moving forward

Most districts still opt to participate in health survey that sparked state board uproar

Despite last spring’s flap over a student health survey given to Colorado’s middle and high school students, most districts will continue to participate—with several stepping up efforts to give parents more advance notice and detail about the survey.

Of 110 districts invited to give the Healthy Kids Colorado Survey as part of a random statewide sample this fall, 83 have agreed so far, said an official from the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus, which contracts with the state to oversee the biennial survey.

That number may rise in the next few weeks because not all districts have made their final decisions.

“In reflecting on the controversy, we were very concerned that we would be dead in the water with our recruitment efforts,” said Ashley Brooks-Russell, program director of the Healthy Kids Colorado Survey and assistant professor in the university’s Colorado School of Public Health.

But that hasn’t been the case, she said. While some districts have dropped off, many are continuing to participate and some new ones have joined the effort.

Four of the state’s six largest districts — including Denver, Jeffco, Cherry Creek and Adams 12 — told Chalkbeat that they plan to take part. A spokeswoman for the Douglas County School District, which did participate in the survey in 2013, said its schools won’t participate this year because the survey is invasive and takes away instructional time. A spokesperson for Aurora Public Schools said a decision is pending.

2015 participation…so far
Of the 110 districts asked to participate in the survey as part of the state sample, here’s how many have said yes so far:
  • Districts: 83
  • Schools: 119

Districts and schools that were not selected as part of the state sample can also participate. Here’s how many have opted in:

  • Districts: 7
  • Schools: 58

The survey, which state officials emphasize is anonymous and voluntary, became the focus of a protracted debate by the State Board of Education and dueling opinions from the state attorney general’s office last spring after some parents raised concerns about the explicit nature of questions on sexual behavior, drugs and suicide.

In addition, many critics argued that parents should have to give advance written permission—called active consent—in order for their children to take the survey. Over the survey’s 24-year history, most districts have chosen “passive consent,” which means students are asked to take the survey unless parents sign a form opting them out.

Ultimately, neither the state board nor State Attorney General Cynthia Coffman, who issued an official opinion on the matter in April, mandated substantive changes to the survey or consent rules.

Brooks-Russell said a number of questions have changed on this fall’s survey, but not because of the controversy last spring.

“No questions were eliminated due to those debates,” she said.

Instead, the deletions or additions (listed at the end of this story) were made after stakeholder discussions about what was most important to know about youth demographics and health behaviors.

For example, new this year on the high school survey will be questions about whether students consider themselves transgender, and about marijuana and prescription drug use. Gone are several questions each about students’ perceptions of marijuana, their exposure to tobacco, alcohol and drug advertising and their enjoyment of school. Such deletions don’t necessarily mean the survey asks nothing about these topics, but that those sections have been slimmed down.

Both the middle and high school surveys now include a question asking students about their mothers’ highest level of schooling—one proxy for socioeconomic status.

Passive consent still wins the day

The trend of passive consent will continue this fall, with only three of the 82 state-sample districts opting for advance written permission from parents, according to Brooks-Russell.

One of them is Jeffco, officials there said.

The district, where a conservative school board majority currently wields power and student data privacy has been a hot topic in recent years, did not participate in the survey in 2013.

Many survey proponents favor passive consent because it yields higher participation rates and more representative data about the adolescent population.

Scott Romero, school health coordinator for Denver Public Schools, said, “If it did go to active opt-in consent, the numbers and usefulness just wouldn’t be there.”

Although most districts will continue with passive consent this year, Brooks-Russell said schools will be required to ensure that parents get notification forms — which offer the choice of opting out — a full two weeks before the survey is administered. She said the university will monitor districts to ensure compliance.

Survey history 
The Healthy Kids Colorado Survey has been given under various names since 1991. The last version given in 2013 folded together multiple health surveys that were previously given separately. Along with questions from the federal Youth Risk Behavior Survey, it included additional Colorado-specific questions. Also new in 2013 was a much larger sample size—more than 40,000 middle and high school students, compared to 2,500 previously.

Administrators in multiple districts also said they will make extra efforts this year to make sure parental notification is consistent and transparent.

For example, Karina Delaney, whole child initiatives coordinator in Adams 12, said in addition to sending passive consent forms home to families, the district and the seven participating schools will post detailed information about the survey on their websites.

The goal, she said, is “making sure we, in many ways, are making parents very aware that it’s voluntary.”

In Denver, Romero said parents will receive the passive consent form two to three weeks before the survey is given, will be informed that they can review the survey questions and will be given Brooks-Russell’s phone number in case they have concerns.

Mining data

After months of uncertainty last spring about whether the state board would try to mandate active consent, or otherwise curtail the survey, many school health leaders are now breathing a cautiously optimistic sigh of relief.

They say the survey data, which covers everything from nutrition to risky behaviors, is crucial in tracking trends and crafting appropriate interventions when trouble spots arise.

Romero said in Denver, where up to 60 schools will participate in the survey this fall, principals receive one-page reports that focus on survey indicators they have the ability to address relatively quickly.

