The Other 60 Percent

Tasty news: DPS back to scratch cooking

A tray of homemade cinnamon rolls was one of the class projects in the DPS scratch cooking boot camp.

Chef Safa Hamze watched with consternation as a Denver Public Schools food service worker squeezed a wad of whole wheat dough in her fists, then pinched off the tops that oozed out between her thumb and forefinger, setting each tan globule on a scale to make sure it weighed the requisite 1.5 ounces.

One by one, the little dough balls filled up a baking sheet, eventually to become dinner rolls. Soon, they would go in the oven at Academia Ana Marie Sandoval in northwest Denver.

“Do the dinner rolls have to be round?” he asked. “Because, you know, you can do it a lot faster if you make them square.”

Then Hamze, a one-time middle school math teacher who is now head baker at Whole Foods Rocky Mountain Bake House, did a little calculation aloud.

“You put 70 rolls on a pan at 1.5 ounces each. But instead, you could just roll out 7.5 pounds of dough and put on the pan, then slice it in squares and make the rolls pull-aparts,” he said. “They’ll bake together in such a way that you can just pull a roll off.”

Around the kitchen, heads nodded as mental light bulbs went on. The others could immediately see how much faster Hamze’s way would be over the traditional method, dubbed the “kill-the-chicken” technique.

Later that morning, Annette Martinez, who has been cooking for Denver schoolchildren for the past 23 years, was ecstatic with this newfound knowledge.

“Oh, slicing is soooo much better than pinching,” said Martinez, a food service worker at South High School. “He’s teaching us some real time savers. And that leaves us more time to focus on what we need to do.”

Back to school early for food workers

Last week, 120 workers – about a third of total DPS lunchroom staff – started a three-week “boot camp” in which they’ll learn lots more tips and techniques about scratch cooking, a skill many of them have never developed.

Safa Hamze, head baker at Whole Foods Rocky Mountain Bakehouse, shares some tips on time-saving ways to prepare cinnamon rolls.

They’re being tutored by local professional chefs such as Hamza.

When school starts in August, 29 DPS kitchens will have abandoned most processed foods and will be regularly be turning out homemade baked goods, meats and vegetable dishes. Within three years, all DPS school lunchrooms will follow suit.

It’s the largest commitment to returning to scratch cooking in schools in the state, if not the country, said Leo Lesh, director of food and nutrition services for the district.

“I think we’re ahead of the pack,” Lesh said.

“A few districts may try this in one or two schools, but we’re taking off a pretty big chunk at one go. And I’ve not heard of  anyone having a three-week training program like this.”

Back-to-scratch a national trend

The DPS effort parallels efforts in many smaller school districts to return to scratch cooking.

LiveWell Colorado is sponsoring week-long “culinary boot camps” for school food service personnel across the state. Nationwide, a movement for schools to abandon heat-and-serve processed foods and return to the homemade meals Baby Boomers remember is gathering steam.

“I’m surprised at how quickly this movement has taken root,” said Lesh. “It seems like overnight everyone has gotten concerned about the processed foods served in schools. Before, only food service directors were concerned.”

Most school lunchroom fare was made from scratch 30 years ago, he said. Then things changed.

“Food safety standards became more prevalent, and it was just easier to buy pre-packaged stuff,” he said. “The liability was less. And in the early ’80s everybody was running to fast food restaurants, and that’s what the kids wanted. We got into a lot of branded products like Subway pizza and Taco Bell burritos.”

Some new schools were built without real kitchens, since processed foods could simply be reheated. Of 140 DPS schools, 42 have no kitchens so food must be made elsewhere and transported to them.

Concern about childhood obesity sparks change

But about five years ago, things began to change again as rumblings of concern grew about widespread childhood obesity.

DPS responded by removing all its fryers, and began baking French fries. The district started bringing in more fresh fruits and vegetables, opening more salad bars.

Sandy Grady, area supervisor for DPS food and nutrition services, instructs students in creating homemade hamburger buns of the proper weight and shape.
PHOTO: Oliver Morrison
Sandy Grady, area supervisor for DPS Food and Nutrition Services, instructs boot camp students on how to make homemade hamburger buns of the proper weight and shape.

The district also embraced a policy of including at least one vegetarian selection daily, and of using produce from school gardens whenever possible.

