Not Cool

Some districts take on the heat with altered schedules, calendars

PHOTO: Klearchos Kapoutsis

With an increasing overlap between back-to-school season and the dog days of summer, some Colorado school districts are taking aggressive steps to address hot classrooms and listless students — including starting the year with shorter days.

But while these scheduling changes may help solve the heat problem, they have implications for a variety of other things, ranging from instructional time to parent work schedules.

In the Poudre School District, which starts today for two grade levels and tomorrow for the rest of the district, elementary and middle school students will be released two hours early for the first two weeks of school. Meanwhile, at the south end of the state, Pueblo City Schools has moved its August start date to September 2 for most schools, largely to avoid the worst of the late summer heat.

Poudre district officials, aware that their early release “heat days” won’t please everyone, have emphasized that it’s a pilot effort that will be re-evaluated this fall.

“We’ve said to our community, ‘We’re trying this out. Come along with us on this journey,’” said Danielle Clark, the district’s director of communications.

Parent Shannon Smith, whose son is in eighth-grade, said, “I understand why they’re doing it, but I don’t know, I think it’s kind of nuts.”

In Pueblo, besides changing the calendar, administrators have met several times over the summer to discuss heat mitigation in case the district gets hit with any scorchers in September. Their plans include creating water stations in school hallways, having custodians arrive early in the morning to let cool air in and rotating students through cooler areas of schools.

“We are taking a very proactive position this year,” said Scott Jones, the district’s director of public relations. “It’s Pueblo….It can get very hot.”

Like many communities across Colorado, both Pueblo and Fort Collins suffered through sweltering heat last August when school started. The high temperature was 99 degrees in Fort Collins on Poudre’s August 20 start day last year and 94 degrees in Pueblo when that district’s students started six days later. The high temperatures stuck around in both districts for the first two weeks of school.

This year, the forecast for the next two weeks is considerably more moderate, with temperatures expected to be in the 70s and 80s in Fort Collins and the 80s and 90s in Pueblo.

Acknowledging the irony, Clark said, “There’s always Murphy’s Law, right?”

Simple question, complicated answer

Bert Huszcza, executive director of the Colorado Association of School Business Officials, said that complications due to hot weather stem from the fact that districts have increasingly pushed their start dates earlier in August.

“A lot of it’s tied into the testing that’s mandated,” he said.

Poudre parent Julie Trombley, whose two daughters are in fifth and eighth grade, is glad that administrators there are addressing the heat issue, but wonders why the district can’t start school after Labor Day or invest in more capital improvements to cool the schools.

“We’ve had a few years of ‘Oh, this is so hot,’” she said. “It just seems like a continuing problem.”

While starting school later in the summer was one of 15 solutions that Poudre’s heat advisory committee considered during 20 hours of meetings last fall, Clark said it was problematic for a variety of reasons. Few committee members wanted to extend the school year into June, delay the end of first semester until after winter break or tinker with instructional time before established state and national testing dates. An altered calendar also created potential mismatches between Poudre’ s vacation calendar and that of Colorado State University, where many district parents are employed.

“It’s a very simple question with a very complicated answer,” she said.

As for the 18 hours of instruction that will be lost to heat days this year, about half  of that time will be recaptured by an additional day of instruction that replaced what was formerly teacher work day. Teachers will decide how to make up the additional time on their own.

Cool it

The impact of heat on Colorado schoolchildren varies widely—and often depends when their schools were built and how subsequent capital improvement funds were allocated.

Huszcza said air conditioning is standard issue in most new schools, but isn’t in older buildings. And while some districts have retrofitted their old buildings with air conditioning systems, it can be costly and difficult.

“You’re talking about facilities where there’s no place to put venting,” he said.

Jefferson County Public Schools, a suburban district with many newer schools, is one of the lucky ones. It has air conditioning in 135 of its 155 schools. Those that don’t have it are all “mountain schools” at elevations above 7,500 feet.

