The Other 60 Percent

Students stand, balance and bounce to learn

boys at standing table
Fifth-graders working at a café table in Lisa Puckett’s classroom at Black Forest Hills Elementary School in the Cherry Creek school district.

Visitors to teacher Lisa Puckett’s classroom at Black Forest Hills Elementary School in Aurora sometimes tell her, “It’s like a jungle gym in here.”

They’ll see her fifth-graders leaning against chest-high café tables, sitting on bean bag chairs, or balancing on yoga balls, peg-leg stools or wider-based “hokki” stools. In fact, there is so much unconventional seating in her room, one of her students is assigned the job of “equipment manager” to make sure everyone has a fair shot at using the most sought-after items.

Puckett is part of a small but enthusiastic group of educators who believe that kids, especially the restless, high-energy kind, shouldn’t have to spend their school days sitting still with their knees tucked under desks. Instead, these teachers and administrators feel student should be allowed, and even encouraged to stand, bounce, shift, twist and wiggle.

“They’re constantly in motion …and we try to make them sit still,” said Puckett. “It’s like putting a cork in a bottle of soda you just shook up.”

For some kids, the inevitable explosion manifests as increasingly off-task behavior, from fidgeting and arm-flapping to falling out of chairs. Kelley King, a master trainer for the Gurian Institute, which provides training on brain-based differences between boys and girls, said she always suggests standing desks and other alternative seating when she conducts professional development sessions for schools.

“If it helps kids be more productive, it makes the teacher’s job easier,” she said.

While Puckett, who is fortunate to have the space of two adjoining classrooms, offers her 27 students more than a dozen unconventional work stations and seating options, many teachers typically offer just a few. Sometimes space constraints play into the decision and sometimes there are fewer students who seem to need alternatives.

And while some schools have invested in relatively pricey standing desks, other teachers are implementing alternative seating arrangements using tools they already have in their classrooms, like podiums, laptop stands or counter space.

A look at the research

While there isn’t a large body of research on the effects of alternative seating in classrooms, there are some studies on the positive effects of standing desks and, more generally, the benefits of moving around while completing challenging tasks.

A 2011 study in the American Journal of Public Health found that first-graders with standing desks chose to stand about two-thirds of the time and burned 17 percent more calories than classmates in traditional seated classrooms. Overweight and obese students burned 32 percent more calories while using standing desks than seated students. In addition, teachers surveyed in the study noted that students using the standing desks were more alert and attentive and demonstrated less disruptive behavior.

King, who has conducted Gurian Institute training in Colorado districts including St. Vrain Valley, Garfield and Cherry Creek, said the potential for reducing obesity is a plus, but her real focus is on closing gender gaps and ensuring quality learning.

A 2009 study published in the Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology demonstrated that children, especially those with attention deficit-hyperactivity disorder, tend to move around more when they are using working memory to solve problems. The upshot is that fidgety behavior in children may look like distraction but can actually facilitate the learning process by helping them maintain focus.

Girls standing in Lisa Puckett's classroom in the Cherry Creek school district.
Girls standing to work in Lisa Puckett’s classroom.

Changing norms

Since most current teachers, principals and parents grew up with traditional four-legged school desks and chairs, accepting alternative furnishings — not to mention new ideas about acceptable classroom behavior — can be difficult.

Suzie Johnston, Director of Elementary Special Education and Behavior Development Programs for Cherry Creek Schools, embraced a variety of alternative seating when she was principal of Buffalo Trails Elementary School and went through Gurian Institute training with the rest of her staff. Soon, students were using one-legged stools, counter-height tables, or sitting on the floor with clipboards.

But she’s heard teachers say, “Oh, I’m afraid to do that because I’ll have chaos.”

The key, Johnston said, is establishing rules and putting forth a sustained effort, “because at first kids will be silly with it.”

Teachers who have made the switch are typically passionate about the positive changes they have seen in their students, especially boys. They talk about longer attention spans, less disruptive behavior and higher quality work, particularly in subjects like writing.

Puckett describes her experience using unconventional seating as “wildly successful.”

“I will always continue to do it,” she said.

It’s so much a part of her classroom culture, she said, that a number of parents have purchased peg leg stools for their kids to use at school. Others have sent in yoga balls or “trampoline chairs.”

Desha Bierbaum, principal of Wamsley Elementary in Rifle, said some parents worry that their child will feel singled out if they stand at a desk, or use another fidget-channeling outlet like chewing on a straw or kneading Sticky Tack in their hand. When those fears arise, she invites parents in so they can see how common such interventions are throughout the building and how they impact children.

Students using hokki stools in Lisa Puckett's classroom.
Students using hokki stools in Lisa Puckett’s classroom.

One dad started out adamantly opposed to any alternatives, but Bierbaum said, “Seeing his child able to focus, he was like, ‘Oh my gosh!’”

Students themselves have similar revelations, she said.

“Once they realize, ‘I can get my work done and I won’t get in trouble’…then they will definitely ask to go to that standing desk.”

Like other educators who have added standing options, Bierbaum said Wamsley started out using what was readily available and free: counter space and regular desks that had been raised to their highest level.

In 2009, Bierbaum purchased actual standing desks using special education funds as well as general school funds. The desks were around $300 each.

“You kind of have to have this paradigm shift,” Bierbaum said. “It’s OK for them to stand. If they’re learning what does it matter?”

Kids eat free

Colorado could expand lunch subsidy to high school students

PHOTO: Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post
Bernadette Cole serves food to students at Prairie View High School in Brighton.

When Colorado expanded a school lunch subsidy to middle school students, the number of sixth- through eighth-graders eating lunch at school went up in districts across the state.

