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.”

task force

Jeffco takes collaborative approach as it considers later school start times

File photo of Wheat Ridge High School students. (Photo by Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

The Jeffco school district is weighing pushing back start times at its middle and high schools, and the community task force set up to offer recommendations is asking for public input.

Nearby school districts, such as those in Cherry Creek and Greeley, have rolled out later start times, and Jeffco — the second largest school district in Colorado — in December announced its decision to study the issue.

Thompson and Brighton’s 27J school districts are pushing back start times at their secondary schools this fall.

The 50-person Jeffco task force has until January to present their recommendations to the district.

Supporters of the idea to start the school day later cite research showing that teenagers benefit from sleeping in and often do better in school as a result.

Jeffco is considering changing start times after parents and community members began pressing superintendent Jason Glass to look at the issue. Middle and high schools in the Jeffco district currently start at around 7:30 a.m.

The task force is inviting community members to offer their feedback this summer on the group’s website, its Facebook page, or the district’s form, and to come to its meetings in the fall.

Katie Winner, a Jeffco parent of two and one of three chairs of the start times task force, said she’s excited about how collaborative the work is this year.

“It’s a little shocking,” Winner said. “It’s really hard to convey to people that Jeffco schools wants your feedback. But I can say [definitively], I don’t believe this is a waste of time.”

The task force is currently split into three committees focusing on reviewing research on school start times, considering outcomes in other districts that have changed start times, and gathering community input. The group as a whole will also consider how schedule changes could affect transportation, sports and other after school activities, student employment, and district budgets.

Members of the task force are not appointed by the district, as has been typical in district decision-making in years past. Instead, as a way to try to generate the most community engagement, everyone who expressed interest was accepted into the group. Meetings are open to the public, and people can still join the task force.

“These groups are short-term work groups, not school board advisory committees. They are targeting some current issues that our families are interested in,” said Diana Wilson, the district’s chief communications officer. “Since the topics likely have a broad range of perspectives, gathering people that (hopefully) represent those perspectives to look at options seems like a good way to find some solutions or ideas for positive/constructive changes.”

How such a large group will reach a consensus remains to be seen. Winner knows the prospect could appear daunting, but “it’s actually a challenge to the group to say: be inclusive.”

For now the group is seeking recommendations that won’t require the district to spend more money. But Winner said the group will keep a close eye on potential tax measures that could give the district new funds after November. If some measure were to pass, it could give the group more flexibility in its recommendations.

Battle of the Bands

How one group unites, provides opportunities for Memphis-area musicians

PHOTO: Rebecca Griesbach
Memphis Mass Band members prepare for Saturday's Independence Showdown Battle of the Bands in Jackson, Mississippi.

A drumline’s cadence filled the corners of Fairley High School’s band room, where 260 band members from across Memphis wrapped up their final practice of the week.

“M-M-B!” the group shouted before lifting their instruments to attention. James Taylor, one of the program’s five directors, signaled one last stand tune before he made his closing remarks.

“It behooves you to be on that bus at that time,” Taylor said to the room of Memphis Mass Band members Thursday night, reminding them to follow his itinerary. Saturday would be a be a big day after all.

That’s when about 260 Memphis Mass Band members will make their way to Jackson, Mississippi, for the event of the season: the Independence Showdown Battle of the Bands. They’ll join mass bands from New Orleans, Detroit, Georgia, Mississippi, and North Carolina to showcase musical performances.

“This is like the Honda of mass bands,” said baritone section leader Marico Ray, referring to the Honda Battle of the Bands, the ultimate competition between bands from historically black colleges and universities

Mass bands are designed to connect young band members to older musicians, many of whom are alumni of college bands and can help them through auditions and scholarship applications.

Created in 2011, Memphis Mass Band is a co-ed organization that’s geared toward unifying middle school, high school, college, and alumni bands across the city. The local group is a product of a merger of a former alumni and all-star band, each then about a decade old.

Ray, who joined what was called the Memphis All Star band in 2001, said the group challenged him in a way that his high school band could not.

“I was taught in high school that band members should be the smartest people, because you have to take in and do so much all at once,” he said, noting that band members have to play, count, read, and keep a tempo at the same time.

But the outside program would put that to the test. Ray laughed as he remembered his first day of practice with other all-star members.

“I was frightened,” he said. “I knew I was good, but I wanted to be how good everybody else was.”

Ray, now 30, credits the group for his mastery of the baritone, for his college degree, and for introducing him to his wife Kamisha. By the time he graduated from Hillcrest High School in 2006 and joined the local alumni band, he was already well-connected with band directors from surrounding colleges, like Jackson State University, where he took courses in music education. After he married Kamisha, an all-star alumna and fellow baritone player, they both came back to Memphis to join the newly formed Memphis Mass Band.

“This music is very important, but what you do after this is what’s gonna make you better in life,” he said. “The goal is to make everyone as good as possible, and if you’re competing with the next person all the time, you’ll never stop trying to get better.”

In a school district that has seen many school closures and mergers in recent years, Ray said a program like MMB is needed for students who’ve had to bounce between school bands. The band is open-admission, meaning it will train anyone willing to put in the work, without requiring an audition.

“[Relocation] actually hurts a lot of our students and children because that takes their mentality away from anything that they wanted to do, versus them being able to continue going and striving,” Ray said. “Some of them lose opportunities and scholarships, college life and careers, because of a change in atmospheres.”

With its unique mix of members, though, school rivalries are common, and MMB occasionally deals with cross-system spars. But Saturday, the members will put all of that aside.

“What school you went to really doesn’t matter,” Ray said. “Everybody out here is going to wear the same uniform.”

Asia Wilson, an upcoming sophomore at the University of Memphis, heard about the group from a friend. Wilson used to play trumpet in the Overton High School band, but she said coming to MMB this year has introduced her to a different style.

Jorge Pena, a sophomore at Central High School, heard about the group on YouTube. It’s also his first year in the mass band, and the tuba player is now gearing up to play alongside members of different ages, like Wilson.

They’re both ready to show what they’ve learned at the big battle.

“It’s gonna be lit,” Wilson said, smiling.

Need weekend plans? Tickets are still selling for Saturday’s 5 p.m. showcase. To purchase, click here.