The Other 60 Percent

Tackling child hunger, better school food

Sen. Michael Bennet and Kevin Concannon, the federal undersecretary for Food, Nutrition and Consumer Services, joined some Thornton second-graders on Tuesday for a healthy lunch of burritos, corn, salad and fresh oranges.

Sigifredo Orona, left, and Michael Zamarano, second-graders at Coronado Hills Elementary School in Thornton, have lunch with U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet on Tuesday in their school lunchroom.

Afterward, they chewed the fat with some adult heavy-hitters determined to make Colorado’s school lunches better for kids and to make good food in general easier to come by for the estimated 17.2 percent of Colorado children who lack enough food to meet their basic needs.

“It’s important, as we think about what we do, that we listen to our communities and inform our legislation with what you say, rather than the other way around,” Bennet, the state’s Democratic junior senator, told a group of about three dozen people participating in a roundtable discussion on childhood hunger at Coronado Hills Elementary School.

“We just enjoyed a healthy lunch,” said Concannon, of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. “A hundred thousand-plus schools in the United States served lunch today but many of them weren’t as healthy as the lunch we had. They don’t reflect the kind of improvements we know need to be made.”

Bennet and Concannon were anxious to promote two pieces of legislation that Bennet has had a hand in — the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, a 10-year, $4.5 billion program to reduce childhood hunger and improve the quality of food available to children; and the Growing Farm to School Programs Act, a bill Bennet is co-sponsoring to expand school programs to serve locally-grown fresh produce in school cafeterias.

The Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act passed the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry with bipartisan support last month, though the amount funded is far less than the $10 billion President Obama had requested. Bennet, who’s in a primary fight with former state House Speaker Andrew Romanoff, is a committee member.

The Growing Farm to School Programs Act was introduced in the Senate last month. It has also been assigned to the Agriculture committee, though it has not yet been heard.

Roundtable participants – who included representatives of anti-hunger programs, school district food service directors, charitable foundations and government agencies – offered their observations on what’s working and what needs fixing.

Many said the biggest thing that needs fixing is the state’s ability to get food benefits to needy people.  The technological problems that have bedeviled the Colorado Benefits Management System, the computer system the state uses to sign people up for food stamps and other benefits, have been well-documented.

“Colorado does a poor job of getting families who are eligible onto food stamps,” complained Kathy White, program director for the Colorado Center on Law & Policy. “While I think there are good things happening in Colorado – like the Campaign to End Childhood Hunger and schools working with health care providers – there’s lot of room for improvement, and first and foremost is our technology.”

Bennet acknowledged the problems caused by CBMS. He said he amended the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act to direct the federal government to provide better technical assistance to states and to help states create data programs that actually work.

“This has plagued school districts, too, and there’s no reason for it,” Bennet, the former Denver Public Schools superintendent, said of the ongoing computer glitches.

Food service directors said their best-laid plans are sometimes frustrated by government regulations on commodity purchases on the one hand, and school priorities that give short shrift to lunchtime on the other.

“There’s room for improvement in the commodity program,” said Leo Lesh, director of DPS’ Department of Food and Nutrition. “I have to fit my menu to what I can buy and it shouldn’t be that way. I should be able to buy what I need.

“And we need to make meals an important part of the school day rather than a disruption to the school day. Principals who need an extra five minutes will squeeze it out of lunchtime, leaving just 20 minutes for lunch.”

Jeni Nagel of Ela Family Farms urged schools to do more to police the food choices given to children. “You can’t expect kids to choose an orange over Cocoa Pebbles,” she said. “We need to deal with the choices we give kids.”

Nagel noted that in many school kitchens, the most-used utensils are box cutters and can openers. Some school cafeterias are ill-equipped to deal with fresh produce. “There’s even resistance to selling fresh peaches because they would have to wash those peaches first,” Nagel said.

The Growing Farm to School Act would connect local farmers and schools to provide locally grown produce to schools and to give farmers a new market for their products. Concannon says having locally-grown products available encourages youngsters to eat fresh fruit and vegetables. “It has an effect,” he said. “I’ve seen it in schools from New England to California.”

The Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act also provides funding for Farm-to-School programs. Other provisions of the act include:

  • Expanding after-school meals for at-risk children
  • Connecting more eligible low-income children with school meals
  • Helping schools improve the nutritional quality of school meals
  • Establishing national nutritional standards for all food sold in schools
  • Strengthening local school wellness policies
  • Helping schools protect their food service budgets

Bennet offered another amendment to the bill to authorize the creation of “State Childhood Hunger Challenge Grants.” The grants would allow states to collaborate with other partners to target communities with a higher prevalence of child hunger.

