Don’t Boo, Vote

Just voted in our VA state primary.

The last time I left this polling place, my heart was full of hope and love. And I spent the next day crying.

I still love you, America. I love our ideals, and I love that I have the freedom to call out the many ways that we fail to live up to our ideals. You – we – are far from perfect, but I can hold my little girl’s hand as I walk into a local school to vote. And for that I am grateful.

Memorial Day 2017

Vietnam veteran & Senator Jim Webb’s book Fields of Fire starts with the dedication: “For the 100,000 Marines who became casualties in Vietnam. And for the others who became casualties upon their return.”

In one passage, a staff sergeant in Vietnam says, “It ain’t what happens here that’s important. it’s what’s happening back there. Shit, Lieutenant, you’d hardly know there was a war on. It’s in the papers, and college kids run around screaming about it instead of doing panty raids or whatever they were running around doing before, but that’s it. Airplane drivers still drive their airplanes. Businessman still run their businesses. College kids still go to college. It’s like nothing really happened, except to other people. It isn’t touching anybody except us. It makes me sick, Lieutenant.”

It was about a different war and a different time, but I think it still has a message for us on Memorial Day about how we treat our military and allow them to bear what should be a collective burden. Our soldiers and their families should always be well cared for and should not bear the burden of war alone.

Consider supporting an organization like Wounded Warrior Project and, importantly, others that lobby Congress for better policies that take care of our soldiers, like Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA).

You can also take a pledge on the IAVA website to hold a moment of silence today at 3 pm, in honor of fallen soldiers.

They came with torches & hate; we come with candles & love

This past weekend, Charlottesville made national news when dozens of people with torches – yes, torches – converged on Lee Park in downtown Cville. They were goaded on by Richard Spencer, a white nationalist. It was an apparent protest against the city’s decision to rename Lee (as in Robert E. Lee) and Jackson (as in Stonewall Jackson) Parks and sell the enormous statues of Lee and Jackson that sit in the parks.

I moved to Charlottesville a few years ago, and never have I lived in a town with such simmering racial tension. Of course, racism is everywhere, but it feels especially poignant and always below the surface here. Maybe it’s the memory that Charlottesville decided to close its schools rather than integrate its students in the 1950s. Maybe it’s the fact that in 1963, even the Unitarians – the liberal Unitarians! – told their pastor that he could not drape the church in black as a sign of grief over the deaths of the four black girls killed in the Birmingham church that was bombed by the KKK.

Or maybe, just maybe, it is because we sit in the long shadow of a plantation on a hill that robbed children and women and men of their freedom and autonomy. We call the owner of that plantation, the enslaver of people, Mr. Jefferson.

Racism is Charlottesville’s past, and it is our present. On Saturday, racism showed up as a torch, a menacing reminder of white hoods and of torches lighting crosses on fire. Every day, the subtler-but-devastating racism of housing discrimination and a disproportionate number of black youths getting caught in the juvenile justice system shows up.

We can make Charlottesville’s future different. White people like me can support people of color who are working for change in Charlottesville, through organizations like our local NAACP, Black Lives Matter, Showing Up for Racial Justice, Legal Aid Justice Center, and the Women’s Initiative – which offers, among other things, support groups and services to women of color – to name a few.

May 14: Hundreds lift candles in Lee Park in support of equality. Photo: Ethan Tate

And when they come with their torches, we will lift our candles and speak with a fierce love, as did hundreds of people in Lee Park on Sunday night.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who fought apartheid in his home country of South Africa, wrote this beautiful prayer:
Goodness is stronger than evil;
Love is stronger than hate;
Light is stronger than darkness;
Life is stronger than death;
Victory is ours through Him who loves us.

May it be so. May we make it so.

* * * * *

Further reading from local sources:

May 17
The NAACP is scheduled to hold a press conference today, Wednesday, May 17, at 11 am
City Councilors respond to Lee statue protest (Cavalier Daily)

May 16
At Lee Park, Perriello says state should end Lee-Jackson holiday (Daily Progress)

May 14
Candlelit counter-protest follows ‘alt-right’ torch bearers at Lee Park  (Daily Progress)

May 13
Torch-wielding protesters gather at Lee Park (Daily Progress)

Update: My visit to CCS School Health Advisory Board

In a campaign to end weigh-ins and taking away recess in Charlottesville City Schools (CCS), I attended a meeting of the CCS School Health Advisory Board (SHAB) this past Tuesday, May 9. Below is a summary (the tl;dr version!), a full update, next actions, and a list of news coverage we’ve received.

If you haven’t already, please do share the petition with your friends! It would be great to reach 100 supporters, to make sure that the school board follows through with their commitment to recess and consideration of the weigh-in policy.

