Data dive

Which Colorado school districts have the lowest vaccination rates? (Hint: They’re not on the Front Range.)

PHOTO: Pan American Health Organization/Creative Commons

A large share of parents in some Boulder, Fort Collins and Colorado Springs area schools continue to opt their children out of vaccinations, as do surprising numbers of parents in some rural districts, including Telluride, Gunnison, Salida and Cotopaxi.

The findings come from a huge new database that represents Colorado’s first effort to give parents and the public information about how many kids get — or skip — vaccinations in the state’s more than 3,300 schools, preschools and child care programs.

Public health advocates say giving parents access to immunization data helps them gauge the risk of communicable disease outbreaks and make informed choices about where to send their children for school or child care. Herd immunity — protection from disease outbreaks gained when a large majority of a population is vaccinated — usually requires immunization rates of 90-95 percent.

Colorado has long had one of the lowest kindergarten immunization rates in the country, in part because it’s relatively easy to opt kids out of shots. The state is one of 19 that allows parents to exempt children from shots for personal or philosophical reasons — though it got a bit harder last school year.

In Colorado, personal belief exemptions account for nearly 90 percent of all exemptions submitted to schools and child care providers, according to state data. Parents can also claim exemptions for religious or medical reasons.

The findings from the state’s new database follow some general patterns revealed by 2015 and 2016 immunization databases produced by Chalkbeat, which included about 1,200 schools in Colorado’s 30 largest districts. That is, high poverty schools in urban and suburban districts tend to have high immunization rates while certain schools in more affluent communities, including those with alternative models such as Waldorf or Montessori, have lower rates.

But the data also shed new light on what’s happening in schools outside the Front Range as well as in child care programs where many of the state’s youngest children — a population particularly vulnerable to communicable disease — spend their days.

Unlike Chalkbeat’s database, the state’s database also breaks out immunization and exemption rates by vaccination.

Here are some highlights from the state’s school and child care immunization data:

  • 28 Colorado schools or programs — most very small — have exemption rates of 20 percent or higher, including nine private schools.
  • Schools with high exemption rates can be found in a wide variety of school districts, including Poudre, St. Vrain Valley, Boulder Valley, Jeffco, Colorado Springs 11, Roaring Fork, Delta County, Moffat 2 and Montezuma-Cortez.
  • Three tiny rural districts — Moffat 2, Pawnee and Hinsdale County — had the highest districtwide exemption rates in the state and four other rurals — Campo, Eads, Karval and Yuma — had exemption rates of zero.
  • Among larger districts, Adams 14, Widefield, Mapleton, Denver and Douglas County had the lowest exemption rates.
  • Several districts, including Holyoke, Buena Vista and Edison, had low immunization rates partly because immunization records were missing or incomplete for a portion of students.
  • 30 preschool or child care programs have exemption rates of 20 percent or higher, with eight of those in Boulder, four in Denver and three each in Jefferson and El Paso counties.
  • Statewide, 93 percent of 850,000 K-12 students and 92 percent of 100,500 children in preschool or licensed child care received all required vaccinations.
  • Colorado students had the varicella vaccination, which protects against chicken pox, at lower rates than other required shots in 2016-17.
  • 86 percent of schools and 75 percent of child care programs reported their immunization data to the state health department for the new database.

For many years, parents had no easy way to determine school immunization rates. Then in 2014, a new state law required schools to reveal immunization and exemption rates upon request.

Chalkbeat and other media outlets led the way in disseminating the data during the 2014-15 school year in the midst of a multistate measles outbreak.

In 2015, a state rule change cleared the way for the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment to collect school immunization rates. The database published Tuesday, which allows users to search by city, school or district as well as download the data in bulk, marks the result of that inaugural effort.

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.