The city today announced a 10-year plan to remove and replace all school lighting fixtures contaminated with PCBs, allocating $708 million in its capital budget to implement the plan which will also include an audit and recommendations by energy companies to determine  how to improve energy efficiency in each school.

The plan "will not only reduce any potential exposure to PCBs," the announcement states, "but is expected to reduce the City's greenhouse gas emissions by more than 200,000 metric tons per year - the equivalent of removing more than 40,000 cars from the road."

The announcement follows a month in which an alarming amount of PCBs - persistent man-made chemicals that have been linked to myriad toxic effects, ranging from immune suppression to cancer, and most recently, to high blood pressure - have been found to be leaking from light fixtures in several schools.

Parents have been pushing the Department of Education to act on this since even before the Environmental Protection Agency put the New York City Department of Education and the School Construction Authority on notice, that either they begin the process of inspecting and removing contaminated light fixtures, or the EPA would start sending its own personnel into schools to inspect them.

The DOE said they would prioritize schools for new or retrofitted fixtures in this order: (1) schools with visual leaks, (2) elementary schools built between 1950 and 1966, (3) secondary schools built between 1950 and 1966, (4) elementary schools built between 1967 and 1979, (5) secondary schools built between 1967 and 1979, (6) elementary schools constructed prior to 1950, and (7) secondary schools constructed prior to 1950.

See the city's announcement here.  Recent press coverage can be found on the Wall Street Journal, Daily News and on the New York Times Green blog.

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That was then: Henry Street Settlement gym class, 1910. - via

In recent years, many schools have cut gym time in an attempt to focus more on academics. But research shows they should be doing the opposite: Better fitness means  better performance on academic tests.

Studies in California, Philadelphia, Massachusetts and New York City bear this out: "Results indicate a consistent positive relationship between overall fitness and academic achievement,"  a 2005 California study reports. "That is, as overall fitness scores improved, mean achievement scores also improved." (Much more research is cited on the International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity.)

The gym class most of us remember--or would like to forget-- consisted of "useless" drills, after which natural athletes made the varsity while "the rest of us watched," UCLA  public-health scholar Dick Jackson told me recently. That kind of class doesn't help much. But techniques that improve fitness for everyone - which more and more PE teachers use- have an important role.

I described the importance of phys ed programs to students' health in my first post.  But where are they supposed to happen?  Consider these statistics compiled about Bronx public schools, attributed to former borough president Adolfo Carrion: "... 23 percent of Bronx schools have no indoor gyms: 22 percent have no outdoor facilities: 25 percent have no certified physical education instructors, and 90 percent of elementary schools and 50 percent of secondary schools failed to minimum state-mandated physical education requirements."

Lori Rose Benson, head of the DOE's Office of School Wellness Programs, faces the formidable task of  helping 1.1 million kids incorporate exercise into their daily lives when no school can offer gym class every day. She's doing it by focusing on clever scheduling, offering a wide variety of sports, and training teachers to make every minute count.

"Prior to this administration there hadn't been a systemic way of supporting PE after the fiscal crisis of the late 1970s," Benson told me. "When I started in 2003, 75 percent of elementary schools had at least one PE teacher. That has grown to 92 percent, because there are folks within our system talking to principals about what's realistic in scheduling."

Benson and her team have joined forces with the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. They imported and adapted programs like CHAMPS and NYC FITNESSGRAM that measure student health and encourage students to find sports they enjoy. And, says Benson, they made pincer attacks on the daily schedule.  "DOHMH bought a curriculum through [City] Council money, and we got a grant from Nike to use the Spark curriculum," Benson said. The Spark curriculum helped DOE "train upwards of 2000 teachers to think about how they can insert small fitness breaks into the day."

Some might call this triage. But if it helps school leaders focus more on fitness outcomes than merely on minutes spent in gym class, a training-heavy approach can break old stereotypes.  For now, statisticians at the health department are finalizing a 2009 study that shows a distinct positive correlation- a line drive, one might say- from improvements in NYC FITNESSGRAM scores to improvements in academic test scores.

Here's hoping Benson and her team can use that finding to secure more training dollars to help PE teachers establish themselves as key players on the learning squad.

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Thursday, 24 March 2011 05:57

Fitness Focus: Get nonprofits on the team!

