The Other 60 Percent

Programs bridge summer feeding gap

A child gets a lunch of low-fat pizza, milk and grapes at Denver's Eagleton Elementary School, one of 40 DPS schools to run a free summertime feeding program.

Children’s learning isn’t the only thing that takes a hit during the long summer vacation. For many low-income children, school may be the only place they’re assured of a good meal so summer can mean nutritional setbacks or outright hunger.

But thanks to a coalition of anti-hunger groups and the governor’s office, Colorado has launched an aggressive campaign to expand the Summer Food Service Programs offered at schools, churches and other venues around the state, and to publicize the availability of free meals in communities where the need is great.

More than 275 feeding sites have opened or will soon open for the summer, all offering free lunches and many offering free breakfasts as well for children aged 1-18. Adults are welcome to eat too, for a $3 charge. No registration or proof of income is required. The nutritionally balanced meals are funded through the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Officials hope to feed at least 25,000 children in Colorado this summer, a dramatic increase from previous years. In 2008, only 15,000 Colorado children participated in a summer feeding program. But with more than 300,000 children in the state qualifying for free or reduced-price lunches during the school year, that put Colorado 46th in the nation in the percentage of low-income children participating in a summer program.

“Ninety-two percent of kids who qualify for food assistance don’t get it in the summer,” said Katharine Moos, program manager for the Colorado Campaign to End Childhood Hunger. “And with the economy the way it is, and one in five families experiencing food hardship, it’s safe to assume there are even more families out there who need this program.”

Connie Harlow, senior consultant and administrator of the Summer Food Program for the Colorado Department of Education, recalled an e-mail she got last summer from a woman running a day camp for children sponsored by the Salvation Army. The woman had asked one of the young campers what he liked most about the camp, which offered such amenities as trout ponds, soccer fields and paddle boats. “He said his favorite thing at camp was getting three meals a day,” Harlow said. “That just points out how lacking a lot of children are in getting the nutrition they need.”

Moos shares a story from a colleague in Texas who said one boy confessed to him that he deliberately failed his classes so he would be required to go to summer school because he knew at school he could get a meal. “That’s heartbreaking,” Moos said. “This little boy, to use wonky bureaucratic terms, was managing his food insecurity. But if that happened in Texas, where the rates of participation in summer food programs are about the same as in Colorado, then it’s happening here as well.”

Last fall, the Campaign to End Childhood Hunger was launched in partnership with Gov. Bill Ritter, Lt. Gov. O’Barbara O’Brien, the national anti-hunger organization Share Our Strength, and Hunger Free Colorado. The campaign has been working for months to recruit new sites and new partners to participate in the summer feeding program.

On June 2, Denver Public Schools – which operates more than 40 Summer Feeding Program sites – kicked off the summer by bringing in Denver Nuggets star Chauncey Billups and O’Brien to join youngsters having lunch at Eagleton Elementary School in west Denver.  On the menu: pizza with whole-wheat crust and low-fat cheese, fresh fruit, vegetable sticks and milk. Government regulations require the meals to contain a minimum of 2 ounces of protein, a serving of grain, a serving of milk and ¾-cup of two different fruits and vegetables.

“At our height last year, when all the sites were open, our high day was about 14,000 kids,” said Bob Gorman, area food service supervisor for DPS. “After July 4, the numbers really die down. But during the school year, we feed between 40,000 and 50,000.”

Many of the schools and other meal venues run day camp programs for children during the summer. But officials stress that the meals aren’t limited just to children participating in those activities. “The program is set up for kid who don’t have a place to go and need something to eat,” Gorman said. “It doesn’t matter your income or your eligibility, if you can get there, we’ll feed you.”

Hours vary from site to site but most serve lunch around 11 to noon. Those that serve breakfast generally do so around 8 a.m.

“In some areas, seniors like to go and eat too because they’re getting a balanced lunch for less than $3, and they like to interact with the children,” said Harlow. “It’s kind of a win/win situation for everybody.”

Successful as officials have been in getting more feeding sites running in urban and suburban areas, rural areas still pose problems.

“There are some areas where children just don’t have the transportation to get from their home to where a summer feeding program may be located,” Harlow said. “People don’t sponsor sites in rural areas because kids can’t get there so it’s a vicious cycle.”

For more information

For information about the Colorado Summer Food Service program, including an interactive map to locate the feeding sites nearest your home, click here.

For background information on the Summer Food Service Program, including its legislative history, reimbursement rates, and current priorities, click here.

Police in schools

The Denver school district is exploring the idea of creating its own police officers

PHOTO: Photo by Katie Wood/The Denver Post via Getty Images

School safety patrol officers in the Denver district would get the authority to arrest students and write tickets under an idea being explored by the district’s safety department.

The head of Denver Public Schools’ safety department says the goal would actually be to end the “school-to-prison pipeline” that criminalizes students for misbehavior at school.

The idea is that giving more authority to school safety officers who have experience with children and training in the district’s restorative justice model would mean outside police get called less often, even for matters that are potentially criminal.

This is not yet a formal proposal, but the idea is already generating pushback.

Local organization Padres y Jóvenes Unidos has worked for years to reduce harsh disciplinary practices in the district, and its staff say certifying safety patrol officers as police officers would represent a big step backward.

