Teaching to the Test- “This is Genius.”

images-12Check this out. A Western New York student’s rap about testing and our educational system. Think about the stress that the current system projects onto our kids. When my daughter took her first standardized test in 3rd grade she was   so out of it the night before that she couldn’t sleep. She came downstairs, walked into a wall, and took the test with a big goose egg on her head. What are your thoughts on testing and our current system?

Behind Closed Doors

images-11I know of a little girl who just had her 6th birthday. When she got home from school on her birthday, the day that so many kids wait for in wild anticipation, her mom wasn’t standing there with presents and cake. Instead she was lying on the floor in a catatonic state because she was so high on drugs. This was all too familiar a scene in the little girls life. Sadly she had grown used to the fact that there would be no celebration for her special day, and she also knew there would probably not be any dinner.

This girl’s mom had been in and out of jail on drug charges. Her dad was absent from her life. She and her 2 older siblings all had different fathers. Her house was filled with smoke and strangers would come and go on a regular basis. There was no refrigerator and one of the sinks was broken but there was no money to replace or fix these things. She had her own room but no one ever put her to bed and she would often put her head down on her desk at school and sleep. There were also mental health issues that both her mom and older sister dealt with.

I know of this story because I have a friend who acts as a mentor to the little girl. She takes her to places like the botanical gardens, the ice skating rink, and the park. Sometimes they just stay at home and play together. Often times the only consistency and engagement in her life comes from these regularly planned weekly visits.

My friend got involved in this mentorship through a social services organization called Compeer, (http://www.compeerbuffalo.org). Their mission is to pair volunteer “friends” to build relationships with people in need and improve their lives and mental health through engagement. Big Brothers, Big Sisters of America, (http://www.bbbs.org),is another service that aims to build a system of support around kids in need.

My friend has been involved with the little girl through Compeer for 2 years now. What was happening in her life previous to this is anyone’s guess. The sad thing is that this child isn’t alone. In our district there are thousands of stories similar to this and even worse.

I will never forget the day last year when the nurse from my youngest daughter’s school called and said a terrible tragedy had occurred and one of my 6 year old’s classmates was no longer with them. His mother, suffering from mental illness, had killed him in the middle of the night as he lay sleeping. For anyone who knew this vivacious little boy, the only boy who could play Magic Faries on the playground with the girls because he was the King, it was impossible to conceive.

We were lucky that the school did an amazing job of making grief and guidance counselors available to parents and students for many days after this tragic event. The school also went above and beyond to provide the little boy with a consistent and safe environment, one that was missing in his life outside of school.What failed him was Child Protection Services, the organization that is supposed to help and protect children within our community who are in danger of neglect and abuse. They dropped the ball numerous times when concerned relatives called them and instead offered the excuse that they were overworked and understaffed.

It is inexcusable but it happens and in our community that very year, my daughter’s  classmate was but one of a handful of children who had been ignored by CPS. This example points to why it is so necessary to have a strong foundation of stakeholders to support the children of our communities. It should not fall solely on the shoulders of our educators to recognize issues with student behaviors and act upon them. Rather, we as a community of advocates, mentors, and business leaders, have a responsibility to our kids to make sure that there is funding for the proper resources in any school district so that our kids don’t continue to fall through the cracks.

You Think They’re Too Young To Know…

Unknown-1Today my 2nd grade 7 year old daughter had a play date with 2 other 7 year olds. I overheard them talking and the one girl said she had told her mom that she was  having pain in her chest. Her mom took her to the doctor and they were told that she is going through early puberty, developing breasts, and will probably get her period by 5th grade. She then said that she’s going to have to start wearing a bra and they engaged in a lively conversation about bras. It  ended with a discussion about the latest hair dying rage for teens and adults, ombre, and then they went back to playing with  dolls.

Condom Sense

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The other day I attended the 3rd and final community meeting about a proposed condom availability program for our district’s high schools. The program would be offered to high school students who took a prevention class for half a year and met with the school nurse to discuss condom use. The meeting was well attended and the audience was made up of parents and students primarily.

The first speaker was from the county health department and he shared some staggering statistics about the rates of Gonorrhea, Chlamydia, and teen pregnancies in our state. In Erie County, which includes the City of Buffalo, our rates of Chlamydia were 25% higher than the state as a whole. Below is a link with more NYS stats. You can easily look this information up for your state as well.

http://www.health.ny.gov/statistics/diseases/communicable/std/

Additional we were told that:

  • There are 200 unplanned teen pregnancies in our district each year.
  • 44% of teens in BPS have had sex.
  • Out of those 44%, 35% are not using condoms.
  • 33% or 1 out of 3 BPS students have had sex with at least one person during the past 3 months.
  • 16% have had sex with more than 4 people in their lifetime (meaning up to age 17).
  • 10% had had sex before the age of 13.

