the second most impacted Denver school after the southeast Highline Academy location, will be getting short-term and likely longer-term relief from traffic pollution.

Renteria said as part of a project underway now, the school is getting a new heating, ventilation and air-conditioning system that will include MERV 16 filters. It will also get new doors and windows.

Additionally, a planned highway widening project will convert the current overpass next to Swansea to a covered below-grade route. Research from the Environmental Protection Agency suggests vehicle emissions are lower near below-grade roads with steep walls. The same is true for routes with certain kinds of sound barriers or roadside vegetation.

The city will monitor air quality on Swansea’s grounds during and after construction.

Here is the list of schools classified as “red” or “orange:”

Red Zone Schools

SCHOOL DISTRICT CHARTER STATUS
Highline Academy (southeast) Denver charter
Swansea Elementary School Denver
STRIVE PREP – Sunnyside Denver charter
Compassion Road Academy Denver
Steele Elementary School Denver
George Washington High School Denver
Respect Academy at Lincoln Denver
Abraham Lincoln High School Denver
College View Elementary School Denver
Valverde Elementary School Denver
East High School Denver

These “red zone” schools are within 500 feet of roads carrying more than 30,000 vehicles a day on average.

Orange Zone Schools

SCHOOL DISTRICT CHARTER STATUS
STRIVE Prep – Federal Denver charter
Columbian Elementary School Denver
Denver Center for International Studies Denver
Colfax Elementary School Denver
Cheltenham Elementary School Denver
The Odyssey School Denver charter
Contemporary Learning Academy Denver
STRIVE Prep – Ruby Hill Denver charter
Cesar Chavez Academy Denver charter
Girls Athletic Leadership School Denver charter
Bruce Randolph School Denver
Downtown Denver Expeditionary School Denver charter
Emily Griffith Technical College Denver
Dora Moore ECE-8 School Denver
Justice High School Denver charter
Polaris at Ebert Elementary School Denver
Bromwell Elementary School Denver
Rocky Mountain School of Expeditionary Learning Denver charter
Challenge School Cherry Creek
North Star Elementary School Adams 12

These “orange zone” schools are within 500 feet of roads carrying more than 10,000 vehicles a day and more than 500 trucks on average.

SCOTUS on IDEA

U.S. Supreme Court, in landmark decision, strengthens rights for students with disabilities

In a landmark decision, the U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday better defined the federal standard public schools must meet for its special education students.

Students with learning disabilities are due “appropriately ambitious” education plans that ensure they will advance through public schools similarly to other students, a unanimous court said.

The court’s decision stems from a lawsuit filed by a suburban Denver family who enrolled their son, known as Endrew F. in court documents, in a private school after they felt the Douglas County School District failed their son, who was diagnosed with autism and attention deficit/hyperactive disorder.

The family sued the district seeking reimbursement for the private school’s tuition, arguing their son was due a “free appropriate public education” as required by the 1975 Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

The school district argued it met the minimum standard in the federal law that defines the rights of special education students.

While the state education department and lower courts agreed with the school district, Chief Justice John Roberts, who wrote the court’s opinion, did not.

“When all is said and done, a student offered an educational program providing merely more than ‘de minimis’ progress from year to year can hardly be said to have been offered an education at all,” Roberts wrote.

Federal law, he continued, “requires an educational program reasonably calculated to enable a child to make progress appropriate in light of the child’s circumstances.”

The decision stops short of defining what progress should look like. Instead, that should depend on each student, the court said.

In a statement, the Douglas County School District said it was confident the district was already meeting the higher standard and would prove so when a lower court takes up the Endrew F. case again.

“The Court did not hold that Douglas County School District failed to meet the new standard, or say that DCSD can’t proceed to prove that it met that standard,” said Douglas County School District Legal Counsel William Trachman in a statement. “Indeed, in this case, the Douglas County School District offered an appropriate Individualized Education Plan and we look forward to proving to the lower courts that the IEP meets the new, higher standard.”

The Colorado Department of Education also released a statement:

“The Colorado Department of Education is firmly committed to providing quality educational opportunities to students with disabilities.  We are pleased to see the that the Supreme Court’s decision seems to give greater clarity by saying an Individualized Education Program  must be ‘reasonably calculated to enable a child to make progress appropriate in light of the child’s circumstances.’  We also appreciate the Court’s reminder that courts must defer to the expertise and judgment of school officials.”

The department will not take a position when the Tenth Circuit Court retries the case in light of the Supreme Court’s clarification of the legal standard.