Similarly, Aurora Public Schools also has air conditioning in all 59 schools, Mesa County Valley District 51 has air conditioning or swamp coolers in all 43 schools, and Adams 12 Five Star has air conditioning in all 49 schools.

But other districts, including Denver, Poudre and Pueblo, have many buildings that are neither air-conditioned nor cooled using other systems. In Poudre, only nine of 50 schools have cooling systems.

“That will bring your temperature down but it’s not air-conditioned like your house,” said Clark.

In Denver, where classes start for most students next Monday, 79 of the district’s 187 schools have no air conditioning or only partial air conditioning. All those schools have received portable cooling units this year.

In addition, ventilation systems have been checked to confirm proper air flow, fans are being placed in hallways and classrooms and custodians at those schools may arrive as early as 5 a.m. to let in cool morning air. If the heat gets really bad, individual principals have the option of releasing students early.

Shuffling schedules

While many Poudre parents agree that classrooms were hot and uncomfortable last August, this year’s heat day plan creates hassles of a different sort. For some families, it’s the inconvenience of making alternative child care or pick-up arrangements. For others, it’s the scheduling puzzle of earlier sports practices.

“If I had a K-5 kid I’d be really mad,” said Smith, who works full time.

For a fee, the district’s after-school care program is providing child care in district schools during the two-hour heat day window. While some parents are upset about the early release schedule, Clark said feedback from surveys indicated that parents wanted an established plan, not last-minute announcements about isolated early release days or days off.

For Smith’s 14-year-old son, it’s cross-country practice, not after-school supervision, that will likely pose the biggest challenge during the heat day period. Instead of the usual 2:45 p.m. start time, his coach will hold practice at 6:15 a.m. for the next two weeks.

“He’ll get up at 5 o’clock,” said Smith.

 

Chilling effect

Five ways a proposed immigration rule could impact Colorado students and schools

PHOTO: JGI/Jamie Grill | Getty Images

Advocates for immigrant families fear that a proposed federal rule governing green card decisions could lead to more children going hungry and losing housing and health care. That, in turn, could pose challenges for educators and schools.

The proposed rule would allow the government to penalize some legal immigrants who have used public benefits by denying them permanent residency — a possibility that could prompt families to forgo any kind of government help. For children in those families, many of them citizens, the result could be hunger pangs, untreated illness, or outsized worry that their parents won’t be able to stay in the U.S. Inside schools, the new rule could mean more time and energy spent addressing students’ basic needs and the loss of funding from some public programs.

Fear that immigrants will shy away from benefit programs is nothing new. Stricter immigration rules since President Trump took office — stepped-up raids, efforts to discontinue the DACA program, and family separations at the U.S.-Mexico border — have already led to a chilling effect on the legal use of public benefits by immigrants. Advocates say changes to the so-called “public charge” rule will only exacerbate the problem.

The rationale behind the proposed rule, a stricter version of one that’s been in place for years, is to prevent immigration by people who will end up dependent on government help. Opponents of the rule say it punishes working-class immigrants who may need short-term aid, but contribute much more to the country’s economy over the long term.

The existing public charge rule penalizes immigrants for using programs such as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families or long-term care. The proposed version adds several more to the list, including Medicaid, food stamps, and housing vouchers. Free and reduced-price school meals aren’t included in the existing or proposed rule.

Mónica Parra, program manager of the Denver school district’s migrant education program, said families she works with are reluctant to sign up for any kind of help, even assistance heating their homes during the winter.

“They’d rather struggle or find other ways to get support,” she said. “It’s going to be very challenging to keep students motivated, but also safe. Maybe they’re going to be cold. Maybe they’re going to get sick.”

The proposed public charge rule doesn’t apply to refugees and asylum-seekers, and doesn’t penalize immigrants for public benefits used by their children. Still, like other advocates, Parra said she hears anxiety about the proposed rule from all kinds of immigrants, including citizens and those who already hold green cards.

They worry that using public benefits could get their own legal status revoked or hurt their chances to sponsor family members who want to immigrate to the U.S.

“The fear has always been there in these communities,” she said. “Now, people are even more afraid.”

