Update: My visit to Charlottesville City School Board

Last Thursday, May 4, I asked the Charlottesville City School Board to examine and consider ending two practices of Charlottesville city schools: weighing students every year in gym class and taking away recess time as punishment.

Read my full statement here.
Read evidence supporting my request to end these policies here and here.
Sign the petition to end weigh-ins and taking away recess here.

This post includes:
I. The board’s response: a summary
II. My take
III. The answers to my original questions
IV. The board’s response: full transcript

I. The board’s response: a summary

  • Weigh-ins are an optional part of a Virginia Department of Education physical fitness test. However, it was also stated that the Move to Health Organization is part of the School Health Advisory Board, and they want the data “to see where we’re at and what change we need to make with our community.”
  • Weigh-ins are currently suspended (it wasn’t stated why).
  • Patrick Johnson, Coordinator of Health and Physical Education, reported that PE teachers “don’t think [weighing students] an effective practice.”
  • Taking away recess as punishment, or Recess Academy, originated in Jackson-Via and Cale Elementary Schools about three or four years ago when administrators and teachers at the school read the book Setting Limits in the Classroom, which recommends the use of Recess Academy.
  • The School Health Advisory Board are reviewing both policies (weigh-ins and taking away recess). Their next meeting is Tuesday, May 9.
  • Rosa Atkins, CCS Superintendent, said that Recess Academy is used “just as a quick check. It is never their intent to take away recess from any of the students.”
  • Because of Dr. Atkins’ comment, I decided to stay until the end of the meeting, when public comment was again open. I appreciate Dr. Atkins’ understanding, but the stories about Recess Academy that I have heard indicates that it is not the case that it is used only as a quick check. Half or even whole classes sometimes have their recess taken away. There are children who have their recess taken away almost every day. I stated to the board that it is difficult as a parent to see that there is such a disconnect between what is happening on the ground and what the school board is aware of. However, I do know that we are all on the same team, wanting what is best for our students.
  • Board member Jennifer McKeever asked and Assistant Superintendent for Curriculum James Henderson confirmed that recess taken away as punishment is discouraged in the wellness policy but is explicitly prohibited by another set of guidelines. I couldn’t catch what the other guidelines were called.
  • School Board Chair Juandiego Wade concluded the conversation about Recess Academy with, “It comes down to what policy says and what’s in practice. I think there is a gap there.”

II. My take

  • First and very importantly, I support our teachers. I want to advocate for them to have the resources they need, including in directing the behavior of students. Whether that is training in alternative methods for discipline, assistants in the classroom, or something else, if we can identify what is needed to stop the use of Recess Academy, I want to be part of helping teachers get it.
  • There are some wonderful things happening in Cville city schools. Patricia Jennings, an associate professor at UVA, talked about mindfulness training she is doing with teachers. As she was talking, I was thinking, “This is exactly the antidote to Recess Academy!”
  • There is also a program called Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports. Taking away recess is against its ethos, according to James Henderson Assistant Superintendent for Curriculum, who spoke at the meeting.
  • When Dr. Atkins stated that Recess Academy is used “just as a quick check,” I wasn’t clear if she thought that was ok, i.e., that taking away recess if it is ‘just quickly’ is acceptable. Other than that, there was no one on the board who voiced support for Recess Academy. It seemed to me that everyone was in agreement that taking away recess was not good – and, indeed, is against policy.
  • Similarly, all of the board members seemed very open and even eager to have the weigh-in policy reviewed.
  • It seems it would be beneficial for school board members to make unannounced visits to schools to see how things work on normal days. Stopping by during recess periods might give insight into how Recess Academy is used and/or ensure that it is not being used, as well as give teachers and students the opportunity to communicate with the board.
  • I am going to attend the School Health Advisory Board meeting tomorrow. I will ask:
    1) Now that the issue is highlighted, how is it going to be communicated to teachers that taking away recess, whether it is called Recess Academy or something else, is against policy and cannot be done?
    2) What behavior management/discipline tools do teachers have instead of taking away recess?
    3) Why were the weigh-ins suspended and will/when will they resume?
  • I hope that I can be part of the conversation about whether weigh-ins will occur. If they do continue, I will strongly urge that all parents be notified both before children are weighed and be told that they have the option to decline to have their children weighed.

