The Other 60 Percent

Taking on a win-at-all-costs society in the classroom

Teacher David Guy was about to set two-dozen first-graders loose in the Simla School gym to play “capture the cones,” when he asked, “How do you treat people when you win?”

Simla Elementary students play "capture the cones" in p.e. class.
Simla Elementary students play “capture the cones” in p.e. class.

In unison, a chorus of high-pitched voices replied, “Nice!”

“It’s not just nice,” said Guy patiently. “It’s about treating them fairly, right? It’s about treating them respectfully. We always have to do that.”

The lesson took only five seconds, but it hit on one of the essential messages of TrueSport, a curriculum created by the United States Anti-Doping Agency in Colorado Springs. It’s that message, among others, that appealed to Guy and several other teachers from the Big Sandy school district when they attended an informational summit on the program last February.

It also appealed to the Big Sandy School Board, which adopted the curriculum at a meeting that same night, after technology teacher Sue Snyder rushed back from the summit to present on the topic.

“It passed with flying colors,” she said. “We were using it the next day with our junior high kids.”

While the overnight adoption of TrueSport is perhaps unique to tiny districts like the 360-student Big Sandy, the creators of the curriculum, are eager to see its widespread use, not just in Colorado but across the country.

“Broadly, we think of it as a movement,” said Erin Hannan, communications and outreach director for the United States Anti-Doping Agency, or USADA.

What is it?

At its most basic, TrueSport is an effort to promote health and ethics among youth.

“It uses sport as the vehicle to deliver that,” said Hannan.

Eight core principles, such as “Be Courageous” and “Fair Play or No Way” anchor the program, which includes a K-12 curriculum that is aligned with Colorado’s state physical education and health standards, a pre-K activity book,  an online training for coaches, a parent handbook, and code of conduct forms that can be printed out and signed by players, coaches and parents. The program also enlists well-known athletes like Olympians Peter Vanderkaay and DeeDee Trotter to visit participating schools as “TrueSport Ambassadors.”

A sign in the gym at Simla School.
A sign in the gym at Simla School.

The goal, Hannan said, is to shift the prevailing winning-is-everything attitude to one where healthy choices and integrity govern behavior on and off the sports field. Given USADA’s role as the country’s enforcer of anti-doping rules among Olympic and other high-profile athletes, the push to imprint the sports heroes of the future with a strong moral compass makes sense.

But, in a hyper-competitive world where three-year-olds can play team sports and some parents redshirt their five-year-olds in the hopes it will give them an athletic advantage in high school, no one thinks it’s going to be easy.

“We recognize we’re absolutely going against the tide,” said Hannan.

Still, among the teachers and coaches that use TrueSport materials, enthusiasm runs high. In addition to the emphasis on character education, they like that it’s got a contemporary feel with real-world examples, often taken straight from the headlines of the past few years.

Perhaps best of all, it’s free.

“To be honest, that’s what we need. We don’t have a big budget,” said Caroline Weinberg, a health teacher at the 1,400-student Mesa Middle School in Douglas County. “It’s nice to get something new and fresh.”

Already this year, she’s used her classroom set of TrueSport workbooks to talk about decision-making and role models, and she plans to use it for upcoming units on nutrition and performance-enhancing drugs. The alternative, she said is an ancient textbook that few teachers use.

Weinberg said she also appreciates that TrueSport talks about the dangers of super-caffeinated energy drinks.

“Obviously, that’s not in our textbook,” she said. “I see kids all the time with their Monster drinks.”

While TrueSport curriculum is often covered in health or physical education classes, and perhaps less formally in after-school sports, it has found its way into other kinds of classes, including biology and language arts.

Snyder, who also coaches girls volleyball at Simla, uses the program in her high school computer applications class. Students use TrueSport content to practice with blogging platforms and create digital presentations. On a recent morning, she led a discussion from chapter three of the TrueSport workbook on maximizing mental and physical performance in a healthy way.

Teacher Sue Snyder talks about mental toughness with high school students in her computer applications class.
Teacher Sue Snyder talks about mental toughness with high school students in her computer applications class.

“There’s a lot that you can do to be mentally tough,” she said to the 10 students sitting around the computer lab. “Set specific measurable goals…So, measurable goals would be what?”

“Gain ten pounds during the season,” said one boy.

