Get moving

Requiring P.E. for Tennessee’s youngest students would help academics, too, advocates say

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

Tom Cronan was a lifelong outdoorsman who was passionate about fitness and its many benefits, both physically and emotionally.

Now, almost a decade after his death at age 64 of pancreatic cancer, a bill in the legislature would honor the East Tennessee educator by requiring that the state’s students spend more time playing sports and exercising during school.

The Tom Cronan Physical Education Act, which unanimously passed the House Instruction and Programs Committee on Tuesday, would serve as a living tribute to the professor emeritus of exercise physiology at Carson-Newman University in Jefferson City.

It also would act on research showing that physical education boosts children’s brain development, helps form lifelong exercise habits and promotes overall health and mental wellbeing.

The bill would require all public elementary school students to participate in a physical education class taught by a P.E. teacher at least two times a week.

Currently, Tennessee requires physical education for its K-8 students, but doesn’t specify how much time students should spend in it.

Cronan’s widow Joan, a former women’s athletics director at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville, testified to lawmakers this year about the potential impact of physical education on student engagement and obesity. P.E. also could give students life skills that translate to academic success, she said.

“The Tom Cronan Physical Education bill could make a difference in people’s lives,” she said.  “We feel like that this discipline will make a difference.”

The bill is sponsored by Roger Kane, a Knoxville Republican, in the House, and Bill Ketron, a Murfreesboro Republican, in the Senate, where it passed the education committee last month. The measure now goes to the finance committees of both chambers.

Though the proposal wouldn’t cost the state extra money, it does come with a collective $253,000 price tag for three smaller school districts  — in Dyer, Hardeman and Carter counties — that would have to hire new teachers to meet the requirement.

The bill isn’t the first to address physical activity in schools, where more rigorous academic standards and preparation for high-stakes testing have challenged educators to strike the right balance.

In 2016, the legislature approved stringent playtime requirements that went into effect last fall. But lawmakers recently voted to roll those back to give educators more flexibility with recess.  But they didn’t scrap the requirements altogether. Under the bill that Gov. Bill Haslam is expected to sign into law, younger students would be required to have at least 130 minutes of recess a week.

election 2019

College student, former candidate jumps into Denver school board race – early

PHOTO: Andy Cross/The Denver Post
Tay Anderson speaks to students at Denver's South High School in May 2017.

A Denver college student who as a teenager last year unsuccessfully ran for a seat on the district’s school board announced Wednesday that he plans to try again in 2019.

Tay Anderson, 20, said he will run next November for the board seat currently occupied by Happy Haynes. Haynes, a longtime Denver politician who is executive director of the city’s parks and recreation department, does not represent a particular region of the school district. Rather, she is one of two at-large members on the board. Haynes was first elected to the school board in 2011 and is barred by term limits from running again.

Haynes supports the direction of Denver Public Schools and some of its more aggressive improvement strategies, such as closing low-performing schools. Anderson does not.

He is the first candidate to declare he’s running for the Denver school board in 2019. Haynes’ seat is one of three seats that will be open in 2019. There is no school board election this year.

In 2017, Anderson ran in a heated three-way race for a different board seat representing northeast Denver. Former teacher Jennifer Bacon won that seat with 42 percent of the vote.

Anderson, a vocal critic of the district, campaigned on platform of change. He called for the district to improve what he described as weak community engagement efforts and to stop approving new charter schools, which are publicly funded but independently run.

Bacon also questioned some of the district’s policies. The Denver teachers union endorsed her over Anderson, who raised the least amount of money of the three candidates. Bacon was one of two new board members elected in 2017 who represent a more critical perspective. The 2019 election is likely to involve many of the same debates over education reform.

Anderson is a graduate of Denver’s Manual High School. He is now a student at Metropolitan State University, where he is studying education. He said he also works at Hinkley High School in neighboring Aurora, helping with the school’s restorative justice program, a method of student discipline that focuses on repairing harm rather than doling out punishment.

Anderson posted his campaign announcement on Facebook. It says, in part:

After a lot of thought, prayer, and seeking guidance from mentors, I decided this is the path I need to pursue to fulfill my commitment to the students, teachers, and community of Denver. I learned many valuable lessons during my campaign in 2017 and I know that I need to prepare and ensure that I have the adequate time to be in every part of Denver to connect with as many voters as possible, which is why I am getting to work now!

