The Other 60 Percent

Shrinking enrollment leads to a new focus: play

When Anne Wesley became principal of Malley Drive Elementary School in Northglenn six years ago, the school had about 460 students. Over the next three years, enrollment gradually dropped to below 400.

Maureen Maloney, also known as "Coach Mo" plays "Cookie Monster Tag" with students at Malley Drive Elementary during recess.
Maureen Maloney, also known as “Coach Mo” plays “Cookie Monster Tag” with students at Malley Drive Elementary during recess.

“I was losing quite a few families,” said Wesley.

It wasn’t exactly that they didn’t like Malley Drive, but there were lots of new specialty schools in that pocket of the Adams 12 Five Star district. There was a STEM school, an arts-infused school, a magnet school for gifted students and a charter school offering intensive foreign language instruction. Two of them were within walking distance. The others were an easy drive.

“Parents really have a lot of choice, especially in our neighborhood,” said Cristi Hulse, a fourth-grade teacher at Malley Drive. “It was kind of like the new tennis shoe. Everybody’s got to try it out.”

With the competition for kids stiff, Wesley decided the school needed a special focus to help stem the tide of departures. In early 2012, she learned about a national non-profit program called Playworks, which provides full-time coaches to run recess games, after-school sports and student leadership training at low-income, urban schools. It seemed like the perfect foundation for a physical activity and wellness focus.

There was only one problem. Even with a $42,000 subsidy from Playworks, the program would cost Malley Drive $28,000 a year. It was a hefty price tag for a school where nearly 80 percent of students are low-income. Plus, it came at a time when the district was facing a budget crisis and principals were being asked to return any “carry-over” money that was left in their school budgets at the end of the year.

After months of research and meetings to gain staff buy-in on the program, Wesley brought her case to the superintendent, pushing to use her carry-over funds for Playworks. Her plan was approved and Malley Drive became a Playworks school in the fall of 2012.

“The superintendent kind of recognized my little school was floundering,” she said. “I was very fortunate.”

Today, Malley Drive has nearly 450 students. While Wesley said she can’t draw a direct line between Playworks and her increasing enrollment, she believes it might be one factor helping keep families at the school.

“It gives the school that selling point,” said Hulse.

Transforming recess

Maureen Maloney, or “Coach Mo” as the kids call her, is the face of Playworks at Malley Drive. A buoyant presence with a constant smile, she spends two hours on the playground every day during lunch recess, serving as social director, cheerleader, playmate, and occasionally, mediator.

One student made a house out of a hula hoops at recess.
One student made a house out of a hula hoops at recess.

On a recent day, bundled in a down jacket and a hat with ear flaps, she played “cookie monster tag” with about two dozen students as tiny snowflakes fell from the sky.

When two boys veered from tagging to mild rough-housing, she called out, “Boys, butterfly touches!” When a new child approached the group, wanting to get in the game, she immediately welcomed him.

“Are you a cookie monster? High five! What’s your name?….I’m glad you’re out here playing with us now.”

Nearby, smaller groups of children took part in other Playworks games like four square, wall ball and knockout. Overall, about three-quarters of students spend their recess doing Playworks activities and the rest do their own thing on the playground.

One widely-lauded outcome of Playworks is a reduction in playground spats and their inevitable spill-over into the classroom. Wesley said before the program launched, she’d routinely block out the lunch hour to deal with conflicts that arose during recess. Hulse said staff also had to ban recess football because kids got too physical and would end up fighting.

Now, like at all Playworks schools, kids use “ro sham bo” — also known as “rock, paper, scissors” — to solve minor playground problems. The school also has 15 “junior coaches” in the fourth and fifth grades to help Maloney ensure that kids work out their differences peacefully. Wesley emphasizes that Playworks gives teachers more time for instruction because students come back from recess settled and ready to focus.

Hulse said, “It’s been a great addition to our building and as a teacher, I like that we have a common language and a common ground to work with the kids.”

Playworks also seems to address parents’ two biggest fears about recess: that their child will be bullied or excluded. Parent Nicole Martin, who choiced her son into Malley Drive last year as a second-grader, said he used to sit out during recess at his old school, either because of his shy demeanor or long lines to get on playground equipment. Now, he always joins in Playworks games.

“I think it’s a great idea to have it,” she said.

Shannon Hays, who has a second-grader at Malley Drive, said she likes that Playworks emphasizes lifelong social skills such as compromise, using words to solve problems and being a good team player.

It’s a little pricey she said, “but I think it’s worth the money for what kids get out of it,” she said. “At least they get it here.”

More than recess

Playworks may be most closely associated with recess, but coaches work full at their schools, running a variety of play-based programs. At Malley Drive, Maloney holds “class game time” with individual classrooms every other week, teaching new games and class-building activities. She also runs the junior coach program, which at Malley and five other pilot schools includes a weekly after-school leadership class. Finally, she coaches free after-school volleyball and basketball teams that travel to other Playworks schools for games.