“It was clear that we really wanted to go back to scratch cooking again,” Lesh said. “But then we faced the talent issue. Who could do those kind of things? People don’t cook at home anymore, and they haven’t taught their kids to cook. And there are no more home ec classes.

“We decided if we wanted to do this, we would have to develop our own training classes because we just can’t find the people who already have these skills who want to work for us.”

Back in the kitchen at Academia Ana Marie Sandoval, Katherine Culpepper is one of those people. She’s brand new to the district – doesn’t yet even know which school she’ll be assigned to in the fall.

But she’s the mother of six children and has raised seven more in addition to her own, and she knows a thing or two about cooking. “I know you can still have good quality food, made fast, if you work hard,” she said.

Martinez, the veteran with 23 years experience, remembers what school kitchens used to be like, and she’s glad to see a return to that.

“It’s back to the basic again, like we used to do,” she said. “It’ll be hard to go back to cooking again, but it’s good. It’s so much better for the children, and the food will be so much better.”

Regina Sams, who as been in the lunchroom at Denver’s Career Education Center for three years, said she used to work in a deli before getting hired by DPS. So she knows about scratch cooking.

“It’s more work but it’s better for the kids,” she said. “And DPS knows it will be more work, so they’re hiring more help. I don’t think there will be many complaints about it.”

Higher price tag for almost-home cooking

But that part about hiring more help does worry Lesh, whose job it is to make sure DPS meals are not only healthful but cost-efficient.

“I get $2.68 per child,” he said. Out of that, he pays salaries and benefits and covers utilities and equipment. The cost of the food itself accounts for less than half the costs associated with running the DPS food service program.

“It depends on the meal but we generally keep it around 42%. Roughly, our food costs are $1.12, on the high side, and we try to keep it around 90 cents,” Lesh said. “But I have to offer milk to every child and that’s 20 cents right there. So it’s a challenging business to try and make the meals for that amount of money.”

Lesh cautioned that the coming school year will be a transition year, and that not everything will be made from scratch.

“We won’t be taking feathers off of chickens,” he said. “We won’t make our own tortillas. This year will just let us know what’s possible, given the fact that it’s still a school lunch program, and we still have only 25 minutes to serve 300 kids. What CAN we get done, and more importantly, will the kids react positively?

“We think parents will,” Lesh added, “but parents aren’t in the lunchroom eating lunch every day. The kids have to like the food to bring them back every day for 173 days. I don’t know of anybody who goes to the same lunchroom for 173 straight days except  students. So we have to mix up the menus.”

Plus, he said, DPS sometimes buys products almost a year in advance, so there’s still quite a bit of processed products that must be used up — “We won’t just throw stuff away.”

Rebecca Jones can be reached at

Frequently asked

There are lots of ways schools teach English learners. Here’s how it works.

PHOTO: Andy Cross/The Denver Post
Lindsey Erisman works with 6-year-old students in an English Language Acquisition class at Denver's Cole Arts & Science Academy.

School district officials in Westminster this year signed an agreement with federal officials to change how they educate students who are learning English as a second language.

Similar agreements have also shaped how districts in Denver, Aurora, Adams 14, and Adams 12 educate their English language learner students. But many people, including parents and district insiders, may still have questions about the various complicated programs and requirements.

Although many of the language-education agreements are years old, most of the issues haven’t been resolved. In Adams 14, for instance, parents and advocates have protested a district decision to stop biliteracy programming, and have questioned the district’s compliance with its agreement to better serve English learners. District officials have pointed out that their obligation is teaching students English, not making them bilingual.

Now at least one charter school, KIPP, is looking to fill in that programming gap. Many other states have had a number of biliteracy and other bilingual programs at various schools for years, but Colorado has only more recently started to follow those trends.

So what’s the difference between the various language programs and services? And what is required by law and what isn’t? The following questions and answers might help clarify some of those questions as you follow the news around these issues.

Which students are designated as English language learners? Do parents get to decide, or do schools decide?

Federal guidance requires school districts have some way to identify English learners. Most commonly, districts survey all parents at school registration about their home language and the student’s first language. If that survey finds there might be an influence of another language at home, the student must be assessed to determine fluency in English. While the district has to identify all students who aren’t fluent in English as language learners, parents in Colorado can choose to waive the federally required services for their children. If so, the district doesn’t have to provide special services, but would still be required to monitor that the student is making progress toward acquiring English.

