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

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 misterrad.tumblr.com, 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.