For example, one school’s report might show that few students are eating breakfast and provide relevant contact information for district nutrition staff.

“With one call they could change the face of how breakfast is served,” Romero said. “It can be done pretty simply.”

Like her counterparts in other large districts, Jeffco’s Healthy Schools Coordinator Emily O’Winter, said the survey data helps educators attend to the whole child.

“We need to understand all the issues facing our students…including health,” she said.

One example of particular import in Colorado is marijuana, which was legalized for recreational sales in 2014.

“We’ve had parents express concern … about how the new laws are impacting our students,” O’Winter said. “So it will be interesting to see statewide if there’s an impact and how to respond.”

Brooks-Russell said if survey participation rates are high enough this year, Colorado’s data will be included in state-by-state comparisons compiled by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

It’s an “opportunity to look at a recreational marijuana state before and after [legalization],” she said.

Many district health coordinators, including Delaney, also say the survey data helps secure health-related grants. Adams 12 has won nearly $900,000 in grants for physical activity and school wellness over the last four years.

“Without Healthy Kids Colorado…we wouldn’t know how to report out how our kids are even doing,” she said.

How I Help

Why this high school counselor asks students, ‘What do you wish your parents knew?’

Today, we launch a new series called “How I Help,” which features school counselors, social workers and psychologists across Colorado. It is a companion to our popular “How I Teach” and “How I Lead” series.

Through “How I Help,” we hope to give readers a glimpse into the professional lives of school staff members who often work behind the scenes but nevertheless have a big impact on the day-to-day lives of students.

Our first “How I Help” features Cassie Poncelow, a counselor at Poudre High School in Fort Collins. She was the 2016 Colorado School Counselor of the Year and is one of six finalists for the 2018 National School Counselor of the Year award.

Poncelow talked to Chalkbeat about how she creates a legacy of caring, what teens want their parents to know and why peer-to-peer mentoring is better than a social-emotional curriculum taught by adults.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.

Why did you become a school counselor?
I was incredibly fortunate to have many powerful educators shape my life in my time as a student, but none did more so than my school counselors. My counselor from high school remains a dear friend and mentor. I knew that I wanted to be a part of what is happening in education and loved the diversity of the school counselor job. They get to collaborate with so many different stakeholders, get to know students in really cool ways and be involved with so many aspects of making change.

Cassie Poncelow

Tell us about an effort or initiative you spearheaded at your school that you’re particularly proud of.
Three years ago, we noticed that students were dropping out continuously because they were short on graduation credits and tired of taking the same classes over and over again. I worked with a team to create Opportunities Unlimited, which is a dropout recovery program for students ages 17-21 that is focused on GED completion and concurrent enrollment opportunities. A fifth cohort started this fall and the program has graduated 26 students in two years.

Is there a tool, curriculum or program you couldn’t live without in your job?
Our Ambassadors program is in many ways the backbone of our climate and culture at Poudre High School. This program trains 50 upperclassmen to mentor freshmen through a year-long curriculum that includes topics like stress management, suicide prevention and sexual assault. This mentoring model means that every freshman has an ambassador that is connecting with them for almost three hours each month. The ambassadors deliver comprehensive, peer-to-peer education that is far beyond and better than any social-emotional learning curriculum that counselors could facilitate. As the co-leader for this program, I also couldn’t live without the hope that this crew gives me. They are the best part of my job.

What’s the biggest misconception you’ve encountered about your role in the school(s) where you work?
I am grateful to work in a place and with people who see the vital role of school counselors and are eager to partner with them. In my time at Poudre High School we have added two new school counseling positions, further demonstrating our school’s belief in the work we do. I have worked at schools in the past that created a lot of systemic barriers to accessing school counselors and I think this was based on a misconception that we were a more frivolous part of services for students.

You spend lots of time with students. Knowing what you know, what advice would you give to parents?
I often ask my students, “What do you wish your parents knew?” What I hear consistently is a plea for them to remember what it was like to be 16: How painful and awkward it was, how boys were all the rage and not getting invited somewhere really was the actual worst.

So, I advise parents to remember that. And remember that a lot of what they dealt with at 16 is even more complicated by the world our kids are experiencing. Social media wasn’t a reality when they were kids and our current students have never known a world where mass shootings haven’t happened often. I know it’s no, “I walked uphill both ways without shoes in the snow,” but this is a scary time to be student — different, but equally hard. Our kids need us to hear them in that. And believe that they can change it.

Tell us about a time when you managed to connect with a challenging student or a student facing a difficult situation. How did you do it?
At my core, I think we all thrive on authentic relationships and I do whatever I can to create these with my students. I want each of my students to feel like I am truly in their corner and a champion not only of what they do but more so of who they are. I hope to not only live this, but to model it for my students in ways that inspire them to do the same.