My dedication to Denver Public Schools has always been deeply personal and this campaign is reflective of that. As I gear up for another campaign, I am once again driven and motivated by my grandmother, who was an educator for over 35 years. Her tenacity to never give up is what drives my passion for the students in Denver Public Schools. I am determined to follow in her footsteps. I have organized students around school safety and more importantly impacted students’ lives in Denver Public Schools and Aurora Public Schools. These students have a voice and I am prepared to fight for their agency in their education.

changing times

To close or evolve? As teen birth rates drop, school programs for teen parents face a new landscape

PHOTO: quavondo | Getty Images

There was just one student in the Boulder Valley School District’s teen parent program last year. She graduated in May, and and the district spent the summer turning the program’s nursery into a child care center for staff.

In the Englewood district just south of Denver there were no students in the teen parent program last year, and in the western Colorado city of Montrose, the long-standing charter school for pregnant and parenting teens was newly closed because of dwindling enrollment.

These are just a few examples of Colorado’s shifting educational landscape for teen parents and the school districts that serve them. As some programs downsize or close their doors, others have worked to adapt to the times — stepping up advertising, adding online offerings, or moving away from single centralized programs.

In part, these trends are driven by the state’s record-low teen birth rate, which mirrors national declines. Other factors that may be siphoning students away from teen parent programs include the option of virtual school, the fading stigma of teen parenthood, and the ease of getting a job in Colorado’s thriving economy.

For many advocates, the changing shape of teen parent programs is cause for both celebration and concern. On one hand, it’s a testament to the success of a state program — launched with private funding in 2008 — that provided long-acting birth control to low-income women.

At the same time, they worry that such public-health victories obscure the fact that nearly 3,000 Colorado teenagers are still having babies every year — circumstances that put them at high risk for dropping out of school.

“There’s still a need for programs like ours,” said Suzanne Banning, president and CEO of the Denver-based Florence Crittenton Services, which runs the state’s oldest high school for pregnant and parenting teens.

“In the long run, without these programs being there, you’re going back to having these young moms not having a place to go and not graduating, and then their kids have a higher probability of becoming a teen mom or teen dad,” she said.

Sizing it up

It’s hard to get an exact picture of how many Colorado school districts offer teen parent programs and how many students enroll in them each year. For the most part, the state education department doesn’t track this.

It does tally enrollment for stand-alone schools for pregnant and parenting teens, but there are just two: Florence Crittenton and New Legacy Charter School in Aurora.

Credit: Sam Park

Meanwhile, some districts, such as St. Vrain, Westminster, and Mesa County Valley, house teen parent programs within larger alternative high schools and others, such as Aurora, serve teen parents with mobile teams that visit multiple schools. In both cases, state enrollment counts don’t distinguish teen parents from other students.

Pat Paluzzi, president and CEO of the national organization Healthy Teen Network, which promotes teen sexual and reproductive health, said there’s no clear-cut national data on teen parent programs either. Still, she’s heard plenty of anecdotal evidence pointing to a shrinking footprint.

Some teen parent programs, she said, closed down even before dramatic declines in the teen pregnancy rate, in part because federal funding streams dried up.

“Support for the teen parent in general has really waned over time,” Paluzzi said.

As separate programs for teen parents have dwindled, support for such students at traditional high schools sometimes ramps up, she said, but it varies widely by school and district.

For 16-year-old Alexia Alvarado, who became pregnant in September of her freshman year at Longmont’s Skyline High School in northern Colorado, it was a tough slog.

She said while her teachers were extremely supportive, her classmates were “weirded out” by her pregnancy.

“It was definitely awkward. I felt like a wild animal,” she said. “I get it they were curious, but the staring every day was very unnecessary.”

Alvarado, whose son Gabriel is now 15 months old, stayed at Skyline through her freshman year and transferred to the district’s teen parent program at the alternative Olde Columbine High School for her sophomore year.

It wasn’t her first choice, she said. She initially wanted to enroll in online classes, but soon realized her tendency to procrastinate and the distraction of her baby while she studied would derail her.

Although Alvarado had heard Olde Columbine was for “troubled kids,” her advocate at a local agency convinced her to give it a try. She has no regrets.

Alvarado likes having Gabriel in the same building — until January when he’ll age out of the on-site nursery — and loves the supportive vibe from staff and students. Occasionally, she’s had twinges of interest in returning to a mainstream high school so she can participate in time-honored traditions like prom, but she pushes those aside.

“To me the most important thing is my future,” said Alvarado, who wants to go to a four-year college and become a neonatal nurse.

“If I went to regular high school I would just be another student. At Olde Columbine, teachers you don’t even have know your name.”

