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.

 

in support

Denver school board pledges to ‘stand shoulder-to-shoulder’ with undocumented immigrants

PHOTO: John Leyba/The Denver Post
Arizona Valverde, a ninth grader at Denver's North High, holds a sign in support of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program in September 2017.

The Denver school board took a stand Thursday in support of young undocumented immigrants, urging Congress to save the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program and pledging to provide opportunities for Denver educators to teach students about immigrant rights.

“You have accomplices and luchadores in us,” said board member Angela Cobián.

Cobián, who represents the heavily Latino region of southwest Denver and is the daughter of Mexican immigrants, was one of three board members who read the resolution out loud. Board member Lisa Flores read it in English, while Cobián and board member Carrie Olson, who until being elected last year worked as a bilingual Denver teacher, took turns reading it in Spanish.

“That was the most beautiful resolution I’ve ever heard read, and it’s so important,” board president Anne Rowe said when they’d finished.

The resolution passed unanimously. It says the seven-member school board implores Congress, including Colorado’s representatives, to “protect the DREAMers, providing them with the lasting solution they deserve and an end to the uncertainty they face.”

It also says the board “recognizes the importance of educators discussing and engaging with students on this issue,” including by delivering lessons explaining the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which provides temporary protection from deportation and work permits to immigrants under 35 who were brought to the United States as children.

President Trump announced in September that he would end the Obama-era program on March 5. Lawmakers are trying to craft a plan to provide legal protections to the approximately 800,000 immigrants who are in danger of losing their DACA status. Two different deals failed to pass the Senate Thursday night.

About 17,000 such immigrants live in Colorado. Denver Public Schools doesn’t track how many of its 92,600 students are protected by DACA, but the resolution notes that many young undocumented immigrants, often referred to as DREAMers, “have attended DPS schools their entire lives or are DPS graduates who have built their lives in our community.”

The district was also the first in the country to hire, through the Teach for America program, teachers who are DACA recipients. Cobián recognized five of those teachers Thursday.

A recent national study found that DACA has encouraged undocumented students to finish high school and enroll in college. The study also noted a decrease in teen pregnancy and an increase in the number of 17- to 29-year-old non-citizens who are working.

The resolution notes that ending DACA “will be deeply harmful to our schools and community, depriving countless students, families, and educators of their peace of mind, creating widespread fear and uncertainty, and causing significant disruption to the learning environment.”

This is not the first time the Denver school board has made a formal show of support for immigrant students. A year ago, as Trump’s presidency sparked fears of an immigration crackdown, the board unanimously approved a resolution affirming the district would do everything “in its lawful power” to protect students’ confidential information and ensure “students’ learning environments are not disrupted” by immigration enforcement actions.

Below, read in full the resolution passed Thursday.

mental health matters

Colorado lawmakers say yes to anti-bullying policies but no to suicide prevention efforts

PHOTO: Denver Post file

It was the suicide late last year of 10-year-old Ashawnty Davis that prompted state Sen. Rhonda Fields to call on state education officials to develop better anti-bullying policies.

Ashawnty, a fifth-grade student at Sunrise Elementary School in Aurora, took her own life after a video of her confronting a bully was posted to social media. As Fields met with grieving constituents, she felt like she didn’t know enough to act.

“The issue is very complex, and I felt like I couldn’t move forward on some of the suggestions because I hadn’t done the research,” said Fields, an Aurora Democrat. “If we really want to reduce incidents of bullying, it has to be tied to evidence-based practices and research so that schools know what works.”

Relatives of Ashawnty and of other children who had attempted suicide provided emotional testimony to the Senate Education Committee Wednesday morning. In a bipartisan, though not unanimous, vote, committee members advanced legislation that would require the Colorado Department of Education to research and write an anti-bullying policy that school districts could use as a model. A few hours later, the Senate’s “kill” committee, one to which members of Republican leadership send bills they don’t want to get a full vote, rejected a separate bill that would have provided grants of between $5,000 and $10,000 to school districts to help train teachers, students, and others in effective suicide prevention.

“You vote for anti-bullying policies, you vote for $7 million for interoperable radios, and you can’t support suicide prevention,” said an angry state Sen. Nancy Todd in the hallway after the vote. Todd, an Aurora Democrat, was a sponsor of the suicide prevention bill, and she and state Sen. Owen Hill both serve on the education committee. Hill, a Colorado Springs Republican, also serves on State Affairs and voted yes on the anti-bullying bill and no on the suicide prevention bill.