At MS 210, an overcrowded school in Ozone Park where 81 percent of the 2,070 students get free lunch, Principal Rosalyn Allman-Manning has gone outside the Department of Education to add to her phys-ed menu. She's one of four principals this year to pilot a partnership between the DOE and Row New York,  a not-for-profit that introduces disadvantaged girls to the thrilling-but-preppie sport of crew. (The other programs happened at the Young Women's Leadership School of Astoria, Queens, IS 73 and IS 61 in Maspeth. Row New York's own programming happens outside in warmer months.)

On the day I visited, Allman-Manning stood in the auditorium doorway with me as the girls finished calisthenics. She asked a girl what she liked about the sport. "I like that you have to use teamwork," said the girl, chugging off to the stage for her time trial.

This display testified to a new DOE policy that seeks to give kids lots of choice in seeking sports that speak to them. It includes ski passes and health-club vouchers. Critically, at the pilot stage it involves nonprofit partners who can deliver the salient lessons.

Nonprofit partners bring their own resources and fundraising capacity to the public schools—as well as exposure to unusual sports that may not be offered in ordinary PE classes. This is a shrewd investment, because it corrals outside capital to bring students benefits that nobody can calculate.

Sports are idiosyncratic rituals - and it's not worth scarce DOE dollars to buy specialized equipment everywhere.  Yet nobody can say conclusively that a given sport is not worth trying. Letting partners like Row New York bring their assets, in an athletic analogue to the arts-focused Studio in a School, the DOE can encourage more athleticism.

And that encourages more self-esteem. At the end of the MS 210 rowing season, the Row New York teacher introduced me- " he's going to write about you maybe!" - and the girls applauded at the idea that someone would tell their story. They high-fived me on the way out. Their exuberance captures sports' educational role. Training in a sport teaches kids to both intuit and analyze the ways that working in groups and mastering processes can lead to higher self-esteem and firmer commitment to others.  It gives kids more techniques, and more ballast, for expressing who they are.

And anything like that deserves outside help, because our school culture shortchanges self-expression.

A little later, I unlocked my bike on the corner of 101st Avenue and 93rd Street. School had just let out and a school safety cop lurched between two girls. "Go now!" she yelled. "That's enough hugging!"

If the system makes hugging shameful, the least it can do is make fitness attractive.

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Thursday, 10 February 2011 06:04

Fitness Focus: Get phys ed back in shape!

Alec Appelbaum writes about urban design and policy for the New York Times and others, focusing on ways cities can become healthier. He is a parent at PS 126 in Manhattan and enjoys exercising on his own and with his family. In "Fitness Focus," he'll be blogging about how to get physical education back in shape in city schools.

As parents, we all do things we never expected to do. For instance, I do daily stretches and run around with my pre-K daughter before breakfast, because otherwise she won't get enough activity during the day. (And yes, it's lots of fun.) I started that practice the same reason I'm starting the Fitness Focus blog:  because physical education is severely limited at most schools, and I see ways to rectify that.   

Statistics about kids' health can turn your stomach. Karen Lee, who manages the health effects of buildings for the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, told an audience of design professionals last week: "Over 40 percent of our elementary school children are overweight or obese, and this situation is actually worse than in the rest of the country."

Let's move our feet rather than wringing our hands. The Department of Education is rethinking how physical education fits into the school day, but the need for change is massive.

When you were a student, weren't you more prepared to sit through a class in  geometry or Shakespeare after you worked off some energy? Scholarship bears  this out. Action for Healthy Kids, an alliance of national medical groups, reports  "a strong correlation between aerobic fitness and academic performance as measured by grades in core subjects and standardized test scores." And this relationship intensifies with practice: "Several large-scale studies found improvements in  academic performance with increased time spent in physical education."

Conversely,  a gym-free day denies kids the chance to develop memory skills (which sports develop) and social skills (which sports reinforce). This is especially so in disadvantaged neighborhoods, where poor air quality and fears of truck traffic can lead parents to keep kids indoors after school.

Lori Rose Benson, head of fitness and health education at the DOE, says the department is training phys-ed teachers, and encouraging classroom teachers, to incorporate aerobic activity into daily lessons. But she lacks adequate money and power.  City schools grapple with limited funds and limited space- some new schools in old buildings have no gyms, and others are severely overcrowded.

