No thanks

Diet Nope: Colorado’s large districts still keeping diet soda out of high schools

After a state rule change last fall that allowed Colorado high schools to sell diet soda after a seven-year ban, many of the state’s big school districts have decided to stay soda-free.

Officials in six of Colorado’s 10 largest districts — Denver, Douglas County, Cherry Creek, Boulder Valley, Poudre and Colorado Springs 11 — say there are no plans to allow diet soda sales.

In some cases, such as Boulder, the district’s existing wellness policy already bans the soft drinks. In others, such as Poudre, the superintendent’s cabinet made the decision in the fall. In Denver, the district’s Health Advisory Council has recommended a continued prohibition of diet soda, but the school board hasn’t voted on the recommendation yet.

“We really commend the districts that are strengthening their own policies to continue to disallow diet soda,” said Sarah Kurz, vice president of policy and communications for the advocacy group LiveWell Colorado.

Three of the 10 largest districts — Aurora, Jeffco and Adams 12 — haven’t decided yet whether to bring back diet soda. Adams 12 officials say they’re gathering feedback from the district’s health advisory committee, 42 school wellness committees and all building principals. When that process is complete, any proposed changes will go through a policy-making process that ends with a recommendation to the superintendent.

Jeffco administrators say they’ll also collect data and public input before deciding whether to update the district’s wellness policy to ban diet soda. Aurora officials said there’s no timeline for a decision.

The St. Vrain district was the only one that declined to provide information about its diet soda plans.

“At this time, St. Vrain Valley Schools has no comment regarding this topic,” spokesman Matthew Wiggins wrote via email.

The diet soda issue popped up last summer shortly after new federal rules came out governing certain types of school food. Under those rules, diet soda can be sold to high-schoolers from vending machines and school stores. Colorado’s stricter rules — in place since 2009 — ban all types of soda in schools.

But officials at the state education department who brought the proposed rule change to the State Board of Education said the change would better align state and federal rules and reduce schools’ regulatory burden. Regular soda is still banned in schools because it exceeds maximum calorie limits under both sets of rules.

In August, and again in September, the State Board of Education voted 4-3 along party lines to change Colorado’s “Healthy Beverage Policy” and allow diet soda in high schools. Republican members in favor of the rule change said the seven-year ban hadn’t cut obesity and that it’s the job of parents not schools to ensure kids make healthy choices.

A coalition of health groups, including LiveWell Colorado, lamented the decision, arguing that diet soda has no nutritional value, harms teeth and diverts students from drinking healthier beverages like water.

Kurz said with the recent change in the state board’s composition — Democrats now hold a majority — it’s possible a vote now would go in favor of a diet soda ban. Still, with lots of big education issues looming, she doesn’t expect the board to take up the issue again.

En pointe

How ballet is energizing one Memphis school — and helped save it from closing

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Briana Brown, an instructor with New Ballet Ensemble, prepares her first-grade dance students for a performance at Dunbar Elementary School in Memphis.

Instructor Briana Brown counts aloud as first-graders in pink leotards skip across a classroom floor to practice their leaps and twirls — a weekly highlight for students at Dunbar Elementary School.

In the South Memphis neighborhood, ballet lessons offered through the nonprofit New Ballet Ensemble introduce students to the art of dance at a school with few resources for extracurricular activities.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Ten-year-old Briana Davis is among 40 students receiving dance instruction at Dunbar Elementary School.

Ten-year-old Briana Davis is among the beneficiaries.

Before joining New Ballet’s class, she danced throughout her mom’s house, just a short walk from Dunbar in the city’s historic African-American community of Orange Mound. Now, Briana is among about 40 Dunbar students who jeté and pirouette in a makeshift classroom studio at Dunbar, or after school in a studio at the group’s headquarters in midtown Memphis.

“I want to keep dancing and to be a dance teacher when I grow up,” Briana said. “I think this is really special. If I hadn’t done ballet at school, I don’t know if I ever would have danced for real and not just at home.”

For eight years, New Ballet Ensemble has been teaching classes at Dunbar and offering scholarships to a talented few to continue their dance education outside of school time. Here under the tutelage of teaching artists who are fluent in classical ballet and other styles of dance, they learn to follow instructions, practice new positions, strengthen young muscles and develop discipline, all while expressing themselves creatively and learning about a world beyond Orange Mound.

But the Memphis dance company’s work has gone far beyond teaching students how to plié and fondu. Thanks to grants that New Ballet helped secure, Dunbar now has a community garden and parent resource center.

And when Dunbar was on the chopping block to be closed this year by Shelby County Schools, New Ballet dancers, instructors and supporters showed up en force at school board meetings. The district later reversed its decision and opted to keep Dunbar open. Superintendent Dorsey Hopson cited community support as a reason for his change of heart.

Katie Smythe founded New Ballet Ensemble in 2001 to teach dance, but quickly discovered how her organization’s work was being limited by a dearth of community resources available to public schools in Memphis.

“We came here to find talented kids for dance, but we found that our access to community partnerships and the school board to be the real opportunity point for us,” said Smythe, who also serves as the group’s artistic director. “The school board and administration learned while trying to close this school how valuable community partnerships can be, I think.”