End of an institution

For nearly two decades, Montrose had a stand-alone school for pregnant and parenting teens, Passage Charter School. It closed at the end of the 2016-17 school year.

Montrose Superintendent Stephen Schiell said, “The bottom line was they didn’t have enough students to stay open … It wasn’t feasible.”

He said there were fewer than 10 students at the school when it closed.

Sarah Fishering, who is on the Montrose school board but spoke to Chalkbeat as a private citizen, was initially upset because the school’s closing meant the loss of sorely needed child care spots in the rural community. At the end, her two young children were among those enrolled at the school’s nursery, which served both teen parents and community members.

Fishering worries the program’s demise leaves a massive void for teen parents in the region.

“I kept on hearing from people, ‘Isn’t it wonderful that we don’t need Passage Charter School anymore?’” she said. “However, in Montrose … and also in our neighboring county of Delta, there are particularly high rates of teen pregnancy.”

Credit: Sam Park

Both counties have rates well above the 2017 Colorado average of 16 births per 1,000 women ages 15 to 19. The rate was 32 births per 1,000 women in Delta County and 26 births per 1,000 in Montrose County. Last year, 58 babies were born to teens 15 to 19 in the two counties.

Even in Colorado’s populous urban areas, some teen parent programs have contracted in recent years.

Banning said until about 2012 Florence Crittenton High School served 300 or more pregnant and parenting teens a year. These days, it’s around 220.

As that dip occurred, she said, the school began advertising on bus benches and through spots on the Spanish-language television station Telemundo.

At New Legacy, which opened in 2015, school officials have seen a growing number of non-parents enroll — often siblings or cousins of teen parents.

Last year, about 30 of the school’s 100 students were neither pregnant nor parenting, up from about a dozen two years earlier, said Sarah Bridich, chairperson of the New Legacy board.

She believes interest from students who aren’t teen parents stems from the fact that New Legacy is a small non-traditional school that offers lots of personal attention — and isn’t a sign that there are too few teen parents to fill its seats.

Like Banning, she said it’s important for the school to actively recruit prospective students.

“It would be a great problem if we closed [because] there weren’t pregnant and parenting teenagers,” she said. “I don’t foresee that happening in the near future.”

Evolution and expansion

In some districts, declining enrollment in stand-alone teen parent programs has spurred officials to try something new. That’s how Boulder Valley leaders see the shift in their program, which was down to one student last year.

Joan Bludorn, principal of Arapahoe Ridge High School where the teen parent program used to be housed, said besides decreasing teen pregnancy rates, changing cultural norms have contributed to the evolution of the district’s teen parent programs.

“Many of the students want to stay in their home high school,” she said. “Pregnancy is not looked upon as it was 20 to 30 years ago when you [left] your building.”

Starting this year, the teen parenting class that used to be taught at Arapahoe Ridge will be available online, with the course’s longtime teacher supervising participants. While the high school’s nursery for teen parents has been repurposed as a staff child care center, Bludorn said there will still be spots for children of students if needed.

Mary Faltynski, coordinator of Boulder County’s GENESIS home-visiting program for teen parents, said when stand-alone programs shrink, it’s important for districts to think differently.

“We have to say, ‘OK, maybe we don’t have a school’s worth of students who need a special program, but we have to look at how to help students individually in their own schools.’”

In the Aurora school district, the teen parent program became stagnant several years ago, after the high school where it was housed relocated to a new building, shifted to an expeditionary learning model, and shed its alternative school reputation. Only a handful of teen parents remained in the program a couple years into the switch, said Anne Burris, a nurse who leads the district’s Young Parent Support Program.

That’s when the district created a mobile team that works with pregnant and parenting teens — both mothers and fathers — connecting them with child care, advocating for them in their schools, and helping them prepare for college or jobs. The team, made up of Burris and three advocates, served 261 students across the district last year.

Across the state in Grand Junction, the teen parent program continues to be housed in the alternative R-5 High School, but two years ago got a much-needed ingredient: more nursery space.

Before the expansion, “We’d start off with 30 parents and we were losing eight to 10 young parents because they didn’t have a place to put their toddlers,” said R-5 Principal Don Trujillo.

In 2016, the school relocated to a new building and added eight spots for toddlers on top of the eight it already had for infants. Now, more teen parents are staying at R-5 for the whole school year, he said.

The Fort Collins-based Poudre School District has similar plans for its teen parent program, which last year moved from one of the district’s comprehensive high schools to a K-12 hybrid school called Poudre Global Academy. There, students take on-site classes two days a week and work online the rest of the time. District officials plan to open an on-site nursery at the school as soon as next year.