That data came directly from the YRBS or Youth Risk Behavior Survey, a link to which I’ve shared below. Here you can read the questionnaire that is given to our kids. Some parents interpret it as the most salacious X rated content they and their children have ever been exposed to. Go ahead. Take a look and see what you think, then I’ll let you in on a little secret. Your kid might not be engaging in any of these activities but chances are they know about them. I know my kid did.

http://www.cdc.gov/healthyyouth/yrbs/pdf/questionnaire/crosswalk_1991-2015.pdf

That evening one parent got up and said something to the effect of, “How dare our district put money into this lurid survey. That money could be much better spent.” He also came up with a couple more doozies: “These teens want to get pregnant so they can be put into the system,” and “Your slide report isn’t accurate because Chlamydia and Gonorrhea can be cured.” I wish he could have shared that last comment with the young student I met that evening who told me that her friend thought she was pregnant because she stopped getting her period. Instead she had Chlamydia that had gone untreated and will probably result in infertility.

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Who, What, Where  

The evening really got going when a student who graduated in 2009 got up to help facilitate the discussion. He said that when he was in school he and his friends didn’t spend a whole lot of time talking about academics. They mostly talked about sex. Who was getting it, how much they were getting, and where they were getting it. The Metro bus, school bathrooms, locker rooms, and hallways were some of their favorite places. Did you ever hear of the “World Famous Mustang Ranch”? Well they don’t  raise Mustang’s exactly. It’s the premier brothel of Northern Nevada. As this former student continued to speak I was thinking that our schools were starting to sound a bit like it.

After the student led discussion we broke into groups: those who thought the proposed policy was fair, those who thought it wasn’t lenient enough, and those who thought condoms should not be offered at all. Surprisingly, no one in attendance including the parent who thought teen pregnancy was a way of milking the system, thought that it was a bad idea to offer condoms to teens. That left the other two options and we were pretty much equally divided between them.

My belief was that the policy was fair. Our group agreed that an educational component, some sort of Sex Ed curriculum was necessary to properly inform students and engage them in discussions about risk behaviors. The other group felt like the educational piece did not need to be attached, just make condoms readily available, because everyone’s doing it anyway and no one listens to the stuff coming out of a text book about sexual health. I thought that was a very interesting point. How are our kids receiving health and sex education or are they receiving it at all?

Keeping it Realimages-4

In the past I’ve talked about the importance of an adopted district wide health curriculum. Now I want to propose the adoption of health education that actually speaks to our students. What if there was peer to peer education regarding Sex Ed? What if the former student speaker and others like him went into our schools and talked to the kids from a point of view that they actually understood? What if several of the teen parents who were in the audience shared their stories in our classrooms? Even if we incorporated some of these discussions into a Sex Ed curriculum I believe we would have more engaged students who might start thinking differently about the realities of risky behaviors. And trust me, even if we as parents are doing a good job of discussing this subject matter with our kids at home, I guarantee they are way more comfortable talking about these things with their peers. Remember back to when you were a teen. Were you kicking back with your parents and teachers talking about sex, drugs, and rock-n-roll, or were you saving those conversations for your friends? It’s not to ever say we should abandon these talks as parents or educators, let’s just think about how to make it resonate with our kids in this day and age, not in what some of us might consider the dinosaur ages.

Suicide. Tonight I’m Sad.

There is a beautiful, young creative person that I know from afar. She committed suicide today. I don’t know if she had support groups around her. I don’t know if it would have mattered but I’d like to think that it would have. Our suicide service prevention site is below and so is a national hotline. Find out what your crisis center is and keep that information close.

http://crisisservices.org/content/index.php/suicide-prevention/

http://www.suicidepreventionlifeline.org

The Wonderful World of Recess

recess

My daughter began attending a Buffalo Public School two years ago. She was in 5th grade and that very same year New York State mandated recess. My daughter came home the day it was announced and was barely able to speak because she was so excited. I cried. Literally. I had just completed a huge playground build at her previous school, and both of my children knew the importance I placed on play and physical activity. This was such an enormous win for districts in NYS.

The first day my daughter was in such deep anticipation of recess that she skipped orchestra practice to see what exciting things this new world would offer. I found out that she skipped and I gave her a somewhat stern lecture on why it wasn’t ok but inwardly I was chuckling and giving her high fives. I had done a good job of instilling in my daughter a strong belief about the necessity of play.