Benson is moving on several fronts. She's put middle-schoolers through a fitness test that statisticians are now correlating to academic test scores (with evidence of a positive correlation to be released this year). She's found money for fitness teachers' professional development and trained 1200 teachers to stitch active sessions into classroom modules. She's promoting a national curriculum called Physical Best and a middle-school curriculum hat emphasize helping kids find athletics they enjoy.

But without more phys ed teachers and a clearer mandate from the DOE, principals can still scuttle phys ed budgets.

Diane Hamilton, assistant principal for fitness at Lehman High School  in the Bronx told me: "I've been here since 1981. I know the majority of phys-ed teachers and they're jammed with 50 kids, and sometimes 100. By the time all the kids do a mild stretch, I can count on one hand the times they'll touch a volleyball."

Yet Hamilton and a few others have busted the old model by forming inventive partnerships. At Hamilton's school, students get $35/year  memberships to nearby Dolphin Fitness clubs and can use a nearby pool. At my daughter's school, PS/MS 126 in Manhattan, grants filled the closet behind the "gymnatorium" with exercise machines - and put a climbing wall on the stage.

Is this adequate to address the obesity epidemic? Not by a long shot, Hamilton told me. "Kids today don't learn to hop, skip and jump."

You start with a single step- so where to?  In upcoming weeks, I'll explore new partnerships  with nonprofits, creative use of cramped buildings, and good phys-ed teachers' welcome emphasis on fun and collaboration. Please tell us what's working (and not working) in your school.

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Monday, 06 December 2010 06:34

Pre-K Corner: No nuts in the classroom?

When my daughter Night Owl was two weeks into pre-kindergarten, we received an e-mail from the teacher: “Due to a nut allergy, our classroom will be strictly nut-free” Since pre-K children eat lunch in their classrooms, this meant Night Owl would have to forgo her preferred lunch of almond butter sandwiches, and I momentarily panicked because she’s seriously underweight and will not eat meat or eggs; nuts are our trusty source of protein. Pesto was out, too: it contains pine nuts. Ditto hummus, because of the sesame factor.

So we settled on a regime of cream cheese and cucumber sandwiches and even got a little creative some days, and it wasn’t the catastrophe we had feared. She didn’t waste away. She tried school lunch a few times. And in the process, she learned about food allergies and protecting friends. She even attempted to work this new knowledge to her advantage–or perhaps it was solidarity to her pal that prompted her, one night at dinner, to fold her arms across her chest and announce: “I can’t eat this–I’m allergic of chicken.”

While I know that nut allergies are a real and grave threat to a growing number of children, I can’t help, at times, but raise an eyebrow at the mass hysteria surrounding them. School-wide peanut bans? Nut free zones in public places? These seem like unrealistic and paranoid measures, given the actual percentage of children afflicted with life-threatening allergies (currently, an estimated .8% of children has a peanut allergy). Then again, my kids are some of the lucky ones. And in our case, as the school year went on, what had initially seemed like a drastic measure to me (why not just have a nut-free table, I had wondered) turned out to be a small compromise to make in the balance: what’s a picky, scrawny kid compared with one who could become dangerously ill?

Starting at the end of the pre-K year, students at PS 29 transition to lunch in the cafeteria. From then on, it’s pretty much a free-for-all, with seat swapping, food scattering, and the offering of PB&J to any kid who doesn’t like what’s on the hot lunch tray. Those with serious food allergies keep EpiPens at school in case of an emergency, and personnel are prepared to administer them. As far as I know, there have been no nut-related tragedies.

At Night Owl’s new school, nut-free classrooms do not exist, the rationale being “It’s not a nut-free world.” In other words, in the long run it’s pragmatic to teach children to watch out for themselves and for their friends, since conceivably they will be frequenting places other than school, where people eat nuts. This to me seems a wise approach…but perhaps a busy pre-K classroom is too soon to impart this message.

Should schools or zones within them be designated nut-free for a child with allergies? What is your school’s allergy policy?

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City Council Speaker Christine Quinn released a report called FoodWorks, featuring 59 proposals for improving health and sustainability throughout the food chain and throughout the city.

