First Person

Fifth-graders learn to be healthy consumers

Aurora Public Schools and Cherry Creek School District will jointly launch a new wellness program for fifth-graders this fall that pairs classroom instruction about balancing calories with promotions sponsored by local merchants to help them become “healthy consumers.”

The new logo for the 5th Gear program is a combination of designs submitted by students.

The program, unveiled on Monday, is called 5th Gear Kids. It’s modeled on Ski Country USA’s successful Fifth Grade Passport Program, which lets fifth graders across the state ski for free in hopes not only of turning them into lifelong skiers, but also in hopes of getting them to bring paying family members along with them when they ski.

“We want the kids to become incentivized to become healthy consumers,” said Lisa Jenson, director of community programs for the Colorado Center for Health and Wellness, which collaborated with the school districts to create the program, with funding from the Colorado Health Foundation and the Children’s Hospital Foundation.

“We’re looking for business sponsors.”

Program must serve low-income as well as affluent students

Dr. James O. Hill, executive director of the Center for Health and Wellness and an internationally renowned expert on childhood obesity, said that despite the emphasis on consumerism, 5th Gear must also benefit low-income children. He said that’s one of the conditions the Colorado Health Foundation put on the grant.

“Our challenge is that these healthy options have to be available to all,” Hill said. “This won’t work if it’s just a program for the well-to-do. We must have options for the low-income.”

The new program works like this: Fifth graders will be introduced to the concept of “energy balancing” – taking in more calories on days of rigorous physical activity, while cutting back on less active days. It will happen in the science classes in Cherry Creek, and in the physical education classes in Aurora.

“They already learn about the human body in fifth grade, so this just adds another component that they haven’t really studied before, understanding the nutrition aspect,” said Megan Mistler-Jackson, 5th Gear coordinator for Cherry Creek schools.

“This is a good age, because the kids are just getting ready to go into puberty. As a science educator, I like it because it helps address this in a positive way right before they get to that point where they start growing rapidly. The science will help them understand how their bodies work, and that they need to store up energy for growth.”

The classes will include some hands-on activities such as measuring portion sizes and figuring out nutrition labels.

ID cards can access special promotions

They will also be issued 5th Gear ID cards that will entitle them to some special promotions. For example, if they use those ID cards at King Soopers, they’ll earn points if they buy foods with higher nutritional values. These “NuVal” scores are displayed on shelf tags in the grocery store.

Learn more

Recreation centers and some health clubs will also offer incentives such as discounted classes for fifth graders. PGA Tour Superstore will offer golf lessons, while tennis clubs will offer lessons and free equipment.

The youngsters can also score points for participating in those healthful activities. Eventually, they’ll be able to redeem points for prizes such as trips to Elitch Gardens or other kid-friendly destinations.

“We’re in the process of getting restaurants on board too,” Jensen said. “Subway will create some 5th Gear Kids specials, at discount prices, knowing they’ll bring the family along. The hope is that it will drive consumers to those businesses. That’s the strategy.”

In addition, the youngsters will take home a monthly newsletter, filled with coupons, to entice everyone in the family to take part in healthy activities and healthy eating.

Jensen says the program isn’t intended to replace other nutrition-related curricula or healthy-eating programs already in place, such as the Go Slow Whoa program, introduced in Aurora two years ago.

“We want to find ways to support those initiatives in the schools,” she said.

Program will eventually expand

She said eventually, the program could expand to other school districts.

“Our goal this year is to create several durable goods,” she said. “We want the curriculum for the science and PE classes, but we also want some evaluation tools. We want to know if it’s making a difference in what the kids are doing and not doing.

“As we roll this out, we’re developing the surveys and measurement tools to understand what makes it a successful program or not. So by the time others are ready to use it, we’ll know what’s transferable elsewhere.”

She said 5th Gear will work with Health Teacher, an online treasury of health-related classroom materials used in 8,000 schools nationwide, to include the curriculum in its database.

“But we really think the business side of things is just as important,” she said. “The reinforcement kids will get for making healthy choices, we feel, is crucial. Plus, it creates sustainability.”

First Person

I’ve been mistaken for the other black male leader at my charter network. Let’s talk about it.

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

I was recently invited to a reunion for folks who had worked at the New York City Department of Education under Mayor Michael Bloomberg. It was a privilege for me to have been part of that work, and it was a privilege for me to be in that room reflecting on our legacy.

The counterweight is that only four people in the room were black males. Two were waiters, and I was one of the remaining two. There were definitely more than two black men who were part of the work that took place in New York City during that era, but it was still striking how few were present.

The event pushed me to reflect again on the jarring impact of the power dynamics that determine who gets to make decisions in so-called education reform. The privileged end up being relatively few, and even fewer look like the kids we serve.

I’m now the chief operating officer at YES Prep, a charter school network in Houston. When I arrived at YES four years ago, I had been warned that it was a good old boys club. Specifically, that it was a good old white boys club. It was something I assessed in taking the role: Would my voice be heard? Would I truly have a seat at the table? Would I have any influence?

As a man born into this world with a black father and white mother, I struggled at an early age with questions about identity and have been asking those questions ever since.

As I became an adult, I came to understand that being from the suburbs, going to good schools, and being a lighter-skinned black person affords me greater access to many settings in America. At the same time, I experience my life as a black man.

