First Person

Getting rid of "candy bribery" in schools

Samara Williams’ candy epiphany came on the morning she saw the dental van parked in front of Rose Hill Elementary, and the volunteers preparing to provide free teeth cleanings for second graders.

Rose Hill Elementary kindergartener Aaliyah Lovelace chooses a reward from among pencils, temporary tattoos and other non-food treasures offered by principal Samara Williams.

Rose Hill, in Commerce City, serves some of the poorest kids in the metro area and dental care is a precious commodity that many of their parents simply can’t afford.

Suddenly, it all clicked for Williams, the school principal. Why, she wondered, would the school arrange to clean the kids’ teeth in the morning and then pass out candy in the afternoon?

“It’s just not right,” said Williams. “It really is an ethical and a moral thing.”

Teachers have long used candy the way dog trainers use Liver Snaps. It’s motivation. A Jolly Rancher can buy a few minutes of silence, or reward a right answer to a math problem. A Tootsie Roll tells a kid “Great job!” A pack of Skittles says “Thanks for doing your best on this test.” And the promise of a Snickers can still rambunctious youngsters who need to settle down.

Candy: cheap, easy and effective

Candy is cheap, it’s readily available, and it’s one of the most effective child behavior modification tools in an adult’s arsenal. It’s time-tested. And that’s why candy trafficking in the classroom is so widespread.

Some would say pernicious. It’s everywhere, and who but the crankiest fussbudget would object to some sweet bite-sized rewards? It’s not like teachers are handing out triple-scoop ice cream cones.

But increasing numbers of educators – and vast numbers of parents – don’t see it that way anymore. As schools across the nation have banned sugar-sweetened sodas and chocolate milk, gotten rid of vending machines and upgraded school lunches to be healthier and more nutritious, candy in the classroom is also getting a critical evaluation.

At Rose Hill, where Williams had steadily been promoting a schoolwide wellness initiative, she’d been asking teachers for two years to stop giving out candy. Finally, in December, she issued an ultimatum.

“I said ‘Those of you with a stash of candy, give it out during Christmas, give it to your own kids, but we are NOT giving our kids candy any more,’ ” she said. “If I’d said this on the first day I got there, nobody would have listened to me, and I would have gotten a lot of pushback. But because this was gradual, because we’d been moving in this direction for five years, I didn’t.”

Going through a Costco-sized bag every month

Sigrid Bowen, a first-grade teacher at Rose Hill, initially was skeptical. She’s been teaching for 16 years.

“And we’ve always used candy,” she said. Typically, she’d go through a large Costco-sized bag of candy every month. “It was something that was second nature. I remember wondering what we could give in place of it.”

Now, Rose Hill students vie for Positive Action Tickets, which they can exchange for non-food goodies such as temporary tattoos, pencils, calendars, ink stamps, books and other childish treasures. Bowen has also started rewarding her class with “two-minute dance parties.”

“It’s exercise and kids love it,” she said. “They love the other things too. It’s a great incentive for them.”

Classroom parties, too, have changed. Parents who host the parties are asked to bring healthier items and skip the cupcakes and ice cream of years past.

Kids as candy magnets

Rainey Wikstrom, school wellness consultant for the Adams County District 14 schools, is tickled by what Rose Hill is doing. She wishes her own children, who go to school in Boulder County, had the same classroom candy restrictions.

“It happens in every school unless there’s a firm policy,” Wikstrom said. “The thing that’s so insidious, if you have six classes a day, and every teacher gives you a piece of candy, if you calculate the amount of sugar, it’s huge. It places a huge burden on kids – a health burden and a dental burden. It’s not the way we want to motivate kids.”

Her own children, she acknowledges, have always been candy magnets.

“My daughter plays 15 minutes of a soccer game and comes home with 450 calories of cupcakes and juice drink a parent brought,” she said. “People assume it’s okay to feed kids anything at anytime, whether it’s a teacher, other parents or an elderly neighbor. It happens everywhere. It’s all with good intentions, but it’s having disastrous effects on children’s health.”