Click here to read an Education News Colorado story about the farm-to-school movement.

How I Help

Why this high school counselor asks students, ‘What do you wish your parents knew?’

Today, we launch a new series called “How I Help,” which features school counselors, social workers and psychologists across Colorado. It is a companion to our popular “How I Teach” and “How I Lead” series.

Through “How I Help,” we hope to give readers a glimpse into the professional lives of school staff members who often work behind the scenes but nevertheless have a big impact on the day-to-day lives of students.

Our first “How I Help” features Cassie Poncelow, a counselor at Poudre High School in Fort Collins. She was the 2016 Colorado School Counselor of the Year and is one of six finalists for the 2018 National School Counselor of the Year award.

Poncelow talked to Chalkbeat about how she creates a legacy of caring, what teens want their parents to know and why peer-to-peer mentoring is better than a social-emotional curriculum taught by adults.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.

Why did you become a school counselor?
I was incredibly fortunate to have many powerful educators shape my life in my time as a student, but none did more so than my school counselors. My counselor from high school remains a dear friend and mentor. I knew that I wanted to be a part of what is happening in education and loved the diversity of the school counselor job. They get to collaborate with so many different stakeholders, get to know students in really cool ways and be involved with so many aspects of making change.

Cassie Poncelow

Tell us about an effort or initiative you spearheaded at your school that you’re particularly proud of.
Three years ago, we noticed that students were dropping out continuously because they were short on graduation credits and tired of taking the same classes over and over again. I worked with a team to create Opportunities Unlimited, which is a dropout recovery program for students ages 17-21 that is focused on GED completion and concurrent enrollment opportunities. A fifth cohort started this fall and the program has graduated 26 students in two years.

Is there a tool, curriculum or program you couldn’t live without in your job?
Our Ambassadors program is in many ways the backbone of our climate and culture at Poudre High School. This program trains 50 upperclassmen to mentor freshmen through a year-long curriculum that includes topics like stress management, suicide prevention and sexual assault. This mentoring model means that every freshman has an ambassador that is connecting with them for almost three hours each month. The ambassadors deliver comprehensive, peer-to-peer education that is far beyond and better than any social-emotional learning curriculum that counselors could facilitate. As the co-leader for this program, I also couldn’t live without the hope that this crew gives me. They are the best part of my job.

What’s the biggest misconception you’ve encountered about your role in the school(s) where you work?
I am grateful to work in a place and with people who see the vital role of school counselors and are eager to partner with them. In my time at Poudre High School we have added two new school counseling positions, further demonstrating our school’s belief in the work we do. I have worked at schools in the past that created a lot of systemic barriers to accessing school counselors and I think this was based on a misconception that we were a more frivolous part of services for students.

You spend lots of time with students. Knowing what you know, what advice would you give to parents?
I often ask my students, “What do you wish your parents knew?” What I hear consistently is a plea for them to remember what it was like to be 16: How painful and awkward it was, how boys were all the rage and not getting invited somewhere really was the actual worst.

So, I advise parents to remember that. And remember that a lot of what they dealt with at 16 is even more complicated by the world our kids are experiencing. Social media wasn’t a reality when they were kids and our current students have never known a world where mass shootings haven’t happened often. I know it’s no, “I walked uphill both ways without shoes in the snow,” but this is a scary time to be student — different, but equally hard. Our kids need us to hear them in that. And believe that they can change it.

Tell us about a time when you managed to connect with a challenging student or a student facing a difficult situation. How did you do it?
At my core, I think we all thrive on authentic relationships and I do whatever I can to create these with my students. I want each of my students to feel like I am truly in their corner and a champion not only of what they do but more so of who they are. I hope to not only live this, but to model it for my students in ways that inspire them to do the same.

This semester I have a freshman boy who was consistently skipping class (who knew gas station tacos were such a draw?) and failing multiple classes. His “consequence” is that he has to spend a period working on missing work in my office. I also have a slew of seniors who have made my office their home during this fifth hour, many who are excellent students and are just looking for a place to study. They have taken this freshman under their wing and are committed to his success far beyond what I could ever be. They are constantly asking about his upcoming exams, what he needs help with and celebrating his rising grades with him. I think I have built really authentic relationships with these upperclassmen who then remember what it means to feel connected and cared for and are passionate about showing this student just that. I often stress “legacy” to my students and this seems like a clear picture of that.