The new public charge rule likely won’t take effect for months. First, there will be a 60-day public comment period, scheduled to start Wednesday, and then Trump administration officials will consider the comments and decide whether to make any adjustments.

Here’s a look at some of the ways the proposed rule could affect Colorado schools and students.

More kids come to school hungry

There are at least two ways schools could see more hungry students walking through their doors due to the public charge rule. First, families may be afraid to take advantage of food stamps — either by deciding not to enroll, or by dis-enrolling current recipients, such as citizen children.

Both Denver and Adams counties have seen dips in the number of people participating in the program over the last couple years. In Denver, about 2,000 fewer children receive the benefit now than in November 2016 when President Trump was elected. However, city officials caution that it’s hard to make a direct connection between falling participation and federal immigration policies since historically low unemployment rates may also be contributing to the trend.

While free and discounted school lunches are not part of the public charge rule, some advocates report that immigrant parents have been wary of enrolling their kids since Trump’s election. By law, public schools must serve students regardless of their immigration status and can’t ask for information regarding a family’s or student’s status.

A week after the Department of Homeland Security released a draft of the new public charge rule on its website, the Eagle County school district emailed parents asking them to help squash the rumor that signing children up for free or reduced-lunches “will inform ICE,” a reference to the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency.

The letter concluded, “There is NO RISK in applying for free and reduced lunch, help us spread the word.”

So, what happens when kids go to school hungry? They may have trouble paying attention, misbehave more easily, or suffer from headaches or stomach aches. In short, less learning.

More children without health insurance, more student absences

The public charge rule’s chilling effect could have a major impact on child health, according to a recent Colorado Health Institute analysis. An estimated 48,000 Colorado children — the vast majority of them citizens — could be disenrolled from one of two public health insurance programs, Medicaid or Child Health Plan Plus. That would double the state’s rate of uninsured children from 3 percent to 6.7 percent, according to the institute.

The reason for so much dropoff is that health insurance is typically a family affair. So even when different rules govern adults and children in the same family, they tend to be enrolled as a group or not at all.

When students don’t have health insurance, school attendance and performance can suffer. For example, children may be absent more if they lack help managing chronic conditions like asthma, or if they’re not getting treatment for acute illnesses or painful dental problems.

Loss of health-related funding for schools and school-based clinics

School districts stand to lose two health-related funding streams if the number of uninsured children swells. The first would impact the state’s 62 school-based health clinics, which would likely see a drop in Medicaid and Child Health Plan Plus reimbursements if fewer students enroll in those programs.

Such an enrollment decline, which some clinic leaders have already reported, could make it harder for school-based clinics to stay afloat financially, said Bridget Beatty, executive director of the Colorado Association for School-Based Health Care.

With more uninsured students, “The need will go up,” she said, “but conversely the ability to financially sustain them will get more challenging.” 

In addition, 53 Colorado school districts receive funding through a program that could be affected by the proposed public charge rule. It’s called the School Health Services Program and allows districts to seek Medicaid reimbursements for services provided to low-income students with disabilities. That money can be used for health-related efforts that benefit all students, such as the addition of school nurses, wellness coordinators, or suicide prevention programs.

Funding received through the program ranges from a couple thousand dollars in small districts to a few million in large districts.

High-poverty schools have a harder time offering universal free meals

Nearly 40,000 students in 20 Colorado school districts can eat school meals for free because their schools participate in a federal program designed to make breakfast and lunch easily accessible to low-income students. But that number could drop if the public charge rule decreases food stamp participation.

The special meal program, called Community Eligibility Provision, is open to schools or districts where at least 40 percent of students come from families that use certain public benefits, including food stamps or Temporary Assistance for Needy Families. Unlike in traditional school lunch programs, parents don’t have to fill out applications for free or reduced-price meals.

“Any time when you have eligible families not participating in SNAP, it does have a negative impact on community eligibility,” said Crystal FitzSimons, director of school programs at the national nonprofit Food Research and Action Center.