The report was released last week to a packed auditorium in Food and Finance High School Quinn was introduced by an articulate student from Food and Finance, who said his ambition to become a chef had been nurtured by the school’s many programs. In addition to offering internships in the city and study of agriculture abroad through the 4H club, the school, in partnership with Cornell University Cooperative Extension, runs an aquaponics program, growing fish and vegetables in a classroom. (Last summer Cornell announced plans to construct a large rooftop greenhouse at Food and Finance.)

Many of FoodWorks' 59 proposals touched on schools, not surprising as 25% of New York’s children are obese and schools are the fourth most numerous food outlet category in the city, the report notes.

School-related proposals include:

-       Strengthen the Child Nutrition Act, providing more money for improved lunch and breakfast while streamlining the process for qualifying for free lunch.

-       Mandate breakfast in the classroom for all high needs schools. In a recent study New York’s participation in school breakfast ranked second to last among large urban school districts. (Breakfast in the classroom is currently an opt-in program; to sign up, schools should call Keith Graham at 718-707-4523).

-       Expand salad bars in schools. Currently there are fewer than 600 salad bars for our 1,500 schools.

-       Improve the summer meal program, which is served at 300 summer schools as well as other sites.

-       Expand the capacity of schools to cook. Currently only about one-fifth of schools are able to cook meals from scratch on site.

-       Identify alternatives to Styrofoam in schools and other city food programs. Citing the parent-founded organization Styrofoam Out of Schools (SOS), the report says the City Council will co-sponsor a national design challenge for alternative lunch trays.

-       Ensure that garden education is available citywide. The 300 school gardens currently in operation do not meet educational demand, and many teachers are not aware of how to incorporate garden education into their curriculum. Groups that provide garden programming include the Horticulture Society, the Parks Department’s Green Thumb program, and others.

The report’s endnotes cite a number of links to studies and references for looking in greater depth at New York City’s schools and food issues.

Quinn praised the Department of Education for its efforts to buy local food, noting it has spent some $4.5 million in regional food since 2006.

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Friday, 29 October 2010 06:41

Going Green: Good news about school food

The lunch at the School Food Rocks conference last weekend featured the healthiest, greenest recipes that School Food can make. Vegetable stir-fries, Pasta Bolognese, a salad bar with sesame noodles served in the Department of Education's more environmentally friendly new “trayless” paper boats, and vegetarian and Cuban paninis.

In addition to its new, greener menus, School Food was pushing a host of opt-in programs, available to any school that wants them.

One page in the conference program, from the Brooklyn School Food Coalition, was called “Food Changes You Can Make At Your Own School Today.” It featured ideas that cost nothing to the school, such as salad bars, meatless Mondays,  and a fresh fruit and vegetable program.  Many of these changes can be made just by working with your school food manager, with the support of your principal. Some, like salad bars or scratch cooking, create extra work for the cafeteria staff.

Other programs, like school gardens, require TLC from a teacher, parent or group of students.  The city organization Green Thumb was at the conference promoting edible schoolyards. The organization will provide supplies and training; schools have to come up with the enthusiasm and commitment.

Another opt-in program that principals can request from the DOE is Breakfast in the Classroom, a “grab-and-go”cold breakfast in a bag:  juice, muffin, and  yogurt, that one parent complimented as looking “just like something from a deli.” Keith Graham, who manages the program, says the breakfasts promote health and learning, but agrees that the program is a little hard to find on the School Food website. Interested schools, with support of their principals, can call Keith at 718-707-4523.

Schools that can raise $1,000 were invited to request that School Food install a Water Jet in their cafeteria. This is an anti-obesity initiative (apparently unfunded except for installation labor) designed to get students to drink chilled, filtered water instead of high-calorie drinks.

The conference, organized by City Council member and public school parent Brad Lander, was filled with parents, teachers, and organizations that are providing healthier food, growing crops, recycling food scraps, educating kids about food. They believe that we can make  healthy and green cafeteria changes with these new, available options.

This is not to say all problems are solved, or even solvable in the near future. Budget for the federal School Food program is less than $9 billion a YEAR around the country. The charismatic Chef Ann Cooper pointed out that the U.S. spends $3 billion a WEEK on the war in Afghanistan, and $5 billion a WEEK on diabetes and obesity. Legislation to increase funding for school food nationwide is still pending, and activists are still organizing in support of the Child Nutrition Act.

Knowing your options for greener healthier food is a good first step. What greener school lunch initiatives does your school have?