Twenty-sixth percent more middle school students ate lunch at school in the Greeley-Evans district, where a majority of students live in poverty, but even in the more affluent Littleton district in Denver’s south suburbs, 11 percent more middle school students ate lunch.

For school nutritionists and children’s advocates, these kinds of results make the case for extending this same lunch subsidy to high school students.

“We know the co-pay is a barrier because of the large uptick in participation when it goes away,” said Erin Miller, vice president of health initiatives for the Colorado Children’s Campaign.

The “co-pay” is the 40 cents per meal that families who qualify for reduced-price lunch — but who make too much money to qualify for free lunch — are responsible for. The federal government picks up most of the cost for these lunches, and since 2008, Colorado has covered the 40 cents for the youngest students, rendering those lunches free to their families. This program has gradually expanded, reaching middle school students in legislation passed last year.

A bill that passed out of the House Education Committee Thursday would cover the 40-cent cost difference for high school students, a longtime goal of advocates.

“The state of Colorado has been trying to ensure that kids in poverty have access to food for a decade,” said Danielle Bock, nutrition services director for the Greeley-Evans district and a public policy and legislative consultant with the Colorado School Nutrition Association. “This is the final step.”

Miller said hunger affects children in school not just academically but also emotionally, with hunger even associated with higher suicide rates. Advocates have pushed to expand the state subsidy because participation in school lunch goes down as children get older, even as their caloric needs go up.

Currently, households that earn less than 130 percent of the federal poverty level, or $32,630 for a family of four, qualify for free lunch through the federal program. Families who earn between 130 and 185 percent of the federal poverty limit, or up to $46,435 for a family of four, qualify for a reduced-price lunch. It’s children from that second category families who will benefit if this bill becomes law.

Bock said the vast majority of school food service agencies in Colorado have unpaid lunch debt that, under federal law, they can’t just write off. School districts either pick up the costs out of their general fund or try to collect from parents, which sometimes leads to the controversial practice of “lunch shaming,” in which schools serve less nutritious and appealing alternative lunches to students whose parents owe money.

Lawmakers started out wanting to ban lunch-shaming, but school nutritionists convinced them it would be better to have the state cover some of the extra lunch cost for families who are struggling to make ends meet.

When Denver ended the practice of serving “alternative” meals to families who hadn’t paid for lunch, the amount of lunch debt skyrocketed, with a large portion of it coming from families who had not signed up for subsidized lunches and might have the means to pay.

According to a fiscal analysis, Colorado plans to spend $2.2 million on lunch subsidies this school year. Expanding the program to high school students would cost an additional $464,000 next year, with that money going into school food service budgets.

pass the microphone

This Memphis senior was kicked out of three high schools. Here’s how he got on track to graduate.

PHOTO: Gillian Wenhold, The Social Exchange
Despite what John Chatman calls a “really tough childhood” where he was often left on his own, he’s on track to graduate from alternative school G.W. Carver College and Career Academy this year.

In front of more than 100 people, John Chatman recalled the bullying he endured as a child for having a stutter.

Chatman was one of seven educators and students who took the mic at Chalkbeat’s February story storytelling night. The stories centered around school discipline practices, a topic we recently covered in this special report.

“Growing up in the area I grew up in, it’s hard to deal with that,” said the 18-year-old. “You’re an outcast. … It made me hate school, because I never could enjoy it. I may answer a question and stutter, [and other students would] get to laughing and cracking jokes.”

Kids stopped making fun of him in middle school when Chatman became a star middle school football player in Memphis — but the prestige that came with playing football disappeared when he was injured on the field.

“I took my injuries and replaced them with the streets,” Chatman said. “Throughout my ninth-grade year, I was starting to lose myself. … By 11th grade, I didn’t know who I even was.”

During that period, Chatman said he was kicked out of three high schools and eventually wound up at G.W. Carver College and Career Academy, an alternative school for expelled students, housed in former Carver High School.

“This school changed my life forever, Chatman said.

To hear more about how Chatman’s life changed, watch the video (or read the excerpt) below.

The storytelling night was hosted by Chalkbeat Tennessee, Spillit, and The Knowledge Tree. The video was filmed by Gillian Wenhold for The Social Exchange, a pay-as-you-can public relations and content creation firm for nonprofits, and businesses owned by women and people of color.

My 11th-grade year was the time I decided I had to change. The change was when I finally got kicked out of school. Well, I’d been kicked out of school but this was the kick-out-of-school that kicked me in my back real hard and said you only have one strike left. If you mess this up, this is it. It’s over with. You’re not going to see the light of day. Due to that, I ended up going to Northeast, and it still didn’t get better. In fact, I’m going to tell y’all the transitions of my schools. It started at ninth grade at Central, couldn’t come back to Central and I had to go to East , got kicked out of East and went to Northeast. Got kicked out of Northeast and now I’m back at Carver.

I’ll tell y’all, this school changed my life forever. I wouldn’t be here right now if it wasn’t for that school. It happened like this. There was a guy named Roger. We used to run together during the same time period. …

[During a presentation of past Carver graduates], an image of Roger popped up clear on the screen. It wasn’t up for nothing bad, he was on the road to making a six-figure [salary]. I was like, ‘This was the same person I used to shoot dice with?’… Now he’s living a life and I’m stuck here. I’m still doing the same stuff I’ve been doing and not getting no different result, and that’s called insanity… I took it, and I told myself if he can do it, I know I can.

Spillit, storytelling
PHOTO: Xzavier Bonds
Chatman speaks to a packed room during Chalkbeat’s storytelling event.