What educational rights do English language learners have?

English language learners have specific rights under the Lau v. Nichols Supreme Court case from 1974 and the subsequent Castañeda standards released in 1981. State laws also outline some requirements for school districts. Specifically, school districts must provide programs for all identified language learners to give them the opportunity to learn English and to access a comprehensive curriculum. The government does not state what that program should be, but provides some standards requiring that any program is theoretically sound and has a research base to support it. The program has to have qualified teachers, and a way to demonstrate that students are making progress in learning English and their academic content. While the civil rights officials consider many details to verify compliance, simply put, school districts have the legal obligation to identify students, serve them in a sound program, and monitor their progress.

What is the difference between bilingual education and “ELL services?”

Bilingual education (which is the program that has the most support for efficacy from the research community) offers students opportunities to learn in their native language while they are learning English. Bilingual programs can vary from short-term, or early-exit programs, to more longer-term developmental programs.

English language learner services do not need to provide opportunities for students to learn in the native language. Most commonly these services only offer English language development classes (generally 45 minutes per day). All other content instruction is offered only in English. ELL services are not bilingual.

What is English language development?

English language development must be a part of any program or model a district or school adopts. It is the class time when students are taught the English language. The government wants to see that English learners are given a dedicated time to learn English, when they are not competing with native English speakers. That means, often, English language development is offered as a time when students are pulled out of class to practice English, or as a special elective period students must take without their English-speaking peers.

The structure of this time period, who has access to it, or who teaches it, are areas commonly cited as problems by the federal Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights.

Do students who are identified as English language learners retain that designation forever? What does it mean to be an “exited ELL?”

They’re not supposed to. Students who are English learners should be tested at least once a year to determine their English proficiency. When a student reaches a high enough level, school staff must determine if the student is now fluent in English. If so, the student becomes an “exited ELL.” The law requires districts to monitor for two years students who have exited and are no longer receiving services. There are, however, students who do not reach English fluency before graduating or leaving school.

What is the difference between being bilingual and being biliterate?

Bilingual generally refers to oral language in that bilingual people can understand and speak two languages but may not be able to read and write in those languages. Biliterate refers to being able to understand, speak, read, and write in two languages. Many people are bilingual but not biliterate. Biliteracy is considered to be a higher form of bilingualism.

What is the difference between dual language and biliteracy models?

Dual language and biliteracy models share many common components. Both models usually have biliteracy as their end goal for students. Dual language models may be “one-way” or “two-way.” One-way programs generally serve students who are designated as English language learners (also sometimes called emerging bilinguals). Two-way dual language programs include students who are native English speakers. The only major difference is that biliteracy models focus on using two languages in the language arts or literacy classes (reading and writing in two languages) whereas dual language focuses on using two languages across the entire school day’s curriculum.

What is an immersion model?

Immersion models traditionally are thought of as referring to programs primarily intended for students from the dominant language population to learn a second language. This is different from programs meant to teach English.

While native English students can choose whether or not to learn a second language, students who are English language learners do not have a choice in learning English.

What is sheltered instruction?

This type of instruction takes place in non-dual language schools, during regular content classes (such as math or science), and it’s one way schools try to make the content understandable to students who aren’t yet fluent in English.

This is especially common in schools where English learners speak a variety of languages. Crawford Elementary in Aurora, for instance, has had up to 35 different languages represented among its approximately 560 students. If there aren’t enough students who speak a common first language and also a teacher who speaks the same language as those students, then schools must teach through English, while making the English as accessible as possible.

In practice, this means an English-speaking teacher would use sheltered instruction techniques to help all children understand the lessons such as, physical props, a focus on building vocabulary, and sentence stems.

Denver designates schools as TNLI schools. What does that mean?

Denver created the TNLI label in 1999 to set the district apart from other bilingual program models. TNLI stands for Transitional Native Language Instruction. The Denver TNLI program is a transitional bilingual education program model with a label created just for Denver. It’s a model where the native language is used to help students learn while they’re acquiring English, but still has a goal of making students fluent in English as soon as possible, at which point students move into mainstream English classrooms.