Cogs in a Machine        images-2

That day she came home despondent. Recess wasn’t all that after all. They had sat in a room while the teacher tried to figure out what to do with them. It was like leaving a hectic job behind and going on a vacation to a remote beach. You get there and have nothing but time and you can’t think of what to do next. The adaptation to a leisurely pace of doing nothing other than taking care of yourself and recharging seems uncomfortable and daunting and almost not worth the adjustment.

They only had twenty minutes but that was enough time to make them all uneasy. How do you fill it? What do you do when your only task is to move around a bit, recharge, and take a much-needed break? Honestly it was sad to me. In our district and I’m guessing in many of yours, we had moved so far away from recess that the sheer notion of it left us utterly confounded.

The grumbling from teachers ensued almost immediately. Where do we have it? Who is going to supervise it? What does recess even mean? What kinds of activities are we supposed to be doing? Then simply, there’s no time for it. I heard all of this and I thought to myself, we have a deep-seated problem on our hands. Kids and teachers were functioning as cogs in a machine with no understanding of how to recharge. Everyone needed to step back, think about the school day in a way they weren’t used to, think outside the box about what really contributes to success in the classroom, and make a change. A healthy change, to which brain breaks, recess, and physical activity were integrated into each and every day.

Balls and Jump Ropes, and Games, Oh My!  images-3

As a parent I tried to help. I drafted an outline as to how we could create loosely structured playtime for the students. I recommended they survey the kids and find out what their idea of recess was. From that information I came up with the idea of creating a simple recess box filled with hula-hoops, chess sets, chalk, jacks sets, balls, art supplies, and books. These were all items that the kids associated with down time, play, and relaxation. Some were interested in the classic mum ball and even more were interested in Just Dance. One day my daughter told me that a classmate was so enthused while participating in Just Dance that he split his pants wide open. This seemed a minor complication from the incorporation of recess.

The Proof is in the Pudding CPAP_60_minutes

A lot of studies have been done that prove the importance of physical activity and the direct correlation to positive outcomes in the classroom. There are also findings that show that if a child’s schedule is changed to where they participate in a Phys Ed class one period prior to a class in which they struggle, they will improve markedly in that difficult class. At a workshop I attended we were told of a school that struggled with math scores. They changed schedules around and found that the students made up a year’s worth of material because of this change. Perhaps it wasn’t the easiest change to make but I am sure the positive end result far outweighed the difficulty of implementation. I have also heard of teachers who allow for brain breaks, little bursts of activity that the class partakes in for 1-2 minutes before each class. My younger daughter’s teacher uses the web site, go noodle daily to help the kids “get the wiggles out” and stimulate their brains. Regardless of age these breaks are important and there are lots of different activities to do.

http://www.qualityhealth.com/childrens-health-and-parenting-articles/kids-exercise-school-performance

https://www.gonoodle.com

http://www.actionforhealthykids.org/what-we-do/programs/game-on/about-game-on/get-involved/640-brain-breaks-and-energizers

Where are We Nowimages-4

The other day I attended a board meeting where I was asked to speak about the importance of recess and physical activity in our schools. But our district was already a glowing example of what’s being done right with recess and physical education, right? Wrong. There is something called “state mandated” and then there is something called being “in compliance”. Unfortunately in our district the majority of administrators have chosen the path of noncompliance. In the link below you can see NYS requirements. It might not be a bad idea to look into your state’s requirements and see if your district is meeting them.

http://www.p12.nysed.gov/ciai/pe/peqa.html

Why would administrators choose this path if they know the importance of physical activity as it directly correlates to success in the classroom? Three reasons; 1: They simply are not convinced that there is a correlation regardless of the endless studies that date back far more than a decade; 2: They are too bogged down in politics as usual and are blaming poor performance on large class sizes and lack of parent and student engagement, and 3: Money. At last week’s board meeting we were told that the 3 million we would need to hire the proper amount of Phys Ed teachers to get us into compliance just isn’t there and we’re probably not going to get it.

I don’t know a lot about school budgets but I am a firm believer in a mentality of “there’s got to be a way.” I’ve been told by people at City Hall who didn’t know I was a parent that there is surplus each year in every department and they end up scratching their heads as they try to determine how to spend it. It’s time to find the money and build a foundation of wellness that embraces whole child, whole school, whole community.