III. The answers to my original questions

1) What federal, state, or local statutes mandate these policies?
Weigh-ins: There is a physical fitness test that is organized (unclear if it is required?) by the Virginia Department of Education. It includes a height weight category. However, the VDOE has “put” it “as a local decision” and “It’s optional.”

Recess Academy: Taking away recess is not mandated by any entity. Three to four years ago, Jackson-Via and Cale Elementary Schools read a book called Setting Limits in the Classroom, that recommended the use of Recess Academy. They have been using the practice of Recess Academy since then. It is not clear whether any other elementary schools also practice taking away recess as punishment.

2) Are the policies regularly reviewed, with consideration for updating them to reflect evolving research regarding physical and academic fitness?
Yes, the School Health Advisory Board is reviewing both policies. They next meet on Tuesday, May 9. I will attend that meeting.

3) If Recess Academy is not a legally mandated policy but rather a practice, why is it being practiced and where did it originate?
See above – it originated from a book called Setting Limits in the Classroom. As I understood it, board member Jennifer McKeever asked and Assistant Superintendent for Curriculum James Henderson confirmed that recess taken away as punishment is discouraged in the wellness policy but is explicitly prohibited by another set of guidelines. I couldn’t catch what the other guidelines were called.

IV. The board’s response: transcript
After I spoke, James Henderson, Assistant Superintendent for Curriculum, and Patrick Johnson, Coordinator of Health and Physical Education, were on hand to address the issues of weigh-ins and taking away recess as punishment. I recorded their remarks. Below is a transcript of that recording.

Jennifer McKeever (Board Member): So are we collecting that data [students’ weights] for our community?

James Henderson (Assistant Superintendent for Curriculum): That was our policy in 2011. We’re revisiting now, and Patrick’s going to tell you where we are now.

McKeever: And just to be clear about our recess policy, our policy says that we do not use recess as punishment?

Henderson: Overall, we did. I can only speak when I was a principal. I did not. I –

McKeever: Our policy –

Henderson: Take recess –

(crosstalk)

Henderson: And we do [have a policy]. And I think we’ll address. But that’s – you’re absolutely right.

Juandiego Wade (Board Chair): And so what we’re going to do is that we’re going to have Patrick to address that and then we’re going to have Rosa to address the recess issue. So if we could – we have a long agenda, so if you could –

Patrick Johnson (Coordinator of Health and Physical Education): Ok, I’ll be quick. School Board, Dr. Atkins. So SHAB (School Health Advisory Board) meets May 9th, actually. What I’ve done, based on some reaction from physical educators and from community parents is I’ve put a stop to collecting height weight data right now for our PE teachers. So we are not collecting height weight data currently. As part of our physical (unclear) fitness test, height weight was one of the categories. That was a reportable category. It’s been put by the VDOE (Virginia Department of Education) as a local decision. It’s optional. When I look back at our wellness policy, in order for us to get the BMI numbers, the height weight – and then it told us the percentage of our kids that were failing based on their height weight and didn’t go by name, it was a report that was printed, and I have some copies of it, that just said 75% of our, of Venable’s first grade class is under their BMI level. 25% is classified as obese. That was the data we were collecting. I do agree that PE is probably not the best place for that. And that’s something we’re going to talk to SHAB about. Our PE teachers this year have done a pretty good job. And if I hear differently, of course I’ll address it, but putting the scale in their office so that it’s a station where one kid comes through as they’re doing other things. But currently we’ve stopped it. SHAB, it is on the agenda to discuss this specifically, to discuss whether or not we think this is something that needs to go in the wellness policy. So it is being addressed, and I will tell you that our PE teachers will be happy to not do it. They don’t think it’s an effective practice, because we are not discussing this with kids later, based on if they are obese. We are not following through with that discussion. It was more for our community to know the obesity rates in our city schools.

Amy Laufer (Board Member): Now was that part of the City Task Force, because I know they were collecting information.

Johnson: It was, and we currently have the Move to Health Organization, we have many of those members on SHAB, and they’re the individuals in the community from Thomas Jefferson, who want this data to see where we’re at and what change we need to make with our community. With vending machines, and all those. And I go to those meetings. So they try to use the data to base off some of our community resources, how we use our gardens, and different things. If we do need this data, we just need to find a better way to get it, in my opinion.