Julie Kerwin, the mother of a kindergartener and a second grader at Shelton Elementary in Golden, was astounded by the amount of candy her daughter got last year in first grade.

“It was almost daily,” she said. “Every day they had a competition, boys versus girls, to see who had more good behavior points at the end of the day, and in first grade, the girls tend to win. So they would all get a piece of candy.”

“I understand teachers have a classroom to control,” Kerwin said. “But as a parent, it was very annoying to me.”

Classrooom parties, fund-raisers also a challenge

When Kerwin wound up on a school wellness committee, she pushed putting a stop to all food rewards. And for the most part, she thinks it’s worked.

“I think maybe one or two teachers will give out candy, but most don’t,” she said.

Harder than ending candy rewards was getting parents to go along with the new classroom party policy: Now, at least 75 percent of the foods served in classroom parties at Shelton must be “healthy.”

“And my idea of healthy includes pizza,” Kerwin said. “But we’re trying to put a stop to the cupcakes and ice cream. There’s been a lot more pushback about that.”

The PTA also had to rethink its fund-raising strategies.

“When we had fund-raisers, the classroom that raised the most got a pizza party, and second place was an ice cream party,” Kerwin said. “That had to stop. So we decided to give out no rewards at all.

“And you know what? We raised the same amount of money.”

First Person

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Grace Tatter covers a press conference at the Tennessee State Capitol in 2015.

For three years, I covered the Statehouse for Chalkbeat Tennessee, reporting on how policies from Nashville trickled down into more than 1,800 public schools across the state.

Now I’m starting back to school myself, pursuing graduate studies aimed at helping me to become a better education journalist. I’m taking with me six things I learned on the job about public education in Tennessee.

1. Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.

I heard from hundreds of parents, educators, and students who were passionate about what’s happening — good and bad — inside of schools. I covered crowded school board meetings and regularly scrambled for an open seat at legislative hearings where parents had filled the room after driving since dawn to beat the opening gavel. Not incidentally, those parents usually came from communities with the “worst” schools and the lowest test scores. While many disagreements exist about the best way to run schools, there is no shortage of people, particularly parents and educators, who care.

2. Tennessee has one of the most fascinating education stories in America.

I’ve had a front-row seat to massive changes in K-12 education under reforms ushered in by Race to the Top — an overhaul being tracked closely well beyond the state’s borders. But the national interest and import doesn’t end with changes stemming from the $500 million federal award. Tennessee is home to some of the nation’s premier education researchers, making its classrooms laboratories for new ideas about pre-K, school turnaround, and literacy instruction, just to name a few. And at the legislature, more lobbyists are devoted to education than to most any other cause. A lot of eyes are on Tennessee schools.

3. The education community is not as divided as it looks.

During the course of just a few years, I watched state lawmakers change their positions on accountability and school vouchers. I witnessed “anti-charter” activists praise charter leaders for their work. I chronicled task force meetings where state leaders who were committed to standardized testing found middle ground with classroom educators concerned that it’s gone too far. In short, a lot of people listened to each other and changed their minds. Watching such consensus-building reminded me that, while there are no simple debates about education, there is a widespread commitment to making it better.

4. Money matters.

Even when stories don’t seem to be about money, they usually are. How much money is being spent on testing, teacher salaries, school discipline reform? How much should be available for wraparound services? Why do some schools have more money than others? Is there enough to go around? Tennessee leaders have steadily upped public education spending, but the state still invests less than most other states, and the disparities among districts are gaping. That’s why more than a handful of school districts are battling with the state in court. Conversations about money are inextricable from conversations about improving schools.

5. Race is a significant education issue, but few leaders are willing to have that conversation.

More than 60 years after Brown v. Board of Education, Tennessee’s schools are largely racially segregated. Yet most policymakers tread lightly, if ever, into conversations about achieving real racial integration. And in many cases — such as a 2011 law enabling mostly white suburban Shelby County towns to secede from the mostly black Memphis district — they’ve actually gone backwards. Then there’s the achievement data. The annual release of test scores unleashes a flurry of conversation around the racial achievement gap. But the other 11 months of the year, I heard little about whether state and local policies are closing those gaps — or contributing to them — or the historical reasons why the gaps exist in the first place. To be sure, state leadership is trying to address some of Tennessee’s shortcomings. For example, the State Department of Education has launched modestly funded initiatives to recruit more teachers of color. But often, race and racism are the elephants in the room.