My Love Affair with Coke

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** Someone just mentioned this article to me and I had to share. It talks about how nutritionists are plugging coke as a healthy snack choice!

http://www.usnews.com/news/business/articles/2015/03/16/coke-a-healthy-snack-how-company-gets-its-message-out

It’s really too bad that sometimes the words “fight” and “wellness” show up synonymously in dialogue surrounding healthy kids. As purveyors of positive, we as advocates for children’s health are here to plant the seeds of positivity, embrace what’s good and right for our kids, and grow the support base for our cause. This of course assumes that there are no big corporate monsters getting in our way by claiming their stake and offering cash strapped districts money in exchange for branding rights. These corporations end up creating battlefields out of OUR schools.

Up until 2 years ago our district’s monster was Coke. We happily accepted A LOT of money from them and the district viewed it as a real win-win situation. Those funds went towards yearbook costs and prom and were a really useful source of revenue. I’m not sure if any of that money went towards health and wellness for our kids but it would be interesting to find out. Imagine! Coke in all its sugary glory promoting healthy lifestyles! A match made in heaven!

Let Me Rethink That

The thing is that some of us wellness advocates didn’t feel quite right about this relationship. We started questioning the support of this company and their presence in our schools in general. Here we were as a nation that had recently adopted the push towards mandated wellness policies for our schools, and we had started to require districts to make healthy changes to foods being offered in the cafeteria, yet we allowed our kids to grab sugary beverages during the school day.

Our district had an answer to the wellness advocate rumblings. Put the machines on lock down. The machines were only allowed visiting rights with the kids at certain times of the day. The thinking was less access would lead to less consumption of sugary beverages.Well, that still didn’t sit quite right with us. How were we supposed to be teaching our kids about healthy lifestyles when our district didn’t even support it?

The Monster is Slain, or is it?

So, after a very long and arduous battle with administrators (how would we replace that lost revenue?), we prevailed. How did we do it? We didn’t let up. We constantly brought it up in committee nutrition meetings, at board meetings, and in the community. It helped too that Coke really didn’t offer many products that met the new federal guidelines and they realized that the few products they could put in the machines would drastically reduce their revenue. However, around this time I found out that Coke had begun to work on a new product, a healthy fortified milk, and I wondered if this would be their opportunity to reinsert themselves in our schools.

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The Solution- Healthy Vending

We as advocates had had enough. We didn’t want to have to revisit the battlefield year after year as big corporations launched more and more “healthy products” that met the federal guidelines. And so the race was on. How do we fill the void of hungry stomachs and the soon to be dried up stream of lost revenue? How do we get those empty Coke machines out of our schools once and for all?

So we started to research. We found that healthy and vending could be synonymous in the form of the offerings from companies such as BuffaloStrive (www.buffalostrive.com), Venducation (www.venducation.com), and H.U.M.A.N.(www.healthyvending.com) These companies had access to all sorts of healthy options that met the federal guidelines! Dried apple chips with no added ingredients, unsalted pistachios, naturally seasoned rice chips, Kind bars, apple sauce squeezes, waters, unsweetened tea and naturally flavored fruit beverages, they offered it all! One company even offered a Farm to School program where fresh items like carrots and apples or hummus and whole-wheat chips could be offered. How cool is that!!

 Vending as Education

My first meeting with a district purchasing agent was met with real opposition. It began like this, “I hate vending and I think there is no place for it in our schools”. I kicked the wellness coordinator that had accompanied me to the meeting under the table. I proceeded to look him in the eye and explain what the new face of vending meant to me. It meant filling a void with whole, healthy items that anyone would find acceptable for a kid. It meant an opportunity to replace a dried up revenue stream. It also meant the opportunity to create an educational component where the kids would run the machines like a small business. They would assign school groups (student council, yearbook club, gardening club, etc.) and create the roles of CEO, CFO, book keeper, marketing person, etc. in an effort to learn what it’s like to act as entrepreneurs and run their own business. It took about 10 minutes to win the purchasing agent over and now he serves on our task force to create the RFP to identify the company that will serve our district.

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What We’re Doing Now

We currently have a pilot program set up for healthy vending because we were fortunate enough to find a local company that was just starting out in this arena. They agreed to put machines in two district schools to test the waters. We selected schools with different study body make up: One is a criteria based school with a highly engaged student population, the other is a school that struggles with attendance, test scores, and lack of resources.

So far our results have been impressive and have beaten the expectations of many who thought the kids wouldn’t be interested in healthy products in vending machines. At the criteria based school there is a line that forms each day at the machine and items regularly sell out. The company decided to put 3 machines in that school alone to keep up with demand. The other school had a slower start but robust nonetheless. We tweaked their product offerings to give them healthy but more brand identifiable products and this change made a difference.

