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 [email protected] 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

Why the phrase ‘with fidelity’ is an affront to good teaching

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

“With fidelity” are some of the most damaging words in education.

Districts spend a ton of money paying people to pick out massively expensive, packaged curriculums, as if every one of a thousand classrooms needs the exact same things. Then officials say, over and over again, that they must be implemented “with fidelity.” What they mean is that teachers better not do anything that would serve their students’ specific needs.

When that curriculum does nothing to increase student achievement, it is not blamed. The district person who found it and purchased it is never blamed. Nope. They say, “Well, the teachers must not have been implementing it with fidelity.”

It keeps happening because admitting that schools are messy and students are human and teaching is both creative and artistic would also mean you have to trust teachers and let them have some power. Also, there are some really crappy teachers out there, and programs for everyone are often meant to push that worst-case-scenario line a little higher.

And if everyone’s doing just what they’re supposed to, we’ll get such good, clean numbers, and isn’t that worth a few thousand more dollars?

I was talking with a friend recently, a teacher at an urban school on the East Coast. He had been called to task by his principal for splitting his kids into groups to offer differentiated math instruction based on students’ needs. “But,” the principal said, “did the pacing guide say to differentiate? You need to trust the system.”

I understand the desire to find out if a curriculum “works.” But I don’t trust anyone who can say “trust the system” without vomiting. Not when the system is so much worse than anything teachers would put together.

Last year, my old district implemented Reading Plus, an online reading program that forces students to read at a pace determined by their scores. The trainers promised, literally promised us, that there wasn’t a single reading selection anywhere in the program that could be considered offensive to anyone. God knows I never learned anything from a book that made me feel uncomfortable!

Oh, and students were supposed to use this program — forced-paced reading of benign material followed by multiple-choice questions and more forced-pace reading — for 90 minutes a week. We heard a lot about fidelity when the program did almost nothing for students (and, I believe quite strongly, did far worse than encouraging independent reading of high-interest books for 90 minutes a week would have done).

At the end of that year, I was handed copies of next year’s great adventure in fidelity. I’m not in that district any longer, but the whole district was all switching over to SpringBoard, another curriculum, in language arts classes. On came the emails about implementing with fidelity and getting everyone on the same page. We were promised flexibility, you know, so long as we also stuck to the pacing guide of the workbook.

I gave it a look, I did, because only idiots turn down potential tools. But man, it seemed custom-built to keep thinking — especially any creative, critical thought from either students or teachers — to a bare minimum.

I just got an email from two students from last year. They said hi, told me they missed creative writing class, and said they hated SpringBoard, the “evil twin of Reading Plus.”

That district ran out of money and had to cut teachers (including me) at the end of the year. But if they hadn’t, I don’t think I would have lasted long if forced to teach from a pacing guide. I’m a good teacher. Good teachers love to be challenged and supported. They take feedback well, but man do we hate mandates for stuff we know isn’t best for the kids in our room.

Because, from inside a classroom full of dynamic, chaotic brilliance;

from a classroom where that kid just shared that thing that broke all of our hearts;

from a classroom where that other kid figured out that idea they’ve been working on for weeks;

from that classroom where that other kid, who doesn’t know enough of the language, hides how hard he works to keep up and still misses things;

and from that classroom where one kid isn’t sure if they trust you yet, and that other kid trusts you too much, too easily, because their bar had been set too low after years of teachers that didn’t care enough;

from inside that classroom, it’s impossible to trust that anyone else has a better idea than I do about what my students need to do for our next 50 minutes.

Tom Rademacher is a teacher living in Minneapolis who was named Minnesota’s Teacher of the Year in 2014. His book, “It Won’t Be Easy: An Exceedingly Honest (and Slightly Unprofessional) Love Letter to Teaching,” was published in April. He can be found on Twitter @mrtomrad and writes on, where this post first appeared.

First Person

What I learned about the limits of school choice in New York City from a mother whose child uses a wheelchair

PHOTO: Patrick Wall

As a researcher interested in the ways online platforms impact learning and educational decision-making, I’ve been trying to understand how New York City parents get the information to make a crucial decision: where to send their children to school.