6. Still, there’s lots to celebrate.

If there were unlimited hours in the day, I could have written thousands of stories about what’s going right in public education. Every day, I received story ideas about collaborations with NASA in Oak Ridge, high school trips to Europe from Memphis, gourmet school lunches in Tullahoma, and learning partnerships with the Nashville Zoo. Even in schools with the steepest challenges, they were stories that inspire happiness and hope. They certainly inspired me.

Grace Tatter graduated from public schools in Winston-Salem, N.C., and received her bachelor’s degree in history from the University of North Carolina. She’s now pursuing a master’s degree in specialized studies at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

First Person

I’m a Houston geography teacher. This is my plan for our first day back — as soon as it arrives

PHOTO: Creative Commons / Texas Military Department
Texas National Guard soldiers arrive in Houston, Texas to aid citizens in heavily flooded areas from the storms of Hurricane Harvey.

Hurricane Harvey has upended so many things here in Houston, where I am starting my third year as a teacher. One of them is the lesson I am planning for the first day of school — as soon as it arrives.

This upheaval is nothing compared to what people across the city have faced, including my students, who have been sending me photos of evacuation boats going past their houses.

But it is fundamental to the task of being a teacher at a time of crisis. As an A.P. Human Geography teacher, my job is to help students make connections between the geography concepts we are learning in class and their real lives: Does Houston look like the models of urban development we study? Does their family history include a migration?

Before the storm, my thinking went like this: I am white and was born in England and most of my students are Hispanic, many with parents who were born in other countries. I was excited for us to share and compare our different stories. My students last year were shocked and fascinated when they discovered that my white, middle-aged father who is a university professor was applying for a green card, just as many of their family members were.

Now, Hurricane Harvey has underlined for me the importance of those real-world connections. As I looked at the photos from my students, I was struck by how geography concepts can affect us in very real — even life-threatening — ways.

I had planned to teach a lesson at the end of the year about how urbanization affects the environment. The lesson looks at how urbanization can exacerbate flooding: for example, how paving over grassy areas can increase the speed with which rain reaches the bayous, causing the water levels to rise faster. I would then have students evaluate different policies cities can adopt to mitigate that risk, such as encouraging the building on brownfield rather than greenfield sites and passing laws to protect farmland — options that have significant benefits but also significant costs.

I have decided to move this lesson up in the curriculum and teach it when we have school again. School is scheduled to start again on Tuesday, though at this stage everything is provisional, as each hour we find out about more families that have had their homes destroyed by the rising waters. It is still unclear how all our staff, let alone students, will get to school.

I am worried that the lesson could re-traumatize students who have experienced so much trauma in the past few days. I know I will need to make an active effort to make students feel comfortable stepping into the hall if they are feeling overwhelmed. However, my experiences with the recent presidential election make me think that this lesson is exactly what some students might need.

After the election, many students were genuinely confused about what had happened. One question in particular was on their minds: How you can you win the popular vote but not the election? We talked through the Electoral College together, and having clarity about what had happened and why it happened seemed to give them a firmer foundation to build on as they processed their emotions. I am hopeful that teaching about flooding will help ground them in a similar way.

This lesson about flooding was once simply another lesson in the curriculum, but now it has taken on a new urgency. In moments of disaster, it is easy to feel powerless; I certainly could not help the people I saw posting on Facebook that they were been on hold with 911 for hours while standing on their roofs.

Yet teachers have a unique power — the power to shape the minds of future generations to solve the problems that we face. Houston’s location means that it will always be susceptible to flooding. But by teaching about the flood I hope I can play a small role in helping our city avoid repeating some of the tragic scenes I witnessed this week.

Alex McNaughton teaches history and geography at YES Prep Southeast in Houston.

Looking to help? YES Prep is collecting donations to support its students and their families. Houston ISD and KIPP Houston are also soliciting donations for their students.