“Win state,” said another.

“Catch the ball,” said a third.

For most of the students in the class, which was mostly boys and included several student athletes, the discussion seemed to touch on both their interests and personal experience. Nevertheless, TrueSport leaders stress that students don’t have to be athletes to benefit from the program’s focus on healthy choices and lifestyles.

Simla High School senior Cheryl Clonts, doesn’t play sports, but said she enjoys the TrueSport discussions during computer applications class.

”I think they can apply to more than just sports, but real life as well.”

Brett Smith, a senior on the girls volleyball team, doesn’t take any classes that cover TrueSport this year but said the presence of the program pushes the school’s athletes, coaches and even spectators to have higher standards.

“There’s just sportsmanship, even in our crowd, where we’re not yelling at the refs or we’re not arguing a lot….We don’t get in the face of refs and we don’t try to change their opinion as much as other schools.”

“TrueSport’s helped with that,” she said. “It’s kind of like a motto for us.”

Small but growing

While TrueSport officials have ambitious plans for the program, only about 10 Colorado schools currently use the curriculum. Nationally, the numbers are harder to come by. USADA has received requests from schools in 47 states, but does not track whether the curriculum is actually implemented. A few districts in Texas, as well as others around the country have implemented the curriculum in a robust way, according to TrueSport officials.

Elementary students at Simla School earn stars on these charts whenever they are selected as TrueSport of the day. When they get four stars, they receive a $1 coupon for the school store.
Elementary students at Simla School earn stars on these charts whenever they are selected as TrueSport of the day. When they get four stars, they receive a $1 coupon for the school store.

One district that doesn’t use TrueSport is Colorado Springs  11, the largest district in the vicinity of USADA offices. District Athletic Director David Eichman said the district uses a newly revamped physical education curriculum that has been written by district staff over the last couple years to align with state’s physical education standards. In addition, the district uses the “SPARK” physical education curriculum to augment the district’s program. Eichman said teachers are welcome to use TrueSport materials, but he doesn’t know of a single one who has.

One factor contributing to TrueSport’s relatively small footprint may be its youth.  Although USADA  began offering a similar curriculum targeting a narrower age range called “100 percent Me” in 2006,  the full K-12 program and TrueSport brand didn’t come out until early 2012.

“My perception is they’re kind of feeling their way…There hasn’t been a big hard launch,” said Judy Sandlin, an associate professor in the college of education and human development at Texas A&M University. She helped create parts of the TrueSport curriculum and now serves as one of TrueSport’s “educational ambassadors.” Some day, Sandlin hopes TrueSport will become as well known as Race for the Cure.

In the case of Weinberg, who works in the 65,000-student Douglas County district, she made a personal decision to use TrueSport in her classes because she heard about it through a casual friend who works for USADA.

“I wouldn’t have ever known about it unless I was friends with this girl on Facebook,” said Weinberg, who hopes to introduce the curriculum to other health and p.e. teachers at her school as well as to the district’s health education coordinator.

In addition to being a young program, TrueSport also faces a market crowded with physical education and health curriculums.

Eichman said while he thinks TrueSport is “all really good stuff,” he added, “You can go on the Internet and get tons of resources.”

A good illustration of this may be the California Healthy Kids Resource Center Library, an extensive online compilation of health-oriented curricula and programs. While TrueSport earned a listing, it is among a whopping 179 programs listed in the “nutrition” category and among 124 listed in the “alcohol and other drugs” category. It is not among the 32 “research-validated” listings in the nearly 800-item library.

Rewarding sportsmanship

Back in Dave Guy’s p.e. class, the first-graders, thirsty and flushed, finished up their game and lined up in the hall. Before Guy, who also teaches high school science and coaches boys basketball, sent the kids back to their classrooms, he did something that has become an after-class ritual this year: He picked the TrueSport of the day.

Guy explained that during “capture the cones,” he thought he saw a student tag opponents a couple times, but more than once, the tagger admitted that he’d missed.

“For that honesty and playing the game the right way and being respectful, Trevyn is the True Sport of the day,” said Guy.

With that, there was a sing-song chorus of “Trevyn” and a jumble of kids crowded around a little boy in an orange hoodie to deliver a spontaneous group hug.