Is one of these models best suited for English learners?

Among researchers, it is commonly accepted that dual language or biliteracy models are the most effective to put English learners on par with their native speaking peers, in the long run.

Why do teachers have to be trained specifically to teach this population of students? What are teachers learning?

Educators and researchers say that teachers need to learn the differences and similarities between learning in one language and learning bilingually. Teachers need to learn about literacy methodology and how teaching literacy in Spanish (for example) is the same and different as teaching literacy in English. They have to learn how to teach English language development to students who are beginning to learn English (it is different than just teaching in English). These trainings also help teachers learn about cultural similarities and differences and about sources of culture conflict. Teachers need to be able to teach children English; how to use English to learn; and how the English language works. In bilingual settings teachers need to learn those three things for two languages. In short, the training needed to be a bilingual teacher is quite different. Colorado will soon require some of this training for all teachers.

What are the challenges districts have in offering these different programs? How do schools decide which type of model to offer?

The demographics of a district’s student population, and district politics play a large part in helping a district decide what model or program to use. Resources can also be a factor in deciding how to structure services or what programs to offer. In Adams 14, when the district leadership decided to pause the roll out of a biliteracy program, the district cited a lack of qualified bilingual teachers, among other things.

In Westminster, the school district’s unique competency-based approach, which removes grade levels and seeks to personalize instruction, was cited as a reason why the district had structured its English language development the way it had before the investigation by the Office for Civil Rights sought to change it.

Does Colorado provide guidance or oversight for how districts are doing this work?

The Colorado Department of Education offers some guidance for districts, but oversight of the districts’ compliance with what is required is limited. In practice, when parents suspect their children aren’t educated well, they have filed complaints with the federal government. In Denver, the complaints went through the Department of Justice. Investigations of most other metro-area districts have been conducted by the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights.

task force

Jeffco takes collaborative approach as it considers later school start times

File photo of Wheat Ridge High School students. (Photo by Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

The Jeffco school district is weighing pushing back start times at its middle and high schools, and the community task force set up to offer recommendations is asking for public input.

Nearby school districts, such as those in Cherry Creek and Greeley, have rolled out later start times, and Jeffco — the second largest school district in Colorado — in December announced its decision to study the issue.

Thompson and Brighton’s 27J school districts are pushing back start times at their secondary schools this fall.

The 50-person Jeffco task force has until January to present their recommendations to the district.

Supporters of the idea to start the school day later cite research showing that teenagers benefit from sleeping in and often do better in school as a result.

Jeffco is considering changing start times after parents and community members began pressing superintendent Jason Glass to look at the issue. Middle and high schools in the Jeffco district currently start at around 7:30 a.m.

The task force is inviting community members to offer their feedback this summer on the group’s website, its Facebook page, or the district’s form, and to come to its meetings in the fall.

Katie Winner, a Jeffco parent of two and one of three chairs of the start times task force, said she’s excited about how collaborative the work is this year.

“It’s a little shocking,” Winner said. “It’s really hard to convey to people that Jeffco schools wants your feedback. But I can say [definitively], I don’t believe this is a waste of time.”

The task force is currently split into three committees focusing on reviewing research on school start times, considering outcomes in other districts that have changed start times, and gathering community input. The group as a whole will also consider how schedule changes could affect transportation, sports and other after school activities, student employment, and district budgets.

Members of the task force are not appointed by the district, as has been typical in district decision-making in years past. Instead, as a way to try to generate the most community engagement, everyone who expressed interest was accepted into the group. Meetings are open to the public, and people can still join the task force.

“These groups are short-term work groups, not school board advisory committees. They are targeting some current issues that our families are interested in,” said Diana Wilson, the district’s chief communications officer. “Since the topics likely have a broad range of perspectives, gathering people that (hopefully) represent those perspectives to look at options seems like a good way to find some solutions or ideas for positive/constructive changes.”

How such a large group will reach a consensus remains to be seen. Winner knows the prospect could appear daunting, but “it’s actually a challenge to the group to say: be inclusive.”

For now the group is seeking recommendations that won’t require the district to spend more money. But Winner said the group will keep a close eye on potential tax measures that could give the district new funds after November. If some measure were to pass, it could give the group more flexibility in its recommendations.