Ashawnty Davis was the youngest of a series of children to die by suicide last year, and before the session started, lawmakers pledged to provide more support to schools and students.

Experts caution against drawing a direct line between bullying and suicide. Studies have found that children who are bullied – as well as children who engage in bullying – are at higher risk of harming themselves, but most children who are bullied don’t try to take their own lives. There are often multiple factors involved.

Nonetheless, the testimony heard by the Senate Education Committee focused on preventing bullying as a way to prevent suicide.

Kristy Arellano, whose daughter suffered a severe brain injury in a suicide attempt that occurred after being bullied, said neither she nor her daughter’s teachers had the tools they needed.

“We need to arm our schools and their faculty with the tools for how to stop bullying,” she said. “I think my daughter just didn’t know how to deal with the hateful things that were said to her, and I didn’t know how to help her either.”

Trembling as he described his family’s loss, Dedrick Harris, Ashawnty’s uncle, said passing this legislation and putting better anti-bullying policies in place would give some meaning to his niece’s death.

“My niece became a statistic,” he said. “I support this because it’s all I can do.”

Dew Walker, a family preservation specialist and grief counselor based in Denver, said current policies aren’t helping children, and they can feel like they have no way out.

“I’m here because there are children who don’t have a voice,” she said. “They reported their bullying, but they felt like nothing was being done. They didn’t report it to the right people, or they just weren’t that important. They go silent. They wear a mask. And they know about zero tolerance, and they worry that if they defend themselves, they’ll be in trouble, not the bully.”

The anti-bullying bill was co-sponsored by Fields and state Sen. Kevin Priola, a Brighton Republican who, back when he was still a representative in the state House, sponsored the 2011 legislation that created the Department of Education’s current bullying prevention program.

School districts are required to have anti-bullying policies that meet certain criteria, and the department makes resources and information about best practices available on its website.

The department also has provided $4.1 million in grants from marijuana tax money to 73 schools to develop anti-bullying programs.

Melissa Colsman, associate commissioner for student learning for the Colorado Department of Education, said that because so many other states have developed model policies, she believes the work can be done without needing additional resources and may be of value to school districts.

“We know that other states have seen this as valuable,” she said.

While Colsman said she isn’t qualified to talk about the link between bullying and suicide, “the concerns of children committing suicide are something that we all need to be thinking about.”

The suicide prevention bill would have made grants available for up to 25 interested school districts, public schools, or charter schools each year at a cost of roughly $300,000. Todd said that it was her intention that the bulk of the money come from gifts, donations, and grants, though the bill language also allowed for a general fund appropriation. The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment already gets $539,000 in state money for suicide prevention efforts, as well as a $736,000 from a five-year federal grant to reduce youth suicide in eight Colorado counties, according to a fiscal analysis. Attorney General Cynthia Coffman recently launched a $200,000 initiative targeted at four counties with the highest suicide rates.

Todd’s bill would have made money available specifically to schools in all parts of the state.

Like other Western states, Colorado has a suicide rate that is higher than the national average, and suicide is the second leading cause of death for people aged 10 to 24.

The bill would have allowed schools to design their own programs, and the grant money could have been used for training for parents and teachers, to help students recognize warning signs in their peers and know how to respond, and for the development of curriculum and educational materials.

In voting no, Hill cited concerns about how the grant program would be paid for, while state Sen. Vicki Marble, the Fort Collins Republican who chairs the State Affairs committee, said it sounded like a government solution to a family and community problem.

“Our children have a respect problem,” she said. “They aren’t what they used to be.”

Marble said she knows the guilt that survivors carry because 10 members of her extended family have taken their own lives.

“Government is not the answer,” she said. “What I see in this bill is the same bureaucracy of reports and advisory groups and grants and money, but no solutions.”


Resources

Colorado Crisis Line: 1-844-493-8255, coloradocrisisservices.org. Chat online or text TALK to 38255.

Mental Health First Aid: mhfaco.org. Get trained to recognize the signs and how to respond.

American Foundation for Suicide Prevention: afsp.org. Join one of their upcoming walks for awareness in Colorado.

Crisis Text Line: crisistextline.org. Text 741741 from anywhere in the nation to reach a counselor.