Summary

  • CCS Superintendent Dr. Rosa Atkins made an unequivocal statement that recess should not and will not be taken away from students. She says the responsibility for ensuring it doesn’t happen lies with her. If a parent has a concern about recess, they may email her directly: atkinsr1@charlottesvilleschools.org.
  • Weigh-ins have been suspended in CCS. The practice is being reviewed by SHAB. If I understand correctly, they are going to further discuss the practice of weigh-ins. In August, they will present to the board a draft of a revised wellness policy, and that will include a recommendation regarding weigh-ins.

Full update
The most notable part of the meeting was that CCS Superintendent Dr. Rosa Atkins was there and stated unequivocally that recess should not and will not be taken away from students. A parent who has served on SHAB for awhile asked, “When we hear from our students that it’s happening, whose responsibility is it to make it stop?” Dr. Atkins replied that she would take responsibility and that any parent with concerns about recess being taken away may email her directly: atkinsr1@charlottesvilleschools.org.

I was very pleased with Dr. Atkins’ definitive statement. Yesterday, May 11, I emailed Dr. Atkins, asking, 1) What behavior management tools will be given to teachers to replace Recess Academy, for those who were using it?, and 2) Could you please send written communication to all CCS teachers and parents stating the renewed commitment to recess.

I have pasted below a copy of that email. I will post another update when I hear back from Dr. Atkins.

Note: it seemed at the May 4 school board meeting that Dr. Atkins and Assistant Superintendent for Curriculum James Henderson stated that the CCS Policy Manual prohibited taking away recess as punishment. However, I could not find such a regulation in the manual. At the SHAB meeting, I asked Dr. Atkins for clarification, and she said that indeed there was no such prohibition in the policy manual.

Regarding the weigh-ins, they are currently suspended and have been since late March. During the suspension, the practice of weigh-ins is being reviewed – I believe by the SHAB and Patrick Johnson, CCS oordinator of Health and Physical Education. I asked Mr. Johnson what prompted the suspension but have not heard back yet. I emailed Dr. Atkins about weigh-ins and recess in March, but it is not clear that is the reason for the suspension.

It is clear, however, that Johnson and the members of the SHAB have been thinking about weigh-ins and recess policy for awhile. In the past few months, they have drafted a new wellness policy, including a prohibition on taking away recess as punishment.

If I understood correctly, SHAB will again discuss weigh-ins at their July meeting. The new wellness policy will be presented to the school board at their August meeting. I am not clear on whether the wellness policy is binding or if a regulation has to be included in the policy manual to be binding.

Next actions

  • I hope to hear from Dr. Atkins about what behavior tools will be provided to teachers instead of Recess Academy. There are good teachers who were instructed to use Recess Academy. I want to make sure they have the support they need to transition to other methods of behavior management.
  • I plan to attend the July SHAB meeting and the August school board meeting, with the intention of being part of the discussion regarding weigh-ins.
  • I will clarify with a school board member or CCS employee whether the wellness policy is binding. If it is not, then I will push for a prohibition against recess-as-punishment to be included in the policy manual.

Our campaign in the news
May 4

May 9

Email to Dr. Atkins
Dear Dr. Atkins,
Thank you again for your powerful, definitive statement at the School Health Advisory Board on Tuesday afternoon, that recess should not and will not be taken away in Charlottesville city schools , and that any parent who hears that this has happened may email you directly to address it.

I have two follow up questions I hope you might be able to address:
1) What behavior management tools will be given to teachers instead, in the short term? When we spoke after the meeting, you mentioned the VTTS program. That sounds like a positive plan to be implementing, but I am wondering about, e.g., teachers who are caring and good at their jobs, but nonetheless have still been taking away recess minutes. Will those teachers have support from the principals and you to come up with alternative methods for the last few weeks of this school year?

2) I know you are personally communicating with principals the renewed commitment to recess. Could you also provide an email or written communication that could go out to teachers and to all CCS parents, so that all have a statement from you, to which they can point if there is confusion over Recess Academy or other forms of taking away recess?

Again, I really appreciate the thought and time you’ve given to this. Additionally, it is obvious there are many people in CCS who have been working on these issues for some time. I have been particularly impressed by Patrick Johnson and the work of SHAB.

Thank you again.
Best wishes,
Christa

*****

Read my May 4 statement to the CCS School Board here.
Read evidence supporting my request to end weigh-ins and taking away recess here and here.
Sign the petition to end weigh-ins and taking away recess here.

In the news: Campaign to end weigh-ins, recess being taken away in Charlottesville city schools

Our campaign in the news
May 4

May 9

May 24

Videos: Petition to stop weigh-ins and taking away recess at Charlottesville city schools

Below: My presentation to the school board of the Charlottesville City Schools to end weigh-ins and taking away recess at CCS. Read a transcript of the video here.

Below: James Henderson, CCS Assistant Superintendent for Curriculum, and Patrick Johnson, CCS Coordinator of Health and Physical Education, respond to my presentation to the CCS School Board. Read a summary of the board’s response and the transcript of the video here.

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.