The Other 60 Percent

DPS pushing ambitious health agenda

Denver Public Schools officials are making one last push to get community feedback on the district’s proposed “Health Agenda 2015,” a blueprint to guide the allocation of school health dollars and resources for the next five years.

More than 1,000 people have taken a district survey on health-spending priorities since DPS released the draft plan on April 19. Officials will continue to collect feedback through Monday, then will start compiling findings to see if the draft, prepared by the district’s Health Advisory Committee, really reflects community wishes.

The final recommendations will be released in late August and the district will come up with an action plan for implementation by year’s end.

Barring any major revisions, this is what the plan looks like:

  • Dramatically increase participation in the free school breakfast program, from 30 percent up to 50 percent of students.
  • Ensure that students participate in scheduled physical education and recess, specifically by enacting a policy that prohibits schools from punishing disruptive or under-performing students by taking away those activities.
  • Increase the number of students who have health insurance, increase the hours that school nurses are available to students and increase the number of students served by school-based health centers.
  • Boost the hours that school social workers and psychologists are available in schools and teach “Signs of Suicide,” a proven suicide-prevention curriculum, to sixth- and ninth-graders.
  • Create a review process to approve programs, partnerships and curriculum related to health education.
  • Set up a comprehensive employee health promotion program to encourage teachers, principals and other staff to be healthy role models for students.
  • Implement Positive Behavior Support in all schools so that all adults in schools appropriately and consistently enforce consequences for bad behavior.
  • Get families and the community more involved in achieving the district’s health goals.

“We wanted to choose measures that schools alone could affect,” said Bridget Beatty, DPS coordinator of school and community health partnerships. “In a lot of areas, schools are a player but a lot also depends on what kids go home to. Like Body Mass Index. That’s a measure we didn’t include because there are so many complex socio-ecological factors in that. Schools play a part in determining a child’s BMI but so do many other things. But we do determine how we address physical education or how many students eat breakfast at school.”

In addition, the committee chose things that the district can feasibly accomplish within five years, Beatty said.

Kelsey Eikermann, a parent with children at Hamilton Middle School and University Park Elementary, sat on the subcommittee that drafted the recommendations involving physical education. She said the process was eye-opening for her.

“I was astonished at the wide range of how much P.E. our kids did or didn’t get,” she said. “At the lowest end, it was one day of P.E. every other week or something horrific like that.”

At University Park, the PTA pays half of the P.E. teacher’s salary, she said. “So my kid gets more P.E. because our neighborhood can afford to raise the money and pay for it.” She acknowledges that DPS can’t afford to make that level of physical education available at every school, but said at least the district can ensure no child loses whatever physical activity time is provided. “We can change the rules where kids won’t lose recess just because they didn’t do their spelling homework,” she said. “And we can be consistent about that across schools.”

Dr. Steven Federico, a pediatrician who is medical director at Denver Health Medical Center for the DPS School-Based Health Program, said he hopes what comes out of this process is focus. “When you don’t have a defined, focused agenda, there may be a tendency to build infrastructure based on opportunity rather than based on need,” he said. “We’re spread too thin for the resources we have. We have successful programs that we don’t build on enough.”

Some things obviously had to be left out. There’s nothing in the draft agenda about pregnancy prevention, for example, or sexually transmitted infections. Nothing about improving the quality of school lunches. Nothing about increasing physical education requirements.

“We do so many things and all had been proverbially equal,” Beatty explained. “Initially we started with 18 goals and the Health Advisory Council narrowed it down to 10.”

For more information

Click here to read the complete DPS Health Agenda 2015.

Click here to complete a DPS health goals survey. Deadline for completing the survey is May 31.

Poverty in America

Memphis woman’s tragic death prompts reflection. Could vacant schools help in the fight against homelessness?

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Graves Elementary School in South Memphis has been boarded up since its closure in 2014. It's one of 10 vacant school buildings in the city.

The death of a Memphis woman sleeping on a bench across from City Hall in frigid temperatures unleashed a furor of frustration this week across social media.

As Memphians speculated how someone could freeze to death in such a public place, some pointed to limited public transportation, one of the nation’s highest poverty rates, and entry fees to homeless shelters. The discussion yielded one intriguing suggestion:

About 650 Memphis students were considered homeless during the 2015-16 school year, meaning their families either were on the streets, living in cars or motels, or doubling up with friends and relatives.

At the same time, Shelby County Schools has an adequate supply of buildings. The district had 10 vacant structures last fall after shuttering more than 20 schools since 2012, with more closures expected in the next few years.

But what would need to happen for schools to become a tool against homelessness? Some cities already have already begun to tap that inventory.

