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Unique twists on school wellness

New programs promote healthy eating, physical fitness and mental health
Two students at the Shaker Heights City School District help tend to their high school garden project—part outdoor learning lab and part “market” for their school lunches.
Two students at the Shaker Heights City School District help tend to their high school garden project—part outdoor learning lab and part “market” for their school lunches.

Students ease stress with stretches in elementary school yoga sessions. In another district, students taste vegetables they’ve never tried before after growing produce in a school garden. Elsewhere, more students eat healthy breakfasts they’ve grabbed from convenient to-go carts in the morning.

This kind of innovation is evident across the country, as district leaders find new ways to promote health and wellness.

Research has discovered, not surprisingly, that healthy diets and physical exercise improve grades, behavior and attendance, according the 2014 “Health and Academic Achievement” report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“What we really want to instill in these students are tools and lifelong habits,” says Leslie Wright, the health and wellness manager at Encinitas USD in California.

Here’s a look at some unique ideas.

1. A learning garden

Purple carrots, golden beets and rainbow radishes are grown by students in Ohio’s Shaker Heights City School District in a “learning garden” in the high school courtyard. The 2,700 square feet of planting space introduces children and teens to concepts of gardening and healthy living, along with vegetables they may not have eaten before.

The produce is picked for school lunch, and the garden has inspired high school capstone projects in sustainable agriculture, urban farming and food justice—which explores the uneven access to food because of socioeconomics.

“These are true farm-to-table projects,” says Stacey Steggert, special educaion department chair. “We consider the garden to be an outdoor learning lab, which is available to everyone.”

The garden started in 2009 after a special education class read Paul Fleischman’s Seedfolks, which explores how a garden can transform a neighborhood. Students began growing spider plants, ferns and vegetables in containers in their classroom. Soon, plants covered all the shelves and counter space—and the special education teacher asked the principal if they could plant outside.

Many grades now participate, and Steggert, food services manager Amanda Schindley and district nurse Paula Damm provide their expertise in the garden. A high school environmental science class starts the seeds and third graders transplant the seedlings to the garden. Students with disabilities maintain the raised beds, which are two feet high and wheelchair accessible.

2. Online health curriculum

Tying the “selfie” trend into health and fitness lessons is proving to be a unique and worthy program in Florida’s Pinellas County School District.

Sixth graders don’t typically enjoy or want to eat vegetables, says Peggy Johns, the district’s health and wellness specialist. So Johns started using an online curriculum, KickinNutrition.TV, that includes games and videos, and a contest where students take “selfies” while eating healthily or exercising. “I was looking for something different, not boring, (and) of high quality and relevant to kids,” Johns says.

Fast Fact

Out of favor: Body-mass index screening

Concerned about overweight students, some states a few years ago began requiring schools to conduct student body-mass index screenings. But it wasn’t motivating. Ohio and Massachusetts stopped requiring BMI amid concerns from parents that “fat letters” about some students from administrators hurt self esteem.

During the month-long unit on nutrition, the curriculum guides students through real-world problems, including a “Cafeteria Takeover” where students build a healthy school lunch meal—that can cost no more than $2.75—using the USDA’s “Choose MyPlate” nutrition guidelines.

Teachers also incorporate hands-on activities such as “recipe days,” during which classes make fruit smoothies or other snacks. Sometimes, it’s the first time students have tried a vegetable like celery. “It helps to make eating healthy cool,” says Mark Ralston, a sixth grade health teacher at Thurgood Marshall Fundamental Middle School.

3. Aerobic instructor certifications

In a West Virginia community that’s considered the “most obese city in America,” two high school teachers are creating a career and technical fitness program that could help the city of Huntington regain its health. Students at Huntington High School apply to attend the Wellness Academy within the school, which teaches them the leadership skills needed to run exercise programs for different ages and fitness levels.

Students in grades 10 through 12 can take courses such as “Models of Wellness Training” and “Wellness Coaching Skills.” Starting next school year, students will be able to earn certifications needed for jobs teaching Zumba, spinning, yoga or fitness classes at local gyms.

