First Person

This week's healthy schools highlights

Chula Vista, Calif., schools fight obesity

When a Chula Vista teacher proposed weighing the kids in her school district she didn’t expect to find an obesity epidemic that outpaced the nation’s. KPBS education reporter Kyla Calvert tells us about the study and what the city’s elementary schools are doing to fight the trend. Watch this YouTube video.

Denver’s school food workers design pay-for-performance evaluations

fresh food prep at Southern Hills Middle School

Denver Public Schools food workers this week received a $150,000 grant to begin designing their own pay-for-performance evaluation system.

“Because everyone’s going to be doing scratch cooking now, that takes more work and more time, so we wanted to give the workers something back,” said Bernadette Jiron, president of the Denver Federation for Paraprofessionals and Nutrition Service Employees. Read more in the Denver Post.

No point in telling parents about kids’ weight?

(Reuters Health) – School policies that let parents know when their children are overweight or obese appear to have little impact on the problem, a new study finds. Read all about it in Reuters.

Secondhand smoke tied to mental health problems in kids

Estimates suggest that anywhere between 4.8 and 5.5 million children in the U.S. live in households where they are exposed to secondhand smoke, putting them at greater risk for multiple health problems. Now, new research suggests that secondhand smoke exposure can increase the odds of developing certain mental and behavioral disorders by 50 percent. Read more in the Huffington Post.

WOW! Children’s Museum steps up to the healthy food plate

WOW! Children's Museum logoPedaling at a rigorous pace, it takes a 7-year-old about five minutes on a hand bike to burn off the calories gained from a small bowl of strawberries. It takes roughly two hours for the same child doing the same exercise to burn off a candy bar.

The consensus among 7-year-olds on the hand bike at the WOW! Museum in Lafayette last week? Eat more strawberries. Read more about the “Eat Well, Play Well” exhibit (interactivity in English and Spanish) in the Colorado Hometown Weekly.

Calling all school lunch heroes!

Know someone in your community who is making great efforts to improve school lunch? Know someone going to exceptional strides to ensure children are exposed to not only good food, but gardening and learning about the process of seed to harvest to kitchen to table? Perhaps he or she is a school food service cook, server, director, administration, parent, teacher, or student activist? Tell the The LunchBox (founded by EdNews Parent expert and head of Boulder Valley schools’ nutrition services, Ann Cooper) all about it.

The LunchBox will choose two inspirational folks twice a month to be featured in its Heroes blog section.

Once your hero has been selected, you will be asked to submit a 500-800 word blog about your hometown school food hero touching on the following points:

  • The background on what it took for your hero to get to where she/he is today
  • The story of your hero’s connection to healthier school meals, including who she/he teamed up with to help reach her/his goals
  • Why it is important to get healthy food into schools
  • An action paragraph: What are some small steps our followers can take to do help in their own communities?

Submit your hero (and/or your questions!) to Sunny at and be sure to put “Lunch Box Hero” in the subject line.

Colorado wins millions to boost school clinics

Colorado public health clinics won nearly $2.5 million in new federal grants to expand school-based medical centers for the poor and underserved, as providers gear up for an influx of new patients under the Affordable Care Act.

The Department of Health and Human Services grants, including $500,000 to Denver Health for its school programs, will pay for capital improvements expanding care to 440,000 new patients nationwide, on top of 790,000 already served, government officials said. Read more in the Denver Post.

New Mass. school food rules ban sweet snacks

BOSTON—Sugary sodas and sweet snacks are out along with potato chips and other vending machine cuisine under Massachusetts’ new school nutrition standards approved Wednesday. Read more in the Boston Globe.

Report: One-third of U.S. children are overweight or obese

More than one-third of U.S. children between ages 10-17 are considered obese (16.4 percent) or overweight (an additional 18.2 percent), according to a report released last week by the Trust for America’s Health and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. That percentage has nearly tripled in the past 10 years, according to former Surgeon General David Satcher. Read more in EdWeek.