Even if schools or districts remain eligible for the program, a drop in students getting public benefits could mean a change in how schools are reimbursed for the free meals, she said. That, in turn, could make the program less financially viable for schools or districts to participate.

Immigrants could turn away from publicly funded early childhood programs

Crystal Munoz, who heads the nonprofit Roots Family Center in southwest Denver, worries that the Spanish-speaking families her program serves will stop using programs like Head Start, state child care subsidies, and the Denver Preschool Program, which provides tuition assistance to the city’s 4-year-olds.

Even though those programs aren’t part of the proposed rule, there’s still trepidation, she said. It’s because of the constant flurry of rule changes and the generally negative tone around immigration right now.

“We find ourselves very afraid to even give out resources or referrals to certain programs because we’re not sure,” she said. “For us, it’s waiting and seeing.”

She said if families do drop out of Head Start or other child care programs, it could push children — many of them citizens — into unlicensed care with relatives or neighbors, or force parents to cut back work hours to stay at home with them.

The Other 60 Percent

Too young to vote, Memphis teens lead voter-engagement campaign in advance of midterms

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Caitlin Brinson (left), Christian Fuentes, and Aaliyah James lead a breakout session with fellow students on youth and education.

At 17, Caitlin Brinson isn’t yet old enough to vote, but she’s working hard to get other Memphis residents to the polls in November.

The Cordova High School school senior is active in a new youth initiative called Engage Memphis, which aims to increase voter turnout and to educate young future voters on issues that affect their lives, such as school discipline, sexual assault and harassment policies, and diversity in schools.

“It’s difficult not to have input on decisions that affect us directly,” Caitlin said. “It can feel powerless, like you can’t change things at your school or in local government, but I’m a pretty optimistic person. I really believe we can make an impact if we come together and help people around us see why who they vote for directly impacts us.”

Caitlin was one of more than 300 Memphis students from 40 schools who gathered earlier this month at a forum held by BRIDGES and Facing History and Ourselves. Those two local student leadership groups joined forces to create Engage Memphis.

One of the goals of the youth forum was to grow Engage Memphis into a citywide effort, said Marti Tippens Murphy, the Memphis executive director for Facing History. Ahead of the November midterm elections, students involved with BRIDGES and Facing History gathered for a series of lectures and breakout sessions. One of the goals was to help teens decide what they wanted their initiative to look like.

“Students came up with the strategy to focus on re-engaging people who can vote but haven’t yet,” Tippens Murphy said. “That often looks like a parent, grandparent or older sibling. They’re now having conversations with those people and connecting voting to issues that affect them.”

When it comes to voter participation, Tennessee has a long way to go. More than 838,000 adult Tennesseans are not registered to vote. The state ranks 40th in the nation in voter registration and last in voter turnout, according to The Tennessean. So the teenagers of Engage Memphis are trying to correct course.

“We’ll hear students say, ‘I’m only 16 and hadn’t thought issues around voting applied to me,” Tippens Murphy said. “We see this as leading students to prioritize voting when they become old enough. We know the youngest demographic is the lowest in voter turnout. But it doesn’t have to be that way.”

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
A recent Harvard Institute of Politics poll of America’s 18- to 29-year-olds found a spike in the number of young Americans who said they will “definitely be voting’ in the upcoming midterm Congressional elections.”

Caitlin said she’s seen a large amount of excitement around voting among her peers. That’s reflected nationally, too. A recent Harvard Institute of Politics poll of America’s 18- to 29-year-olds found a spike in the number of young Americans who said they will “definitely be voting’ in the upcoming midterm Congressional elections.”

Morgan Fentress, a 10th grader at Immaculate Conception Cathedral School, said that while she originally attended last week’s forum because it meant a day off from school, the gathering inspired her to get involved in earnest.

“I hear people talk about voting in terms of getting out to the polls and making sure your voice is heard, but we’re not told or taught what we should be voting for, what the issues are we should care about,” Morgan said. “I wish modern politics were taught more in school. But coming here and hearing what issues other students are passionate about, it’s been really good.”