The academy is the brainchild of teachers Karen Canfield and Deborah Chapman, who were inspired to help students improve their health, and the health of others, after celebrity chef Jamie Oliver visited the district to overhaul and improve school lunches and to promote healthy eating. “If we teach leadership to students,” Chapman says, “they will go out and teach others about the fitness components.”

4. Heart rate monitors in gym

Natick Public Schools in Massachusetts is using heart rate monitors in gym class to help students set and reach target heart rate goals, which are a more accurate way to gauge exertion level. Otherwise, an athletic student may not exercise hard enough to break a sweat, while an overweight student may overexert themselves despite being admonished by a teacher for not trying.

Middle and high schools purchased Polar GoFit devices for students. They can see their real-time heart rates, which are also tracked online, allowing students and their parents to monitor progress on a website or app.

Upperclassmen in a personal fitness class monitor their heart rates while using treadmills and other equipment. But the monitors are also used in team sports such as volleyball. Teachers can use an iPad and projector to display heart rates on the gym wall so each student can see their effort level.

“We can give kids an honest assessment of where they are and the effort level,” says Bob Anniballi, the district’s director of K12 wellness.

5. Strong minds

After four students died of suspected suicide in winter 2014, the Fairfax County Public Schools in Virginia considered how the community and schools could help identify and support students who were at risk of depression or suicide.

The district prioritized training more teachers to spot warning signs, but the depression awareness and suicide prevention program was too time consuming to require it of all staff, says Mary Ann Panarelli, director of intervention and prevention services at Fairfax County.

That changed in 2014 after the district used a grant to offer training through an online simulation program called Kognito, which replaced the traditional training. Now, more than 6,600 school members have completed the hour-long “At Risk” training, which simulates conversations teachers can have with students. The program asks a teacher to chose a question to ask the teen in a simulated conversation, and the student responds positively or negatively depending on the question selected.

In one instance, a male teacher used what he learned in the training to start a conversation with a student whose grades had slipped, Panarelli says. The student, who gets A’s and B’s, had stopped participating in class, and was often sitting alone with her head down. When approached, she confessed she was depressed and unable to complete her work. “The teacher walked with her down to the school psychologist’s office,” says Panarelli. “The parents called the next day to thank him for caring so much about their daughter.”

6. Yoga for young learners

To supplement a physical ed program that, in some elementary schools, is conducted by the classroom teacher—instead of a dedicated gym teacher—Encinitas USD won a $1.2 million Sonima Foundation grant to pay for yoga and character development programs.

The California district hired wellness instructors with teaching or yoga credentials to show elementary students how to relax with deep breaths and stretch with yoga poses in the “ON the Mat” program. Twice a week, students in K6 gather in the gym or a multi-purpose room for yoga classes that range between 30 and 50 minutes. Free yoga classes are also offered to school staff, parents and community members.

Classroom teachers say students appear more focused and ready to learn. And breathing and relaxation techniques have helped students navigate exams and other stressful situations. “They might take five deep breaths to focus and calm down,” says Leslie Wright, the health and wellness manager at Encinitas.

7. Breakfast-to-go in schools

Concerned about the number of students who needed, but were not participating in, the cafeteria’s free breakfast program, leaders at Hopkins Public Schools in Minnesota tried “take out” breakfasts. In 2011, four elementary schools—with at least 40 percent of students who qualify for free and reduced-priced lunch—began offering “Breakfast 2 Go” food items, which the district makes in-house and places on carts in two to three school hallways. All children may participate, and grab food on their way to class.

“Now they are able to get a nutritious breakfast to start their day, which helps with learning,” Glen Ritter, assistant director of student nutrition service, says of the meals that were modeled after a program in Saint Paul Public Schools.

Students can chose a whole grain muffin with a cheese stick or a yogurt parfait with granola, plus milk and fruit. Items are placed in a disposable bag. Students also enter a PIN number into a laptop that collects data for the National School Breakfast Program so the district can receive federal and state reimbursements. Students eat during morning announcements.

When the program first started four years ago, only 25 percent of low-income students were eating breakfast—now half are.

Mackenzie Ryan is a freelance writer in Iowa.