Shelby County Schools has been eager to get out of the real estate business, though it’s not exactly giving away its aging buildings. In 2016, Superintendent Dorsey Hopson said the school system should “repurpose some of these buildings and … anchor some of these communities and rebuild and refurbish these communities instead of tearing stuff down.” The conversation was part of Memphis 3.0, the city’s first strategic plan since 1981 to guide growth for years to come.

District policy allows for “adaptive reuse” to lease vacant buildings for community development including affordable housing, community centers, libraries, community gardens, or businesses. A change requires a community needs assessment and input from neighborhood leaders and organizations before the school board can vote on a recommendation.

But proposals to transform schools into housing haven’t emerged in Memphis.

The Memphis Housing Authority, which oversees federal dollars for housing development, has a two-year exclusive right to purchase two former schools near downtown. But talk has focused on using that space for an early childhood center, not housing, according to High Ground News.

Under state law, districts must give charter schools, which are privately managed but publicly funded, serious consideration to take over a closed building.

That has happened for some Memphis schools, but high maintenance costs for the old buildings are a major deterrent. They also present a significant challenge for any entity looking to convert a structure into a homeless shelter or affordable housing.

Of the district’s 10 empty school buildings, most have a relatively low “facility condition index,” or FCI rate, which measures the maintenance and repair costs against the current replacement cost. The higher the number, the less cost-effective.

*as of October 2017

The idea to turn vacant school buildings into livable space is not new. Across the nation, some communities have found workable solutions to address the excess real estate.

In Philadelphia, a nonprofit organization transformed an empty four-story elementary school that was frequented by trespassers and drug users into housing for 37 homeless veterans and low-income seniors. The $14 million project, led by Help USA, took advantage of federal dollars set aside to house homeless veterans.

Last summer, leaders in Daytona Beach, Florida, pitched in $3.5 million in public funds to help a local nonprofit convert an elementary school into a homeless shelter. Despite pushback from neighborhood residents, the plan secured a unanimous vote from its county council.

In Denver, school officials proposed turning an elementary school into affordable housing for teachers to combat expensive living costs and rapid gentrification. That idea is still up in the air, with some residents lobbying to reopen the building as a school.

Detroit is riddled with empty school buildings. Developers there are buying up properties to repurpose for residential use as they wait to see what the market will bear. The city’s private Catholic schools have seen more success in transforming old buildings into apartments, luxury condominiums, or a boutique office building because they are smaller, easier to renovate, and don’t have the same deed restrictions as public schools.

The same appears to be true in Baltimore, where a nonprofit group converted a 25,000-square-foot Catholic school into housing for women and children. The $6 million project, completed last month, uses federal housing vouchers to subsidize rent.

In Memphis, the community is still assessing what resources need to be tapped in response to this week’s tragic death.

“Simply dismissing this as a tragedy will only allow us to continue to absolve ourselves from the apathy and selfishness that allow people to go unseen,” said the Rev. Lisa Anderson, a Cumberland Presbyterian pastor who is executive director of the city’s Room in the Inn ministry.

academic insurance

Children’s Health Insurance Program is on the brink. Here’s why that matters for education

The fate of the Children’s Health Insurance Program is in Congress’s hands — and children’s education, not just their health, may be at stake.

Congress passed a temporary extension of funding for of CHIP in December, through some states will run out of money shortly. The end of the program would come with obvious potential consequences, as CHIP, which covers approximately 9 million children, gives participants more access to health and dental care.

There may also be a less obvious result: Research has found that access to health insurance helps kids perform better on tests and stay in school longer.

A 2016 study, published in the peer-reviewed Journal of Human Resources, found that expanding Medicaid in the 1980s and 1990s increased students’ likelihood of completing high school and college.

“Our results indicate that the long-run benefits of public health insurance are substantial,” the researchers wrote.

Similarly, an earlier paper shows that broadening access to Medicaid or CHIP led to increases in student achievement.

“We find evidence that test scores in reading, but not math, increased for those children affected at birth by the increase in health insurance eligibility,” researchers Phillip Levine and Diane Whitmore Schanzenbach wrote.

In short, research suggests that when kids are healthier, they do better in school. That’s in line with common sense, as well as studies showing that children benefit academically when their families have access to direct anti-poverty programs like the earned income tax credit or cash benefits.

(Even if CHIP ends, affected children might still have access to subsidized insurance through the Affordable Care Act or other means. The Congressional Budget Office estimates that will be more costly in the long run.)

Congress appears likely to vote on a bill this week that includes a six-year CHIP extension, as as well as a temporary spending measure to avoid a federal government shutdown.