“To do this would undo everything you have stood on national platforms bragging about,” said Monica Acosta, the organizing director at Padres y Jóvenes Unidos. “Going down this road would double down on policing and criminalizing students of color.”

About 77 percent of the 92,600 Denver Public Schools students are children of color. Approximately 67 percent of students come from low-income families.

Police in schools is a controversial topic in Denver. Staff and students at an alternative school called RiseUp Community School are speaking out this week about an incident in which Denver police searched for a student the principal told them wasn’t there. The principal said police officers pulled their guns on a teacher during the search.

The incident sparked intense backlash – and an apology from Denver Public Schools Superintendent Tom Boasberg.

“What happened should not have happened,” he said at a school board meeting Thursday night. He said the district will participate in a city investigation of the incident and work “to ensure something like this does not ever happen again.”

RiseUp student Mary Jimenez said she and her peers were left feeling disrespected and unsafe.

“Because we are students of color and students of low-income, we get harassed and pushed around and we’re expected not to fight back,” Jimenez told the school board.

Although the incident involved city police officers, not district safety officers, community activists said it’s an example of why law enforcement doesn’t belong in schools. Armed officers create a hostile learning environment, they said.

But Denver Public Schools Chief of Safety Mike Eaton said school policing is different than municipal policing. Whereas city police would be more likely to use the criminal justice system to respond to a report of a student getting into a physical fight or having illegal drugs on campus, Eaton said district officers would be trained to first look to the discipline policy.

The policy emphasizes that consequences should be age-appropriate and that the focus should be on correcting student behavior. “Interventions should provide students an opportunity to learn from their mistakes,” the policy says, “and re-engage the student in learning.”

The district safety department employs about 135 staff members, Eaton said. Of those, 35 are armed safety patrol officers who are not assigned to a particular school but respond to incidents across the district. Those are the only officers the district would seek to certify as police, he said. Unarmed school-based campus safety officers would not be certified.

Authorizing any new group as police officers requires approval from state lawmakers.

Denver Public Schools already has 16 “school resource officers,” which are city police officers assigned to work in its large high schools and a few middle schools. Eaton said his aim would not be to increase the number of school resource officers but rather to give the district’s own security staff the discretion to handle police matters.

“We have the opportunity to directly impact the school-to-prison pipeline, to eliminate or reduce it,” Eaton said. School policing, he said, “focuses on restorative and redemptive practices in dealing with students. Students are young. They’re going to make mistakes.”

Several large, urban school districts across the country have their own police forces, including districts in Cleveland, Atlanta, and Miami. Before moving forward with a proposal in Denver, Eaton said he’d seek input from students, parents, and community members.

He has floated the idea by the Denver school board. The board president and vice president said they’re open to discussing any ideas that would make students safer. But president Anne Rowe said she understands why the community might be concerned.

“I can appreciate the initial reaction of folks when they think about an urban district thinking about certifying their officers,” she said. “That’s going to require a lot of community engagement and getting down to: What are we trying to accomplish by doing that?”

Road map

A new guide aims to help Colorado school districts offer mental health support to students

First-graders at Denver's Munroe Elementary do a mindfulness exercise led by school psychologist Amy Schirm.

A new toolkit to be officially released Monday will help Colorado educators, parents, and district administrators infuse mental health support into classrooms and schools.

The 60-page online guide from the nonprofit Mental Health Colorado comes out at a time when many school leaders say they desperately need help addressing students’ mental health needs and districts have increasingly emphasized social and emotional skills.

The guide includes 10 key practices for promoting mental health in schools, including offering services in school-based health centers, reducing the stigma around mental health treatment and prioritizing suicide prevention. Besides listing effective curriculums and programs, it provides examples of how Colorado schools and districts are using proven practices.

The kit also includes suggestions on how to secure funding for school mental health initiatives.

“There are ways to do that and examples of how to do that because most people have no idea how to get the ball rolling,” said Jen Marnowski, spokeswoman for Mental Health Colorado, which advocates for the prevention and treatment of mental health and substance use disorders.

Leaders in the Jeffco and the Estes Park districts are among those who’ve expressed enthusiasm about the toolkit so far.

“It’s great. It’s the right work,” said Jon Widmier, Jeffco’s student services director.

He said the kit, which the district will pilot in two elementary schools next year, lines up with the district’s emphasis on educating the whole child.

“The mental health piece of that is huge … This is so right in line with what we’re trying to accomplish on that,” he said.

Marnowski said the genesis of the toolkit was a listening tour the organization conducted in communities across Colorado two years ago. The group’s leaders heard from parents, educators, public officials and law enforcement officers who voiced concerns about the lack of access to mental health care, the desire for more mental health support in schools, and the state’s high suicide rate.

The toolkit is meant to give districts a roadmap from addressing some of the problems community members cited.

“Kids are in school so many hours a day that’s it’s very effective to do this when they’re [there], to get them the help they need,” she said.

Widmier said he sees the kit as a useful tool for all kinds of districts.

“We’re very fortunate in Jeffco because we ‘ve got a school board that really supports the mental health needs of our students … There’s a lot of school districts out there that haven’t focused on it that much and I think this is going to be such a great resource for them as well.”