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Friday, 22 October 2010 10:58

Skip the chips! A redo of the lunch line?

How do you get your kid to break the chips and fries lunch habit and eat more lettuce or apples at school?

Check out Friday's editorial page in The New York Times (preferably the print version which shows a chart).  Two Cornell professors, along with an illustrator, have diagrammed what they say is a more inviting school cafeteria lunch line. A "Lunch Line Redesign" appears to entice students into choosing healthier foods than the usual snacks and pizza that have contributed to an epidemic of childhood obesity.

According to the authors,  upstate schools have successfully adopted some practices which encourage children to choose healthier food, such as:

  • Creating a speedier checkout for kids who skip dessert and chips
  • Charging for cookies
  • Moving fresh vegetables, like broccoli, to the front of the line
  • Providing smaller bowls for breakfast cereals

When  Insideschools reporters visit schools, we've noticed an increased number of salad bars, and big bowls of fruit prominently displayed in some cafeterias.  Last spring the Department of Education teamed up with TV celebrity Rachael Ray to promote healthier school food and even school gardens.( On the other hand, parents and students aren't happy about banning all sweets and treats -- especially when sold in fundraisers.)

We're wondering if the lunch line redesign is trickling down into your school. What's happening in your cafeteria? What ideas do you have for persuading kids to choose peas over pizza at lunchtime?

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Wednesday, 01 September 2010 06:51

Autism and baseball

The gods of autism have smiled on us this summer:  Brooks's latest obsession is baseball.

No more Phineas and Ferb or Spongebob cartoons in the morning -- only the replay of last night's Mets game will do. He knows the teams, the lineups, the batting orders, and he often paces back and forth in his overstimulated way and tells me: "Angel Pagan did a diving catch and got an out at first base, but that was only the second out and if they get one more out then they switch sides and the Mets can get up and hit singles or doubles or triples or maybe a sacrifice fly..." and he will happily go on and on unless I redirect him.

This age-appropriate interest is a gift that we're milking for all its worth.  It's making him a better athlete because he's willing to practice running the bases for hours, it's fostering conversations with other kids about their favorite players and teams, and he's actually learning many of the basic rules of the game (although he still occasionally comes out with: “He tried to dunk the runners over” or "One more out and it's a grand slam!") Regardless, his unbridled enthusiasm for the sport is not going anywhere anytime soon.

It is especially poignant for me to watch my husband share his childhood sports team with our son. Until now, Brooks has been averse to the idea of "having a catch" and showed zero interest in these stereotypical father/son activities. These days, when they're not out in the park, they're on the couch shooting the breeze about Jose Reyes, stolen bases, and double plays.

Our biggest challenge is protecting Brooks from the lure of the Yankees—let's face it, when you're seven years old you care less about family history and more about a winning team!

Last night, Brooks found a football game on TV and asked me: "How many outs are there in this game?" I smiled and told him to go ask Daddy.


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Monday, 12 July 2010 12:24

Poll: Summer school in a heat wave?

Summer school opened for thousands of students on July 6 -- coinciding with a record-breaking heat wave.  Unfortunately, while many schools and classrooms have air-conditioning, many others do not.

Last week, some special education students who took yellow buses to summer school suffered through two-hour rides on non-air-conditioned buses. They now have cooler rides, thanks to efforts by NY1 and the parents of the autistic students who lobbied the DOE for air-conditioned buses.

In its weekly letter to principals circulated during the recent heat wave, the Department of Education cautioned summer school site administrators to "limit children's outdoor recess and playtime between the sun's peak hours, 1o:00 am. - 2: 00 p.m " when temperatures reach 95 degrees and humidity is high.  The "high priority" advisory for summer school sites also  advises:  "Students should have easy access to water and be encouraged to drink often. Clothing should be light-colored and lightweight. Please pay special attention to children who may be more susceptible to heat related illness, including those who are obese, have chronic medical conditions such as diabetes and asthma, or are suffering from a gastrointestinal illness. "

We're wondering: should summer school classes be called off when the temperature rises above 90 degrees, especially if the classrooms are not air-conditioned? That's when the city's carriage horses get a day off.

Or, should the city's students, many of whom will be left back a grade if they don't attend summer school and pass the tests in August, study on despite the heat?

Take our poll and let us know what you think.

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