Unmet needs

A social worker in every grade? Perhaps for 10 Colorado elementary schools

PHOTO: Ann Schimke/Chalkbeat
Fifth-graders practice mindfulness at Munroe Elementary School in Denver.

Educators, parents, and social workers told of students struggling with depression, younger and younger children attempting suicide, and youths ending up in prison. A bill approved Thursday by a Colorado House committee would pay for a three-year trial to provide social and emotional help for elementary students in the hopes of addressing some of these challenges.

If approved by the full legislature and signed into law, the measure would create a three-year pilot program at 10 high-needs schools. It is estimated to cost about $5 million a year. House Bill 1017 would place social workers, counselors or psychologists in every elementary grade at the test schools starting next year.

In an impassioned presentation, bill sponsor state Rep. Dafna Michaelson Jenet, a Commerce City Democrat, said schools need more social workers “to stop our children from dying by suicide, from ending up incarcerated, from being failed by our system.”

Suicide is a leading cause of death among youth ages 10 to 24 in Colorado, and advocates of the bill said schools are often ill-equipped to deal with children suffering from trauma, bullying and behavioral challenges.

The bill was scaled back from an original version that would have cost $16 million a year. Michaelson Jenet said the nearly $5 million annual cost would be funded in part by $2.5 million from the state’s marijuana cash fund, with the rest from private foundations.

The National Association of Social Workers recommends one social worker for every 250 students, and one for every 50 students at high-needs schools.

Colorado schools don’t come close to those numbers.

About one-third of the state’s 178 school districts employed social workers during the 2016-17 school year, the most recent for which data was available from the Colorado Department of Education. Those districts represented about 89 percent of that year’s 905,000 pre-K through 12th grade students.

The nearly 590 social workers employed worked out to less than one full-time employee per 1,000 students.

Englewood’s Sheridan School District had three social workers for 1,511 students, while Yuma County had 1½ social workers for 807 students.

The two largest districts, Denver and Jefferson County, employed more than one-third of school social workers that year, with more than one social worker for every 1,000 students. Denver voters approved a 2016 tax to help pay for more social workers.

But many districts have no social workers. And most school social workers are stretched thin.

Jessie Caggiano is a social worker who serves more than 3,000 students at four high schools in Weld County.

“I’m not able to meet with students effectively on a one-on-one basis, because I’m trying to implement other services schoolwide,” she said. “I’m only at each of my schools one day a week, so I’m not able to meet their needs by any means.”

Darlene Sampson, president of the Colorado chapter of the Association of Black Social Workers, recalled working at a Denver school when a student was killed in the cafeteria.

“Many kids are carrying their trauma in their backpacks into the school,” Sampson said.

And Cam Short-Camilli, representing the Colorado School Social Work Association, said students are facing increased emotional problems at most schools. The increase in youth suicide and suicide attempts is especially difficult, she said. One Denver incident last fall attracted national attention.

“Every school district, every student is impacted, that’s rural, urban, suburban schools,” Short-Camilli said. “In the past five years, I’ve been at elementary schools, and it’s been extremely shocking. Kids at those schools, there’s an immense ripple effect.”

But state Rep. James Wilson, a Salida Republican, questioned whether the pilot program would be possible to replicate because of the high number of professionals needed.

“I’m sitting here feeling like the Grinch,” Wilson said. “I cannot bring myself to put together an unrealistic pilot. Will it really work in the real world?”

State Rep. Janet Buckner, an Aurora Democrat, also expressed concerns, but voted for the bill.

“I’m concerned how we’re going to fund it,” she sad. “The suicide rate is off the chart and our kids need so much help. I don’t think we can wait. I have a lot of phone calls and emails about this bill, people who really need the help.”

HB-1017 next goes to the Appropriations Committee before being considered by the full House, then the Senate. It is one of several measures aimed at offering help for students and their families beyond academics at public schools.

Story time

This Memphis teacher’s favorite student didn’t stand for the Pledge of Allegiance. She taught him a powerful lesson.

PHOTO: Xzavier Bonds
Daniel Warner teaches at East High School in Memphis.

When one of Daniel Warner’s favorite students refused to stand for the Pledge of Allegiance, he could feel the tension in himself rising.

It was August 2017, the first week of classes, and Warner said he knew how important setting a tone was during the first few days of school.