Citing health concerns, schools reconsider attendance awards

At his daughter’s high school graduation ceremony last year, Dr. Anthony Billittier was struck by the number of students receiving awards for perfect attendance. As commissioner of health for Erie County, N.Y., he couldn’t help but wonder if any of the students had gone to school sick in order to preserve their attendance record. Read more in the Washington Post.

Demand rises for Larimer County’s Kids Cafe

This summer, the Food Bank for Larimer County’s Kids Café is serving more than 750 meals a day to children at risk for hunger. In June alone, the food service program served 16,000 meals to children. That represents a 23 percent increase from the number of meals served in June 2010 and the largest meal outreach for Kids Café during its seven years of operation.

Kids Café, funded in part by the Federal Summer Food Service Program and administered by the Colorado Department of Education, is a year-round feeding program that targets children ages 3-18 who might be at risk of hunger. Read more in the Loveland Reporter-Herald.

Free cooking kits for qualifying schools

Share Our Strength has teamed up with the Partnership for a Healthier America to help in the distribution of free, high-end cooking demo kits, to schools and nonprofits that are facilitating chef engagement in schools.

Launched by First Lady Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move campaign, Chefs Move to Schools encourages chefs to pair up with local schools to mobilize and excite a new generation of healthy eaters.  By adopting a school, a chef will work with school food professionals, teachers, parents and students to help educate kids about food and nutrition, and help them to make healthy choices.

Participating Chefs Move to Schools partners are eligible to receive a free cookware kit valued at approximately $2,000.   For more information or to register a chef/school match and apply for a cooking kit, visit Share Our Strength.

Should parents lose custody of severely obese kids?

A controversial new editorial is firing up the debate about what to do about kids who have become severely overweight, suggesting that some of them should be placed into foster care. Check out this Canadian TV report based on U.S. research findings.

USDA seeks ways to boost farm-to-school programs

MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — The popularity of farm-to-school programs that put locally grown food on cafeteria trays has exploded in recent years — so much so that the federal agency in charge of school lunches is giving them a new stamp of approval. Read more in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer.

Jillian Michaels dishes out healthy snack ideas for kids

Leading health and wellness expert Jillian Michaels joined Marlo Thomas on Mondays with Marlo for a terrific chat about fitness, weight loss, self-improvement, and more! Here are ideas for some not-so-terrible “junk food” snacks. Read more at Parent Dish.

PE teachers and the obesity epidemic

Obesity has reached epidemic proportions and threatens to impact the health and well being of children and adolescents . States, school districts and schools are addressing childhood obesity through multi-pronged strategies that include developing school nutrition and physical activity policies and implementing classroom instruction in nutrition and physical education. Read more in the Pittsburgh Examiner.


First Person

I’m a principal who thinks personalized learning shouldn’t be a debate.

PHOTO: Lisa Epstein
Lisa Epstein, principal of Richard H. Lee Elementary, supports personalized learning

This is the first in what we hope will be a tradition of thoughtful opinion pieces—of all viewpoints—published by Chalkbeat Chicago. Have an idea? Send it to

As personalized learning takes hold throughout the city, Chicago teachers are wondering why a term so appealing has drawn so much criticism.

Until a few years ago, the school that I lead, Richard H. Lee Elementary on the Southwest Side, was on a path toward failing far too many of our students. We crafted curriculum and identified interventions to address gaps in achievement and the shifting sands of accountability. Our teachers were hardworking and committed. But our work seemed woefully disconnected from the demands we knew our students would face once they made the leap to postsecondary education.

We worried that our students were ill-equipped for today’s world of work and tomorrow’s jobs. Yet, we taught using the same model through which we’d been taught: textbook-based direct instruction.

How could we expect our learners to apply new knowledge to evolving facts, without creating opportunities for exploration? Where would they learn to chart their own paths, if we didn’t allow for agency at school? Why should our students engage with content that was disconnected from their experiences, values, and community?

We’ve read articles about a debate over personalized learning centered on Silicon Valley’s “takeover” of our schools. We hear that Trojan Horse technologies are coming for our jobs. But in our school, personalized learning has meant developing lessons informed by the cultural heritage and interests of our students. It has meant providing opportunities to pursue independent projects, and differentiating curriculum, instruction, and assessment to enable our students to progress at their own pace. It has reflected a paradigm shift that is bottom-up and teacher led.