Jeremy Beard, head of schools at YES, started the same day I did. It was the first time YES had black men at the leadership table of the organization. The running joke was that people kept mistaking Jeremy and me for each other. We all laughed about it, but it revealed some deeper issues that had pervaded YES for some time.

“Remember when you led that tour in the Rio Grande Valley to see schools?” a board member asked me about three months into my tenure.“That wasn’t me,” I replied. I knew he meant Jeremy, who had worked at IDEA in the Valley. At that time, I had never been to the Valley and didn’t even know where it was on the map.

“Yes, it was,” he insisted.

“I’ve never been to the Valley. It wasn’t me. I think you mean Jeremy.”

“No, it was you, don’t you remember?” he continued, pleading with me to recall something that never happened.

“It wasn’t me.”

He stopped, thought about it, confused, and uttered, “Huh.”

It is difficult for me to assign intent here, and this dynamic is not consistent with all board members. That particular person may have truly been confused about my identity. And sure, two black men may have a similar skin tone, and we may both work at YES. But my life experience suggests something else was at play. It reminds me that while I have the privilege of sitting at the table with our board, they, as board members, have the privilege of not having to know who I am, or that Jeremy and I are different black dudes.

It would be easy to just chalk this all up to racial politics in America and accept it as status quo, but I believe we can change the conversation on privilege and race by having more conversations on privilege and race. We can change the dynamics of the game by continuing to build awareness of diversity, equity, and inclusion. We can also advocate to change who has seats at the table and whose voices will be heard.

I remain hopeful thanks to the changes I have witnessed during my time at YES. The board has been intentional in their efforts to address their own privilege, and is actively working to become more diverse and inclusive.

Personally, I have worked to ensure there are more people of color with seats at the table by mentoring future leaders of color at YES Prep and other black men in this work. Jeremy and I also created Brothers on Books, a book club for black men at YES to find mentorship and fellowship. Through this book club, we can create a safe space to have candid discussions based on literature we read and explore what it means to be black men at YES.

When I think about privilege, I am torn between the privilege that has been afforded to me and the jarring power dynamics that determine who gets to have conversations and make decisions in so-called education reform. White people are afforded more voices and seats at the table, making decisions that primarily impact children of color.

It is not lost on me that it is my own privilege that affords me access to a seat at the table. My hope is that by using my role, my voice and my privilege, I can open up dialogue, hearts, minds, opinions, and perceptions. I hope that readers are similarly encouraged to assess their own privileges and determine how they can create positive change.

Recy Benjamin Dunn is YES Prep’s chief operating officer, overseeing operations, district partnerships, and growth strategy for the charter school network. A version of this piece was first published on YES Prep’s blog.

First Person

I’m a Bronx teacher, and I see up close what we all lose when undocumented students live with uncertainty

The author at her school.

It was our high school’s first graduation ceremony. Students were laughing as they lined up in front of the auditorium, their families cheering them on as they entered. We were there to celebrate their accomplishments and their futures.

Next to each student’s name on the back of those 2013 graduation programs was the college the student planned to attend in the fall. Two names, however, had noticeable blanks next to them.

But I was especially proud of these two students, whom I’ll call Sofia and Isabella. These young women started high school as English learners and were diagnosed with learning disabilities. Despite these obstacles, I have never seen two students work so hard.

By the time they graduated, they had two of the highest grade point averages in their class. It would have made sense for them to be college-bound. But neither would go to college. Because of their undocumented status, they did not qualify for financial aid, and, without aid, they could not afford it.

During this year’s State of the Union, I listened to President Trump’s nativist rhetoric and I thought of my students and the thousands of others in New York City who are undocumented. President Trump falsely portrayed them as gang members and killers. The truth is, they came to this country before they even understood politics and borders. They grew up in the U.S. They worked hard in school. In this case, they graduated with honors. They want to be doctors and teachers. Why won’t we let them?

Instead, as Trump works to repeal President Obama’s broader efforts to enfranchise these young people, their futures are plagued by uncertainty and fear. A Supreme Court move just last week means that young people enrolled in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program remain protected but in limbo.

While Trump and the Congress continue to struggle to find compromise on immigration, we have a unique opportunity here in New York State to help Dreamers. Recently, the Governor Cuomo proposed and the state Assembly passed New York’s DREAM Act, which would allow Sofia, Isabella, and their undocumented peers to access financial aid and pursue higher education on equal footing with their documented peers. Republicans in the New York State Senate, however, have refused to take up this bill, arguing that New York state has to prioritize the needs of American-born middle-class families.

This argument baffles me. In high school, Sofia worked hard to excel in math and science in order to become a radiologist. Isabella was so passionate about becoming a special education teacher that she spent her free periods volunteering with students with severe disabilities at the school co-located in our building.

These young people are Americans. True, they may not have been born here, but they have grown up here and seek to build their futures here. They are integral members of our communities.

By not passing the DREAM Act, it feels like lawmakers have decided that some of the young people that graduate from my school do not deserve the opportunity to achieve their dreams. I applaud the governor’s leadership, in partnership with the New York Assembly, to support Dreamers like Sofia and Isabella and I urge Senate Republicans to reconsider their opposition to the bill.

Today, Sofia and Isabella have been forced to find low-wage jobs, and our community and our state are the poorer for it.

Ilona Nanay is a 10th grade global history teacher and wellness coordinator at Mott Hall V in the Bronx. She is also a member of Educators for Excellence – New York.