What is the hardest part of your job?
Kid stuff is hard. I hurt for kids a lot, as I think all educators do. They live lives far beyond our walls and far beyond what we could imagine and ever control. That’s the hardest. Close second would be trying to operate in a system that seems to be driven by folks who aren’t doing the work. I recognize that there are so many moving pieces and would love to have some of the actual “decision-makers” come spend the day in our role and better understand the work we do.

Tell us about a memorable time — good or bad — when contact with a student’s family changed your perspective or approach.
A year ago, I had a student who was really struggling with some significant mental health issues. I knew that we needed to bring in a parent but the girl was very anxious about this idea, to the point where she had literally crumpled up on my office floor. After calling her mom to meet with us, I joined her on the floor of my office to talk more. Her mom walked in shortly after, assessed the scene and sat right down on the floor with us, despite the chair-filled room. This move shifted everything and I was so grateful for her wisdom to be where her kid was at. It was a good reminder to me to do that always: be where kids are at.

You spend your days trying to help students and staff with any number of things. How do you wind down after a stressful day?
A lot of my unwinding still includes my students as I announce volleyball games or attend other sporting events or performances. I love these opportunities because they let me see my kids in a different light and remind me how awesome they are. I also spend as much time outside as possible, whether it’s going for a quick hike with my pup or a bike ride. Beyond traveling and reading, I cheer hard for the CSU Rams! Go State!

Big money

Millions in grant dollars will bring more counselors to Indiana’s underserved students

KIPP Indy was one of several schools in the county to receive a counseling grant.

Scores of Indiana schools were awarded private grants that will allow them to bolster counseling services for students, many of whom are lacking help for an increasing portfolio of problems, including fallout from the state’s drug epidemic and basic needs like advice on college applications.

The $26.4 million in grants, decided last month, include six for Marion County districts and charter schools. They were awarded by Lilly Endowment, a prominent Indianapolis-based philanthropy founded by key players in the pharmaceutical giant Eli Lilly.

The grants went to 52 school districts and five charter schools, covering about a third of the state’s counties. Based on enrollment, they ranged from about $68,000 to almost $3 million.

Lilly began its push to help schools build better counseling programs last year.

“The response from school corporations and charter schools far exceeded the Endowment’s expectations,” said Sara B. Cobb, the Endowment’s vice president for education. “We believe that this response demonstrates a growing awareness that enhanced and expanded counseling programs are urgently needed to address the academic, college, career, and social and emotional counseling needs of Indiana’s K-12 students.”

As Chalkbeat previously reported, school counselors have been stretched exceedingly thin in recent years, both in Indiana and across the country. On average, each Hoosier counselor is responsible for 630 students, making Indiana 45th out of 50 states and the District of Columbia for counselor-to-student ratios. The American School Counselor Association recommends a ratio of no higher than one counselor for every 250 students.

So far, state-led efforts to expand counseling have fallen short; a bill proposed in 2015 to require a counselor in every school was withdrawn for further study, and the issue hasn’t resurfaced significantly in the legislature since. At the time, cost was the sticking point.

Schools and districts had to apply for the grants and show how they would use the money. Lilly reported that mental health and business partnerships, mentoring programs, improving curriculum and adding in more training for staff were all strategies that grant-winners have proposed.

Initially, 254 districts and charter schools applied, many pointing out how Indiana’s recent opioid crisis has increased social and emotional challenges for students. Counselors have to juggle those serious needs with college and career advising and, increasingly, responsibilities that have nothing to do with counseling, such as overseeing standardized tests.

Because of the level of interest, Lilly is planning a second round of grants, which would total up to $10 million.

“Because the implementation grant process was so competitive, the Endowment had to decline several proposals that had many promising features,” Cobb said. “We believe that with a few enhancements, many of these proposals will be very competitive in the second round of the Counseling Initiative.”

These are the districts and schools in Marion County that received counseling grants. (Find the full list here.)

  • Indianapolis Public Schools: $2,871,400
  • KIPP Indianapolis: $100,000
  • Lawrence Township: $1,527,400
  • Pike Township: $1,114,700
  • Neighborhood Charter Network: $68,312
  • Southeast Neighborhood School of Excellence: $99,870

IPS said in a news release that it planned to use the grant money to build counseling centers in each of the district’s high schools, which would begin operating in 2018 after IPS transitions to four high schools. Superintendent Lewis Ferebee said counselors are “critical” for students as they prepare to graduate high school and pursue higher education and careers.

“We’re thrilled that the students and families we serve will benefit from this gift,” Ferebee said.