A student plays "knockout" during recess at Malley Drive.
A student plays “knockout” during recess at Malley Drive.

Currently, Playworks operates in 16 Colorado schools, most of those in Denver and Aurora. To qualify, at least 50 percent of a school’s students must be eligible for free or reduced-price meals. Andrea Woolley, Denver executive director of Playworks, said the organization plans to add two new schools in January, six more next year and four more the following year.

In addition to providing coaches to schools, Playworks also provides “Power of Play” trainings to schools and organizations like Boys and Girls Clubs. Next year, she’s planning an effort to reach out to the state’s rural communities.

“We really want to be known statewide,” she said.

Although Malley Drive didn’t change its name to reflect its physical activity and wellness focus, Wesley said when prospective families visit, she always talks about Playworks and the school’s other special features. For example, students get a minimum of 35 minutes of recess time a day, plus an additional 30-50 minutes of activity on p.e. days. This year, the school also offers universal free breakfast.

There’s also the fact that since last year, teachers no longer take away recess as a punishment. Now, kids who goof off in class may have to jump rope or hula hoop for five minutes when recess begins, but they no longer sit against the wall watching their classmates play.

“We really had to examine our belief system…about using recess as a carrot to hold over kids,” said Wesley. “Since we’ve brought Playworks on board, the kids, they know this is their sacred time.”

Unmet needs

A social worker in every grade? Perhaps for 10 Colorado elementary schools

PHOTO: Ann Schimke/Chalkbeat
Fifth-graders practice mindfulness at Munroe Elementary School in Denver.

Educators, parents, and social workers told of students struggling with depression, younger and younger children attempting suicide, and youths ending up in prison. A bill approved Thursday by a Colorado House committee would pay for a three-year trial to provide social and emotional help for elementary students in the hopes of addressing some of these challenges.

If approved by the full legislature and signed into law, the measure would create a three-year pilot program at 10 high-needs schools. It is estimated to cost about $5 million a year. House Bill 1017 would place social workers, counselors or psychologists in every elementary grade at the test schools starting next year.

In an impassioned presentation, bill sponsor state Rep. Dafna Michaelson Jenet, a Commerce City Democrat, said schools need more social workers “to stop our children from dying by suicide, from ending up incarcerated, from being failed by our system.”

Suicide is a leading cause of death among youth ages 10 to 24 in Colorado, and advocates of the bill said schools are often ill-equipped to deal with children suffering from trauma, bullying and behavioral challenges.

The bill was scaled back from an original version that would have cost $16 million a year. Michaelson Jenet said the nearly $5 million annual cost would be funded in part by $2.5 million from the state’s marijuana cash fund, with the rest from private foundations.

The National Association of Social Workers recommends one social worker for every 250 students, and one for every 50 students at high-needs schools.

Colorado schools don’t come close to those numbers.

About one-third of the state’s 178 school districts employed social workers during the 2016-17 school year, the most recent for which data was available from the Colorado Department of Education. Those districts represented about 89 percent of that year’s 905,000 pre-K through 12th grade students.

The nearly 590 social workers employed worked out to less than one full-time employee per 1,000 students.

Englewood’s Sheridan School District had three social workers for 1,511 students, while Yuma County had 1½ social workers for 807 students.

The two largest districts, Denver and Jefferson County, employed more than one-third of school social workers that year, with more than one social worker for every 1,000 students. Denver voters approved a 2016 tax to help pay for more social workers.

But many districts have no social workers. And most school social workers are stretched thin.

Jessie Caggiano is a social worker who serves more than 3,000 students at four high schools in Weld County.

“I’m not able to meet with students effectively on a one-on-one basis, because I’m trying to implement other services schoolwide,” she said. “I’m only at each of my schools one day a week, so I’m not able to meet their needs by any means.”

Darlene Sampson, president of the Colorado chapter of the Association of Black Social Workers, recalled working at a Denver school when a student was killed in the cafeteria.

“Many kids are carrying their trauma in their backpacks into the school,” Sampson said.

And Cam Short-Camilli, representing the Colorado School Social Work Association, said students are facing increased emotional problems at most schools. The increase in youth suicide and suicide attempts is especially difficult, she said. One Denver incident last fall attracted national attention.

“Every school district, every student is impacted, that’s rural, urban, suburban schools,” Short-Camilli said. “In the past five years, I’ve been at elementary schools, and it’s been extremely shocking. Kids at those schools, there’s an immense ripple effect.”

But state Rep. James Wilson, a Salida Republican, questioned whether the pilot program would be possible to replicate because of the high number of professionals needed.

“I’m sitting here feeling like the Grinch,” Wilson said. “I cannot bring myself to put together an unrealistic pilot. Will it really work in the real world?”

State Rep. Janet Buckner, an Aurora Democrat, also expressed concerns, but voted for the bill.

“I’m concerned how we’re going to fund it,” she sad. “The suicide rate is off the chart and our kids need so much help. I don’t think we can wait. I have a lot of phone calls and emails about this bill, people who really need the help.”