Laufer: Is there any way to engage, you know, pediatrician offices? Would they be able to –

Johnson: I think that’s where we need to go, and I think that’s what we need to discuss. Whether we go through doctor’s offices or if there’s a parent that’s concerned about height weight of a child, when we do our screenings for hearing and vision, why not go through the nurse’s office to get the height weight instead of doing it in a PE class.

Wade: We’ll discuss this more once, after the SHAB meeting. We’ll get (unclear). Rosa, did you want to address the –

Rosa Atkins (Superintendent): I did see, Patrick Farrell was there –

Henderson: About recess? Yes. Here again, Patrick can (unclear). About three or four years ago, prior to PBIS (Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports), Jackson-Via and Clark Elementary School were reading a book, Setting Limits in the Classroom. Teachers were using it as a book talk. In that text, Recess Academy was one of the strategies that those authors utilized. So, for them to work through making changes to create a positive climate, pros and cons with that is that they went to this Recess Academy. Since PBIS has come aboard, and since we’re now rolling that out as of last year, looking at positive climate in a different way, looking at how we look at first instruction, or in this case creating the first step in positive climate in our schools, taking away recess isn’t part of PBIS, and so that will be changing. And also, we’re going to clearly align that with our wellness policy.

Atkins: I have had an opportunity to check in with the school, and they use it just as a quick check. It is never their intent to take away recess from any of the students. So they’ll make an – do some deeper investigation to find out and make sure that it is just a quick check, and Jackson-Via does have two recess periods at the school, where the students get out twice a day. It is not their intent to ever take away recess from any student.

Johnson: I did meet with every principal about recess, because of the new law (unclear) that’s getting rolled out with the activity minutes that we have to have, and every principal said it’s strongly discouraged, but we do know that there are situations, so – we’ve met with them, we’re also putting that in the wellness policy. We’re updating all the physical activity portion of the wellness policy, which will include the – not taking away recess and ensuring that each kid gets that over 100 minutes. We’re actually at over 200 minutes per school right now, so we’re doubling the number that the state’s asking, but we’re going to make sure it’s written clearly in the wellness policy.

Wade: Thank you very much.

I then had to wait through the entire board meeting (another three hours!) for the next public comment period. I was supposed to leave early to watch Emma’s basketball game, but I decided I needed to stay. It was important for me to address Dr. Atkins’ statement that there is no intent to take away a student’s recess and that Recess Academy is “just a quick check.”

During my second comments (not recorded, unfortunately. Cville Tomorrow did include the gist of my comments in an article about the meeting), I said the following:

  • I appreciate the board considering these issues and the response from Mr. Johnson and Mr. Henderson.
  • I want to address Dr. Atkins’ statement that Recess Academy is used sparingly. I appreciate and understand that is Dr. Atkins’ understanding, but that is not accurate. Whole classes sometimes have their recess taken away. There are children who have their recess taken away almost every day.
  • It is difficult as a parent to see that there is such a disconnect between what is happening on the ground and what the school board is aware of.
  • I appreciate Mr. Johnson’s suggestion that weighing students in a private office is a better idea. However, any time students are being weighed, it may be problematic. Even when it is done more privately, if a whole class is being weighed, kids still ask and talk about each other’s weights during weigh-ins.
  • In Emma’s gym class, a paper with the students’ weights listed was left by the teacher in the middle of the gym, where students could see it.
  • I don’t blame anyone for this, but a better system needs to be in place.
  • Again, I want to know how I can advocate for teachers to have the resources they need.
  • I know that we are all on the same team, wanting the best for our students. These things are no one’s fault; they simply need to be changed.

After I spoke for the second time, Mr. Wade thanked me for talking about my concerns. The board members then talked about both of the policies. There were two main comments. Ms. McKeever asked Mr. Henderson to confirm that recess taken away as punishment is discouraged in the wellness policy but is explicitly prohibited by another set of guidelines, which he did. I couldn’t catch what the other guidelines were called.

Ms. Laufer suggested that teachers could be asked how Recess Academy was being used. It wasn’t clear to me, though, whether it was agreed that would be done and, if so, who would do it.

 

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