So for the past six months, I’ve been asking local parents about the data they used to choose among the system’s 1700 or so schools.

I’ve heard all sorts of stories about the factors parents weigh when picking schools. Beyond the usual considerations like test scores and art programs, they also consider the logistics of commuting from the Bronx to the East Village with two children in tow, whether the school can accommodate parents and children who are still learning English, and how much money the parent-teacher association raises to supplement the school’s budget.

But for some families, the choice process begins and ends with the question: Is the building fully accessible?

The federal Americans with Disabilities Act requires public buildings constructed after 1992 to be fully accessible to people in wheelchairs. However, most New York City public school buildings were constructed prior to that law, and high construction costs have limited the number of new, fully accessible buildings.

As a result, a shocking 83 percent of New York City schools have been found non-compliant with the ADA, according to a two-year federal Department of Justice investigation whose findings the city Department of Education largely disputes. Recently, the city’s Office of Space Management has begun surveying buildings for full accessibility, but more work remains to be done.

One parent’s struggle to find a school suitable for her son, who has a physical disability but no cognitive issues, illustrates what a major role accessibility plays in some families’ decision-making.

Melanie Rivera is the mother of two and a native New Yorker living in Ditmas Park in Brooklyn’s District 22 who shared her story with me — and gave me permission to share it with others. Here is what she told me, in her own words:

My son Gabriel is seven years old. He was born with a condition called arthrogryposis, which affects the development of his joints. His hips, knees, and feet are affected and he has joint contractures, so his legs don’t bend and straighten the way most people’s do. In order to get around, he uses a combination of crutches and a wheelchair.

Before I had my differently-abled son, I was working in a preschool for children with special needs. The kids I worked with had cognitive developmental disabilities.

Despite my professional experience, I was overwhelmed when it was my turn to help my child with different abilities navigate the public school system. I can only imagine the students falling by the wayside because their parents don’t have that background.

When I was completing my son’s kindergarten application, I couldn’t even consider the academics of the school. My main priority was to tour the schools and assess their level of accessibility.

There are only a couple of ADA-accessible schools in my district, and there was no way of indicating on my son’s kindergarten application that he needed one. When we got the admissions results, he was assigned to his zoned school – which is not accessible.

I entered lengthy and extensive mediation to get him into an ADA-accessible school. At that point, I knew I would just have to take what I could get. For families whose children have special needs, “school choice” can ring hollow.

The process of finding any accessible school was a challenge. The DOE website allows families to search for ADA-accessible schools. But the site describes most schools as “partially accessible,” leaving it up to parents to call each school and say, “What do you mean by this?”

When I called the schools and asked, “Are you a barrier-free school?” the staff in the office didn’t know what the term meant. They might reply, “Oh yeah, we have a ramp.” I’d have to press further: “But can you get to the office? Can you get to every floor in the building?” The response was often, “Oh, I don’t know.”

Even the office staff didn’t know. But for my son’s sake, I needed to know.

Gabriel deserves the full range of academic and social experiences. So every day I make sure he’s learning in the least-restrictive environment — from the classroom, to phys ed, to field trips.

I believe the Department of Education also wants to make schools accessible and to place students with different abilities in settings where they’ll flourish, but the current system is not equipped to follow through on those good intentions. While I see gradual changes, I still know that if I don’t find the best placement for my son the system definitely won’t.

At the school level, administrators should know the details of their own school’s accessibility. Teachers should learn to include children with different abilities in their classrooms. Such a commitment means recognizing the value of inclusivity — not viewing accessibility as something ADA says you must do.

Before I had Gabriel, I never thought about accessibility. I never looked at street cutouts or thought about how to enter a store with steps. We’re probably all guilty of perpetuating exclusion at one point or another.

Recognizing that will allow us to change the status quo. It will allow every individual with a physical disability to fully participate in the public school system.

Claire Fontaine is a researcher at Data & Society, a research institute in New York City focused on social, cultural, and ethical issues arising from technological development. Kinjal Dave is a research assistant at Data & Society. You can read more about their project, which seeks to better understand the ways in which diverse New York City parents draw on school performance data, online dashboards, and school review websites when researching schools for their children.