Under the pilot the company is running the machines but once we launch district wide we will switch to the business model plan. We are considering so many fantastic opportunities as we move forward. One is to partner with private companies and community organizations and get them to sponsor the machines at any given school. The revenue that comes out of partnerships such as these could go towards funding current and future site based wellness initiatives, and also showcase these businesses as leaders in the movement towards whole child, whole school, whole community.

On a quick side note, I asked the purchasing agent how much revenue was generated with Coke in a month. It wasn’t a bad number but at more than double the amount for the same period of time, I think I’d prefer to stick with our healthy vending machines.

Not My Kid ! The YRBS. Your Resource. No Bullshit.

shutterstock_89867182 I’m guessing, but I’m not certain, that my daughters will have sex at some point in their lives, but two years ago I didn’t believe that. My oldest daughter was in 5th grade when the YRBS or Youth Risk Behavior Survey came out. It’s a national survey that is given out every two years to assess risk behaviors on a number of different “sensitive” topics. It runs the gamut from questions about dental health and nutrition to sexual health, drug use and suicidal tendencies. As a parent you have the option to opt out and the grumblings began immediately when I started asking parents about what they were going to do. I heard a lot of “not my kid” and “great that the schools have taken it upon themselves to introduce our kids to risky behaviors they know nothing about.” One parent even called the District and said the tooth fairy still came to their house not the crack fairy. Many of us had difficulty imagining our ten year olds engaging in drug use, struggling with depression, or having sex. But were we right to opt out? The results of the survey that year showed that many kids were engaging in unprotected sex with multiple partners. In our school district we have over 200 pregnancies each year. Last year we had 2 6th grade girls give birth. The survey also showed that many of our students have high rates of suicidal tendencies and depression and many are experimenting with prescription drugs. I don’t know if my child is one of them because I opted out. Not my kid. But do I really know this? Because of this survey I sat down with my daughter and discussed the sensitive subject matter of the YRBS survey. I told her I had made a mistake in not allowing her to participate but I was happy that it had opened up a dialogue between her and I and that we could talk openly in a safe home environment. And guess what I found? My 10 year old knew a heck of a lot more than I could have ever imagined. She might not have been participating in the behaviors but she certainly knew about them. YRBS has been an important tool for me as a parent because it has forced me to wake up and be aware of the issues and behaviors our kids are faced with. 10 is not too young. There is a reason this survey is administered to kids starting in 5th grade and the results prove it. With the data that we’ve collected in our district we were able to provide dental health care to more than 1500 students who were missing school because of dental health issues. We were also able to bring more guidance counselors into a school that had a high rate of depression and suicidal tendencies. You can read more about it in the article below. Finally, based on the number of students district wide who responded that they are having unprotected sex on a regular basis, we were able surmise that a “condoms in the classroom” program was a necessity. Not as a means of promoting sexual activity rather as a protection and an opportunity to educate. In our district YRBS is going to be offered again in October of 2015. This is exciting news in that we will then have collected “trend data” over the course of a 5 year period. We will be able to see if our efforts are paying off and if we are doing better at giving students the resources they clearly need to inform and educate about risk behaviors. I know that at least one seat that had been empty two years ago will now be filled and I hope other parents nation wide will follow. http://www.buffalonews.com/city-region/buffalo-public-schools/students-with-problems-show-need-for-in-school-mental-health-services-20141109

A Cafeteria Designed For Me

Atomic Lunches - Rethinking Health and Wellness within Our Schools

I’ve attended a few workshops where we’ve been asked to imagine our ideal cafeteria of the future and then collaborate to create a visual of what it might look like. They always share so many things in common: an abundance of fresh foods, farmers making deliveries to the school, children picking produce from their own school gardens, and color. Lots and lots of color in the varieties of foods to the brightly painted walls and chairs. Many of these cafeterias show children interacting with the food staff, wearing chef’s hats and acting as “Chef of the Week” with their newly created recipes. Funny how none of these depictions show a meek line of unsatisfied students slogging through what looks like a line at a prison to receive their tray of processed, prepackaged unidentifiable slop. Surprisingly they also never include an overbearing lunchroom monitor towering over the kids as they sit in silence as punishment for being too loud. Any of that sound remotely familiar to you?

Yesterday I came across this amazing project that was created by the innovative think tank, Ideo. They were approached by the San Francisco Unified School District to come up with a plan to really shake up their food system and fix a service that was underutilized and in debt. Their proposal follows. It’s all about thinking outside the box.

http://www.ideo.com/stories/a-cafeteria-designed-for-me/