And in a move that might have once seemed incomprehensible, it has meant getting rid of textbooks altogether. We’re not alone.

We are among hundreds of Chicago educators who would welcome critics to visit one of the 120 city schools implementing new models for learning – with and without technology. Because, as it turns out, Chicago is fast becoming a hub for personalized learning. And, it is no coincidence that our academic growth rates are also among the highest in the nation.

Before personalized learning, we designed our classrooms around the educator. Decisions were made based on how educators preferred to teach, where they wanted students to sit, and what subjects they wanted to cover.

Personalized learning looks different in every classroom, but the common thread is that we now make decisions looking at the student. We ask them how they learn best and what subjects strike their passions. We use small group instruction and individual coaching sessions to provide each student with lesson plans tailored to their needs and strengths. We’re reimagining how we use physical space, and the layout of our classrooms. We worry less about students talking with their friends; instead, we ask whether collaboration and socialization will help them learn.

Our emphasis on growth shows in the way students approach each school day. I have, for example, developed a mentorship relationship with one of our middle school students who, despite being diligent and bright, always ended the year with average grades. Last year, when she entered our personalized learning program for eighth grade, I saw her outlook change. She was determined to finish the year with all As.

More than that, she was determined to show that she could master anything her teachers put in front of her. She started coming to me with graded assignments. We’d talk about where she could improve and what skills she should focus on. She was pragmatic about challenges and so proud of her successes. At the end of the year she finished with straight As—and she still wanted more. She wanted to get A-pluses next year. Her outlook had changed from one of complacence to one oriented towards growth.

Rather than undermining the potential of great teachers, personalized learning is creating opportunities for collaboration as teachers band together to leverage team-teaching and capitalize on their strengths and passions. For some classrooms, this means offering units and lessons based on the interests and backgrounds of the class. For a couple of classrooms, it meant literally knocking down walls to combine classes from multiple grade-levels into a single room that offers each student maximum choice over how they learn. For every classroom, it means allowing students to work at their own pace, because teaching to the middle will always fail to push some while leaving others behind.

For many teachers, this change sounded daunting at first. For years, I watched one of my teachers – a woman who thrives off of structure and runs a tight ship – become less and less engaged in her profession. By the time we made the switch to personalized learning, I thought she might be done. We were both worried about whether she would be able to adjust to the flexibility of the new model. But she devised a way to maintain order in her classroom while still providing autonomy. She’s found that trusting students with the responsibility to be engaged and efficient is both more effective and far more rewarding than trying to force them into their roles. She now says that she would never go back to the traditional classroom structure, and has rediscovered her love for teaching. The difference is night and day.

The biggest change, though, is in the relationships between students and teachers. Gone is the traditional, authority-to-subordinate dynamic; instead, students see their teachers as mentors with whom they have a unique and individual connection, separate from the rest of the class. Students are actively involved in designing their learning plans, and are constantly challenged to articulate the skills they want to build and the steps that they must take to get there. They look up to their teachers, they respect their teachers, and, perhaps most important, they know their teachers respect them.

Along the way, we’ve found that students respond favorably when adults treat them as individuals. When teachers make important decisions for them, they see learning as a passive exercise. But, when you make it clear that their needs and opinions will shape each school day, they become invested in the outcome.

As our students take ownership over their learning, they earn autonomy, which means they know their teachers trust them. They see growth as the goal, so they no longer finish assignments just to be done; they finish assignments to get better. And it shows in their attendance rates – and test scores.

Lisa Epstein is the principal of Richard H. Lee Elementary School, a public school in Chicago’s West Lawn neighborhood serving 860 students from pre-kindergarten through eighth grade.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect that Richard H. Lee Elementary School serves 860 students, not 760 students.

First Person

I’ve spent years studying the link between SHSAT scores and student success. The test doesn’t tell you as much as you might think.