New Ballet became one of the first outside-of-school organizations to have a stake in the Dunbar school community, said Principal Anniece Gentry.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Youngsters giggle as they watch their instructor demonstrate a dance move.

“When students see community partners are invested in their school, they want to achieve more,” Gentry said. “Our relationship with New Ballet is one I will always treasure. They work to do more than anyone else I’ve seen.”

The parent resource center is one of the most valuable additions. Stocked with computers, coffee and books, the room was created for parents with help from a $25,000 grant from ArtsMemphis, a local advocacy and funding group.

“There are computers for parents to use if they don’t have internet at home,” Smythe said. “I’ve seen parents drop their children off, walk to the room and apply for jobs while grabbing a cup of coffee. (For some parents), there was no positive reason for parents to come to school before this, only if their students were sick or in trouble.”

Building parent relationships have become key to New Ballet’s mission at Dunbar, and Smythe wants to take the group’s learnings to other Memphis schools. It’s already helping with arts education in classrooms at Bartlett and Sherwood elementary schools, and Smythe wants to bring Dunbar-style ballet programs to secondary schools that now teach former Dunbar students at Treadwell and Sherwood middle and Melrose and Douglass high.

But that takes money.

New Ballet is dependent on the National Endowment for the Arts, a federal agency that could experience huge cuts under President Donald Trump’s administration. In addition to $15,000 in NEA funding, the group gets money for its school programs through the Tennessee Arts Commission, which also comes from NEA.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
New Ballet founder Katie Smythe brought ballet to Dunbar Elementary in 2009.

To remind those who hold the pursestrings about educational ballet programs like Dunbar’s, Smythe recently joined other arts advocates to speak with lawmakers in Washington, D.C. Their message: The arts are more than just concert halls, expensive tickets and paintings that people don’t understand. It’s also about helping students to grow mentally, physically and academically.

For students like Briana, support for New Ballet would mean another year of free ballet lessons and after-school programming.

“I really look forward to performing,” Briana said. “Learning to dance is really fun. But being able to show off how much I’ve learned to my mom? That’s the best.”

Emerging partnership

Memphis schools have space. Boys & Girls Clubs have programming. Now they just need money to put clubs in three schools.

PHOTO: Boys & Girls Club
Memphis students show off "cancer awareness" posters they created as part of a Boys & Girls Club program at Promise Academy, a charter school in Raleigh. Three more clubs could open in Memphis schools by 2018.

Grappling with numerous under-enrolled schools and significant neighborhood needs, Memphis school leaders are seeking to fill some empty space by partnering with the Boys & Girls Club.

Shelby County Schools is working with the organization’s Memphis chapter to open clubs by 2018 inside three schools: Dunbar Elementary, Riverview School and Craigmont High.

But first they have to secure about $1 million to pay for the clubs’ first year of operations.

Both entities view the emerging partnership as a way to connect space and programming to strengthen schools and their neighborhoods. The Boys & Girls Club of Greater Memphis also wants to expand beyond its current seven sites.

“It doesn’t make sense to build a $4 or $5 million facility somewhere only to have the population shift due to school closure or neighborhood changes,” said executive director Keith Blanchard. “Suddenly, you have this super nice club and no kids. This way, we can go to where the kids are.”

The partnership would step up the effort of Shelby County Schools to join a national trend in developing community schools, which put facilities to use beyond the traditional school day and emphasize a holistic approach for addressing poverty, health and behavior. The arrangement also would tap into a growth and missional model for the Boys & Girls Club, which has been successful in working with schools in cities such as Orlando.

Blanchard hopes the new Memphis clubs would provide students with an after-school option in schools where extracurriculars are slim, as well as a place to go during summer breaks. Each site could serve up to 240 students.

While the district can provide space and utilities, each site would cost an estimated $330,000 to operate — an expense that district leaders plan to ask the County Commission to cover initially. The long-term goal is to get corporate and donor support.

“The last thing we want to do is open these clubs and have to close in two years,” Blanchard said.

PHOTO: Boys & Girls Club
The Boys & Girls Club operates seven clubs in Memphis.

Under-enrolled school buildings are plentiful in Shelby County Schools, where leaders have closed more than 20 schools since 2012, partially due to low enrollment. At the same time, Memphis school leaders are seeking more resources to serve a disproportionately high number of poor, black and disabled students.

“We are always looking for ways to expose our students to programs/activities that foster good citizenship, character building, and healthy lifestyles that contribute to student success,” a district spokeswoman said in an email this month.

The Boys & Girls Club of Greater Memphis already has one school-based club at Promise Academy, a state-run charter school in Raleigh, where about 60 students attend.

Blanchard said the three newest school sites were chosen because the organization doesn’t have a strong presence in those neighborhoods.

Dunbar Elementary Principal Anniece Gentry said the Orange Mound community would welcome the additional resource.

“There’s not a YMCA or Boys & Girls Club in this area,” Gentry said. “This would be a place not just for students, but for the entire neighborhood, as a way to bring families together. For the students, having structured resources in the afternoon is going to help them to grow even better during the academic school day.”