“Didn’t my teacher prep program teach me that I have to set high expectations in that first week or the year is lost?” asked Warner, a U.S. history teacher at East High School in Memphis. “If I don’t set those, we’re done for.”

But before Warner reacted, he said he took a few moments to reflect on what could be going through her head.

Chalkbeat TN Storytelling Event
PHOTO: Xzavier Bonds
Daniel Warner tells his story to a crowded room.

It was the Monday after a violent white supremacists rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. Stories of former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick were again dominating the news, as he remained ostracized for kneeling during the national anthem to protest police brutality.

Instead of punishing her, Warner said, he refocused on what she might be thinking through as a black American high schooler.

“The lesson she taught me that day was that some of the most harmful instances of school discipline happen when we are too focused on ourselves as teachers,” Warner said.

Warner was one of seven educators and students who participated in a February story storytelling night hosted by Chalkbeat Tennessee, Spillit, and The Knowledge Tree. The stories told centered around school discipline practices, a topic Chalkbeat recently dove into in this special report.

Video Credit: Gillian Wenhold, The Social Exchange. The Social Exchange is a pay-as-you can PR & content creation firm for nonprofits and responsible, women/minority owned businesses.

Here’s an edited transcript of Warner’s story. It has been lightly edited for length and clarity:

It’s a week into school in early August. And kids are just trickling into my senior homeroom mostly asleep, sitting quietly in their desk as 18-year-olds do at 7:15 in the morning…And then morning announcements come on. “Please stand for the Pledge of Allegiance.”

So I stand up, and I say, “Alright y’all, go ahead and stand up with me.” I see these seniors throwing their bodies out of their seats, trying to stand up while they are still asleep. And almost everyone stands up but one girl doesn’t…  

So, my eyes meet this girls eyes as she stays in her seat during the pledge. And I can feel the tension in me of my authority being challenged in the room. And I wonder if everyone else is looking at me, my other students. So I give her a teacher look meant to communicate, “Are you going to stand up?” And she looks at me from across the room and shakes her head and mouths, “I can’t.”

So this student was one of my best students the year before in honors U.S. History. She engaged deeply with the material and personally. She asked questions of herself, of her country, of democracy, what this whole thing is about. She processed the double consciousness she feels of being both black and American. And she did so while being kind, thoughtful hardworking. The student you think of that makes you want to cry, you love that kid so much. I wonder what’s going on, what is she thinking about…

This is a Monday and the weekend before had been the white supremacists march in Charlottesville… When she told me, that she couldn’t stand, I went and sat in the desk next to her…I asked, “What’s keeping you from standing up?”

She started by saying, “I hate,” and she stopped herself. She took a breath, calmed herself down and said, “I just can’t.” And so we just sat there for a second. I could see as I got closer to her that she was flooded with emotion and feeling something deeply. And so we let the announcements end and I tell her, “When I say the pledge I say it more as a hope and a prayer…that there would be liberty and justice for all.” She said, “Yeah, I was thinking about that,” like a good U.S. History student, but she said “things don’t’ seem to be headed that way right now…

The lesson she taught me that day was that some of the most harmful instances of school discipline happen when we are too focused on ourselves as teachers. She showed me that I was a little too focused on how I was being perceived by other students in the classroom. And that I wasn’t focused enough on her and what she might be processing. As teachers, we have all of this opportunity to escalate conflict, I’ve done it plenty of times. But we also have an opportunity to be gracious to students who are working out who they are in public…

This girl wasn’t being disengaged by saying no to me, she was being especially engaged with who she is… When we talk about restorative justice, the first step we have to take is for us as educators and adults, and it’s doing your own emotional work. And we have to ask ourselves questions about our identities. You can only lead someone somewhere if you’ve gone there yourself…

What is it about us when it sets us off when a kid says no to us? Why are we that insecure? … When we pay attention to ourselves, our emotional status, the hurt we’ve felt, the pain we’ve lived through, that is when we can begin paying attention to how formative schools are. They are spaces where folks are working out their identities in public, and that’s when you feel the most self conscious and vulnerable and in need of grace offered by someone else.

So, I hope as we talk about this, we think of ways where we can make school a space for people to be figuring out who they are and not just punished into compliance. In high poverty schools, you talk about compliance like it’s the ultimate behavior. I hope we can make schools where students can learn what it is to seek justice, even when and especially when, things just don’t seem to be headed that way right now.