PHOTO: Photo by Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images

Proponents of New York City’s specialized high school exam, the test the mayor wants to scrap in favor of a new admissions system, defend it as meritocratic. Opponents contend that when used without consideration of school grades or other factors, it’s an inappropriate metric.

One thing that’s been clear for decades about the exam, now used to admit students to eight top high schools, is that it matters a great deal.

Students admitted may not only receive a superior education, but also access to elite colleges and eventually to better employment. That system has also led to an under-representation of Hispanic students, black students, and girls.

As a doctoral student at The Graduate Center of the City University of New York in 2015, and in the years after I received my Ph.D., I have tried to understand how meritocratic the process really is.

First, that requires defining merit. Only New York City defines it as the score on a single test — other cities’ selective high schools use multiple measures, as do top colleges. There are certainly other potential criteria, such as artistic achievement or citizenship.

However, when merit is defined as achievement in school, the question of whether the test is meritocratic is an empirical question that can be answered with data.

To do that, I used SHSAT scores for nearly 28,000 students and school grades for all public school students in the city. (To be clear, the city changed the SHSAT itself somewhat last year; my analysis used scores on the earlier version.)

My analysis makes clear that the SHSAT does measure an ability that contributes to some extent to success in high school. Specifically, a SHSAT score predicts 20 percent of the variability in freshman grade-point average among all public school students who took the exam. Students with extremely high SHSAT scores (greater than 650) generally also had high grades when they reached a specialized school.

However, for the vast majority of students who were admitted with lower SHSAT scores, from 486 to 600, freshman grade point averages ranged widely — from around 50 to 100. That indicates that the SHSAT was a very imprecise predictor of future success for students who scored near the cutoffs.

Course grades earned in the seventh grade, in contrast, predicted 44 percent of the variability in freshman year grades, making it a far better admissions criterion than SHSAT score, at least for students near the score cutoffs.

It’s not surprising that a standardized test does not predict as well as past school performance. The SHSAT represents a two and a half hour sample of a limited range of skills and knowledge. In contrast, middle-school grades reflect a full year of student performance across the full range of academic subjects.

Furthermore, an exam which relies almost exclusively on one method of assessment, multiple choice questions, may fail to measure abilities that are revealed by the variety of assessment methods that go into course grades. Additionally, middle school grades may capture something important that the SHSAT fails to capture: long-term motivation.

Based on his current plan, Mayor de Blasio seems to be pointed in the right direction. His focus on middle school grades and the Discovery Program, which admits students with scores below the cutoff, is well supported by the data.

In the cohort I looked at, five of the eight schools admitted some students with scores below the cutoff. The sample sizes were too small at four of them to make meaningful comparisons with regularly admitted students. But at Brooklyn Technical High School, the performance of the 35 Discovery Program students was equal to that of other students. Freshman year grade point averages for the two groups were essentially identical: 86.6 versus 86.7.

My research leads me to believe that it might be reasonable to admit a certain percentage of the students with extremely high SHSAT scores — over 600, where the exam is a good predictor —and admit the remainder using a combined index of seventh grade GPA and SHSAT scores.

When I used that formula to simulate admissions, diversity increased, somewhat. An additional 40 black students, 209 Hispanic students, and 205 white students would have been admitted, as well as an additional 716 girls. It’s worth pointing out that in my simulation, Asian students would still constitute the largest segment of students (49 percent) and would be admitted in numbers far exceeding their proportion of applicants.

Because middle school grades are better than test scores at predicting high school achievement, their use in the admissions process should not in any way dilute the quality of the admitted class, and could not be seen as discriminating against Asian students.

The success of the Discovery students should allay some of the concerns about the ability of students with SHSAT scores below the cutoffs. There is no guarantee that similar results would be achieved in an expanded Discovery Program. But this finding certainly warrants larger-scale trials.

With consideration of additional criteria, it may be possible to select a group of students who will be more representative of the community the school system serves — and the pool of students who apply — without sacrificing the quality for which New York City’s specialized high schools are so justifiably famous.

Jon Taylor is a research analyst at Hunter College analyzing student success and retention.