HB-1017 next goes to the Appropriations Committee before being considered by the full House, then the Senate. It is one of several measures aimed at offering help for students and their families beyond academics at public schools.

Story time

This Memphis teacher’s favorite student didn’t stand for the Pledge of Allegiance. She taught him a powerful lesson.

PHOTO: Xzavier Bonds
Daniel Warner teaches at East High School in Memphis.

When one of Daniel Warner’s favorite students refused to stand for the Pledge of Allegiance, he could feel the tension in himself rising.

It was August 2017, the first week of classes, and Warner said he knew how important setting a tone was during the first few days of school.

“Didn’t my teacher prep program teach me that I have to set high expectations in that first week or the year is lost?” asked Warner, a U.S. history teacher at East High School in Memphis. “If I don’t set those, we’re done for.”

But before Warner reacted, he said he took a few moments to reflect on what could be going through her head.

Chalkbeat TN Storytelling Event
PHOTO: Xzavier Bonds
Daniel Warner tells his story to a crowded room.

It was the Monday after a violent white supremacists rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. Stories of former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick were again dominating the news, as he remained ostracized for kneeling during the national anthem to protest police brutality.

Instead of punishing her, Warner said, he refocused on what she might be thinking through as a black American high schooler.

“The lesson she taught me that day was that some of the most harmful instances of school discipline happen when we are too focused on ourselves as teachers,” Warner said.

Warner was one of seven educators and students who participated in a February story storytelling night hosted by Chalkbeat Tennessee, Spillit, and The Knowledge Tree. The stories told centered around school discipline practices, a topic Chalkbeat recently dove into in this special report.

Video Credit: Gillian Wenhold, The Social Exchange. The Social Exchange is a pay-as-you can PR & content creation firm for nonprofits and responsible, women/minority owned businesses.

Here’s an edited transcript of Warner’s story. It has been lightly edited for length and clarity:

It’s a week into school in early August. And kids are just trickling into my senior homeroom mostly asleep, sitting quietly in their desk as 18-year-olds do at 7:15 in the morning…And then morning announcements come on. “Please stand for the Pledge of Allegiance.”

So I stand up, and I say, “Alright y’all, go ahead and stand up with me.” I see these seniors throwing their bodies out of their seats, trying to stand up while they are still asleep. And almost everyone stands up but one girl doesn’t…  

So, my eyes meet this girls eyes as she stays in her seat during the pledge. And I can feel the tension in me of my authority being challenged in the room. And I wonder if everyone else is looking at me, my other students. So I give her a teacher look meant to communicate, “Are you going to stand up?” And she looks at me from across the room and shakes her head and mouths, “I can’t.”

So this student was one of my best students the year before in honors U.S. History. She engaged deeply with the material and personally. She asked questions of herself, of her country, of democracy, what this whole thing is about. She processed the double consciousness she feels of being both black and American. And she did so while being kind, thoughtful hardworking. The student you think of that makes you want to cry, you love that kid so much. I wonder what’s going on, what is she thinking about…

This is a Monday and the weekend before had been the white supremacists march in Charlottesville… When she told me, that she couldn’t stand, I went and sat in the desk next to her…I asked, “What’s keeping you from standing up?”

She started by saying, “I hate,” and she stopped herself. She took a breath, calmed herself down and said, “I just can’t.” And so we just sat there for a second. I could see as I got closer to her that she was flooded with emotion and feeling something deeply. And so we let the announcements end and I tell her, “When I say the pledge I say it more as a hope and a prayer…that there would be liberty and justice for all.” She said, “Yeah, I was thinking about that,” like a good U.S. History student, but she said “things don’t’ seem to be headed that way right now…

The lesson she taught me that day was that some of the most harmful instances of school discipline happen when we are too focused on ourselves as teachers. She showed me that I was a little too focused on how I was being perceived by other students in the classroom. And that I wasn’t focused enough on her and what she might be processing. As teachers, we have all of this opportunity to escalate conflict, I’ve done it plenty of times. But we also have an opportunity to be gracious to students who are working out who they are in public…

This girl wasn’t being disengaged by saying no to me, she was being especially engaged with who she is… When we talk about restorative justice, the first step we have to take is for us as educators and adults, and it’s doing your own emotional work. And we have to ask ourselves questions about our identities. You can only lead someone somewhere if you’ve gone there yourself…

What is it about us when it sets us off when a kid says no to us? Why are we that insecure? … When we pay attention to ourselves, our emotional status, the hurt we’ve felt, the pain we’ve lived through, that is when we can begin paying attention to how formative schools are. They are spaces where folks are working out their identities in public, and that’s when you feel the most self conscious and vulnerable and in need of grace offered by someone else.

So, I hope as we talk about this, we think of ways where we can make school a space for people to be figuring out who they are and not just punished into compliance. In high poverty schools, you talk about compliance like it’s the ultimate behavior. I hope we can make schools where students can learn what it is to seek justice, even when and especially when, things just don’t seem to be headed that way right now.