This semester I have a freshman boy who was consistently skipping class (who knew gas station tacos were such a draw?) and failing multiple classes. His “consequence” is that he has to spend a period working on missing work in my office. I also have a slew of seniors who have made my office their home during this fifth hour, many who are excellent students and are just looking for a place to study. They have taken this freshman under their wing and are committed to his success far beyond what I could ever be. They are constantly asking about his upcoming exams, what he needs help with and celebrating his rising grades with him. I think I have built really authentic relationships with these upperclassmen who then remember what it means to feel connected and cared for and are passionate about showing this student just that. I often stress “legacy” to my students and this seems like a clear picture of that.

What is the hardest part of your job?
Kid stuff is hard. I hurt for kids a lot, as I think all educators do. They live lives far beyond our walls and far beyond what we could imagine and ever control. That’s the hardest. Close second would be trying to operate in a system that seems to be driven by folks who aren’t doing the work. I recognize that there are so many moving pieces and would love to have some of the actual “decision-makers” come spend the day in our role and better understand the work we do.

Tell us about a memorable time — good or bad — when contact with a student’s family changed your perspective or approach.
A year ago, I had a student who was really struggling with some significant mental health issues. I knew that we needed to bring in a parent but the girl was very anxious about this idea, to the point where she had literally crumpled up on my office floor. After calling her mom to meet with us, I joined her on the floor of my office to talk more. Her mom walked in shortly after, assessed the scene and sat right down on the floor with us, despite the chair-filled room. This move shifted everything and I was so grateful for her wisdom to be where her kid was at. It was a good reminder to me to do that always: be where kids are at.

You spend your days trying to help students and staff with any number of things. How do you wind down after a stressful day?
A lot of my unwinding still includes my students as I announce volleyball games or attend other sporting events or performances. I love these opportunities because they let me see my kids in a different light and remind me how awesome they are. I also spend as much time outside as possible, whether it’s going for a quick hike with my pup or a bike ride. Beyond traveling and reading, I cheer hard for the CSU Rams! Go State!

Big money

Millions in grant dollars will bring more counselors to Indiana’s underserved students

KIPP Indy was one of several schools in the county to receive a counseling grant.

Scores of Indiana schools were awarded private grants that will allow them to bolster counseling services for students, many of whom are lacking help for an increasing portfolio of problems, including fallout from the state’s drug epidemic and basic needs like advice on college applications.

The $26.4 million in grants, decided last month, include six for Marion County districts and charter schools. They were awarded by Lilly Endowment, a prominent Indianapolis-based philanthropy founded by key players in the pharmaceutical giant Eli Lilly.

The grants went to 52 school districts and five charter schools, covering about a third of the state’s counties. Based on enrollment, they ranged from about $68,000 to almost $3 million.

Lilly began its push to help schools build better counseling programs last year.

“The response from school corporations and charter schools far exceeded the Endowment’s expectations,” said Sara B. Cobb, the Endowment’s vice president for education. “We believe that this response demonstrates a growing awareness that enhanced and expanded counseling programs are urgently needed to address the academic, college, career, and social and emotional counseling needs of Indiana’s K-12 students.”

As Chalkbeat previously reported, school counselors have been stretched exceedingly thin in recent years, both in Indiana and across the country. On average, each Hoosier counselor is responsible for 630 students, making Indiana 45th out of 50 states and the District of Columbia for counselor-to-student ratios. The American School Counselor Association recommends a ratio of no higher than one counselor for every 250 students.

So far, state-led efforts to expand counseling have fallen short; a bill proposed in 2015 to require a counselor in every school was withdrawn for further study, and the issue hasn’t resurfaced significantly in the legislature since. At the time, cost was the sticking point.

Schools and districts had to apply for the grants and show how they would use the money. Lilly reported that mental health and business partnerships, mentoring programs, improving curriculum and adding in more training for staff were all strategies that grant-winners have proposed.

Initially, 254 districts and charter schools applied, many pointing out how Indiana’s recent opioid crisis has increased social and emotional challenges for students. Counselors have to juggle those serious needs with college and career advising and, increasingly, responsibilities that have nothing to do with counseling, such as overseeing standardized tests.

Because of the level of interest, Lilly is planning a second round of grants, which would total up to $10 million.

“Because the implementation grant process was so competitive, the Endowment had to decline several proposals that had many promising features,” Cobb said. “We believe that with a few enhancements, many of these proposals will be very competitive in the second round of the Counseling Initiative.”

These are the districts and schools in Marion County that received counseling grants. (Find the full list here.)

  • Indianapolis Public Schools: $2,871,400
  • KIPP Indianapolis: $100,000
  • Lawrence Township: $1,527,400
  • Pike Township: $1,114,700
  • Neighborhood Charter Network: $68,312
  • Southeast Neighborhood School of Excellence: $99,870

IPS said in a news release that it planned to use the grant money to build counseling centers in each of the district’s high schools, which would begin operating in 2018 after IPS transitions to four high schools. Superintendent Lewis Ferebee said counselors are “critical” for students as they prepare to graduate high school and pursue higher education and careers.

“We’re thrilled that the students and families we serve will benefit from this gift,” Ferebee said.