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.

Poverty in America

Memphis woman’s tragic death prompts reflection. Could vacant schools help in the fight against homelessness?

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Graves Elementary School in South Memphis has been boarded up since its closure in 2014. It's one of 10 vacant school buildings in the city.

The death of a Memphis woman sleeping on a bench across from City Hall in frigid temperatures unleashed a furor of frustration this week across social media.

As Memphians speculated how someone could freeze to death in such a public place, some pointed to limited public transportation, one of the nation’s highest poverty rates, and entry fees to homeless shelters. The discussion yielded one intriguing suggestion:

About 650 Memphis students were considered homeless during the 2015-16 school year, meaning their families either were on the streets, living in cars or motels, or doubling up with friends and relatives.

At the same time, Shelby County Schools has an adequate supply of buildings. The district had 10 vacant structures last fall after shuttering more than 20 schools since 2012, with more closures expected in the next few years.

But what would need to happen for schools to become a tool against homelessness? Some cities already have already begun to tap that inventory.

Shelby County Schools has been eager to get out of the real estate business, though it’s not exactly giving away its aging buildings. In 2016, Superintendent Dorsey Hopson said the school system should “repurpose some of these buildings and … anchor some of these communities and rebuild and refurbish these communities instead of tearing stuff down.” The conversation was part of Memphis 3.0, the city’s first strategic plan since 1981 to guide growth for years to come.

District policy allows for “adaptive reuse” to lease vacant buildings for community development including affordable housing, community centers, libraries, community gardens, or businesses. A change requires a community needs assessment and input from neighborhood leaders and organizations before the school board can vote on a recommendation.

But proposals to transform schools into housing haven’t emerged in Memphis.

The Memphis Housing Authority, which oversees federal dollars for housing development, has a two-year exclusive right to purchase two former schools near downtown. But talk has focused on using that space for an early childhood center, not housing, according to High Ground News.

Under state law, districts must give charter schools, which are privately managed but publicly funded, serious consideration to take over a closed building.

That has happened for some Memphis schools, but high maintenance costs for the old buildings are a major deterrent. They also present a significant challenge for any entity looking to convert a structure into a homeless shelter or affordable housing.

Of the district’s 10 empty school buildings, most have a relatively low “facility condition index,” or FCI rate, which measures the maintenance and repair costs against the current replacement cost. The higher the number, the less cost-effective.


*as of October 2017

The idea to turn vacant school buildings into livable space is not new. Across the nation, some communities have found workable solutions to address the excess real estate.

In Philadelphia, a nonprofit organization transformed an empty four-story elementary school that was frequented by trespassers and drug users into housing for 37 homeless veterans and low-income seniors. The $14 million project, led by Help USA, took advantage of federal dollars set aside to house homeless veterans.

Last summer, leaders in Daytona Beach, Florida, pitched in $3.5 million in public funds to help a local nonprofit convert an elementary school into a homeless shelter. Despite pushback from neighborhood residents, the plan secured a unanimous vote from its county council.

In Denver, school officials proposed turning an elementary school into affordable housing for teachers to combat expensive living costs and rapid gentrification. That idea is still up in the air, with some residents lobbying to reopen the building as a school.

Detroit is riddled with empty school buildings. Developers there are buying up properties to repurpose for residential use as they wait to see what the market will bear. The city’s private Catholic schools have seen more success in transforming old buildings into apartments, luxury condominiums, or a boutique office building because they are smaller, easier to renovate, and don’t have the same deed restrictions as public schools.

The same appears to be true in Baltimore, where a nonprofit group converted a 25,000-square-foot Catholic school into housing for women and children. The $6 million project, completed last month, uses federal housing vouchers to subsidize rent.

In Memphis, the community is still assessing what resources need to be tapped in response to this week’s tragic death.

“Simply dismissing this as a tragedy will only allow us to continue to absolve ourselves from the apathy and selfishness that allow people to go unseen,” said the Rev. Lisa Anderson, a Cumberland Presbyterian pastor who is executive director of the city’s Room in the Inn ministry.

academic insurance

Children’s Health Insurance Program is on the brink. Here’s why that matters for education

The fate of the Children’s Health Insurance Program is in Congress’s hands — and children’s education, not just their health, may be at stake.

Congress passed a temporary extension of funding for of CHIP in December, through some states will run out of money shortly. The end of the program would come with obvious potential consequences, as CHIP, which covers approximately 9 million children, gives participants more access to health and dental care.

There may also be a less obvious result: Research has found that access to health insurance helps kids perform better on tests and stay in school longer.

A 2016 study, published in the peer-reviewed Journal of Human Resources, found that expanding Medicaid in the 1980s and 1990s increased students’ likelihood of completing high school and college.

“Our results indicate that the long-run benefits of public health insurance are substantial,” the researchers wrote.

Similarly, an earlier paper shows that broadening access to Medicaid or CHIP led to increases in student achievement.

“We find evidence that test scores in reading, but not math, increased for those children affected at birth by the increase in health insurance eligibility,” researchers Phillip Levine and Diane Whitmore Schanzenbach wrote.

In short, research suggests that when kids are healthier, they do better in school. That’s in line with common sense, as well as studies showing that children benefit academically when their families have access to direct anti-poverty programs like the earned income tax credit or cash benefits.

(Even if CHIP ends, affected children might still have access to subsidized insurance through the Affordable Care Act or other means. The Congressional Budget Office estimates that will be more costly in the long run.)

Congress appears likely to vote on a bill this week that includes a six-year CHIP extension, as as well as a temporary spending measure to avoid a federal government shutdown.