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Schools Where Wellness Is a Way of Life

The need for students to eat more healthful foods and get more exercise is getting a lot of attention in schools these days, but some school leaders are going a step further, developing wellness policies and health alliances with their communities. Included: Descriptions of wellness plans and policies.

While soda and junk food are vanishing from many school menus and physical education classes are getting a makeover, some educators are making school and district-wide commitments to improving staff and student health and keeping them fit.

Administrators hope the policies not only will lead to improvements in overall well being and student performance, but also help youngsters and adults adopt life-long habits to keep them healthy.


One of the trailblazing districts is the Leon County (Florida) Public Schools, which in May 2004 formed a Wellness Committee of educators and community members to address the overall health of students and staff.

"We decided as a district to take a lead in the community regarding health and wellness," said William J. Montford III, Leon County's superintendent. Montford also had been selected to serve on a committee to develop statewide strategies regarding youngsters' health and obesity levels.

District staff members started the process by measuring the body mass index (BMI) for all students in kindergarten through eighth grade, a total of 17,000 children, except for second graders, between September and November of 2004. BMI is a measure of body fat based on an individual's height and weight.

"We wanted to measure the current state of wellness," said Lorri Pilkington, the district's coordinator of health services. "We needed baseline data; we knew we wanted to make changes in the cafeteria and in the physical education curriculum."


The data showed that 62 percent of the students were in the normal range, 19 percent were at risk of becoming overweight, 17 percent were overweight, and fewer than 2 percent were underweight, figures which were close to the state averages.

After the data was collected, school staff members worked with parents, community members, and local health care providers to determine the best way to communicate the information to parents.

"We knew this was a sensitive issue," Montford said.

The final packet sent to parents in January and February 2005 included their child's height, weight, BMI, and what Pilkington called "family friendly" hand-outs with physical activities, tips for making more healthful food choices, and eating healthier.

"We wanted to make it clear we're here to help," she told Education World. "And it got the community talking about the health issues of kids."

"We decided as a district to take a lead in the community regarding health and wellness."


Montford decided to build on that momentum and -- with the help of parents, community members, and health professionals -- drafted a Wellness Policy in May 2005. The policy covers a wide range of health issues, including the food items permitted in vending machines, recommendations for physical activity, the health curriculum, and recommendations for health and safety.

"The best decision we made was to start small," Pilkington told Education World. "We started the paradigm shift in little steps. We're presenting it as doing what's best for students and staff."

Cafeteria and vending machine offerings have been changed to provide more healthful alternatives. "We hired the former state director of food services and worked with him, parents, and students to change the menus," said Montford.

"We're trying to camouflage alternative foods and changing ingredients," added Pilkington.

According to Montford, students embraced the changes. "I think they are starting to understand the importance of healthy food choices," he said.

A grant also allowed the district to revamp its physical education curriculum and find ways to infuse physical activity throughout the curriculum.

And the adults were not immune to changes. The contents of the vending machine in the teacher's lounge were replaced with more healthful snacks, "which was contentious," Montford noted.


Another goal of the wellness policy was to get everyone in the district more physically active, but finding time was a problem. "We knew whatever we added would take away from something else," Montford said.

Individual schools began offering aerobics classes for staff members and parents and wellness seminars.

To avoid cutting into time during the school day, the district hired a group of personal trainers who hold classes before and after school for students and staff members. The trainers lead physical activities and provide fitness advice. School personnel receive a discount if they join the health club where the trainers work.

Now that the Wellness Policy has been in place for a while, school officials want to determine if the changes are having a positive affect on student performance.

"We want to do the BMI once a year, and look at the state test scores as well," Pilkington added.


In another district, the efforts of middle school staff and community members to improve the health and wellness awareness of its eighth graders led to district-wide changes. The Bay Shore Middle School staff in the Bay Shore (N.Y.) Union Free School District, developed a wellness program and wellness curriculum that has been featured at national conferences and won a Magna Award from the American School Board Journal.

The success of the middle school program led to initiatives in other schools, and now the district's high school has a 5,000-square-foot wellness center that includes resources for exercise, research, and weight training. The center is scheduled to open in January.

"We're not trying to be Bally's or the Y," said Judy Cummings, the district's assistant director of health, physical education, and athletics. "It's not just a place to get on equipment and work out. It's a learning center."

The quest for a wellness center at the middle school began about 20 years ago when Cummings, then a physical education teacher at the school, said she began to re-think her role as a PE teacher.

"What I learned in college about how to stay healthy and exercise was never really passed on to students," she told Education World. Cummings also had begun to notice an increase in students who were heavier and students who did not do well on physical fitness tests.

When a classroom in the school became vacant, Cummings asked the principal if she could use it for a physical education lab. She set it up with the help of another PE teacher, Ted Nagengast.

"Initially, there was not that much support," Cummings said. "Then the program began to grow."

"What I learned in college about how to stay healthy and exercise was never really passed on to students."


Local pharmacists, doctors, community members, and school staff members set up a Wellness Alliance, which led to the creation of a wellness center in the middle-school classroom and a wellness curriculum. The curriculum became a ten-week unit for the school's eighth graders. Among those involved in the start-up were school board member Corey Alleyne and a local physician, Z. William Caracci. The district's superintendent, Dr. Evelyn Blose-Holman, also has been very supportive of the wellness initiative, Cummings said.

Donations from local hospitals and businesses, including several single contributions of $200,000, helped fund the eighth-grade center.

"We felt like it [eighth grade] was the last chance to make an impact on the kids," noted Cummings. "They had to comprehend the concepts we were presenting. We saw that some of them were uncomfortable participating in competitive activity. This program made it so they were able to focus on their own goals."

Every quarter, there is a different strand for physical education. Students must spend one of the quarters at the wellness center.

As part of the wellness center curriculum, students use a computerized personal trainer and get an assessment of their health and their health risks, as well as learn about heart rates and calories and how to use heart monitors. They also study some current events, nutrition, learn the anatomy and physiology of the heart, and use fitness equipment, including virtual reality bicycling and skiing machines.

The middle school also has an interdisciplinary outdoor wellness trail that includes 20 physical activities, student-written poetry, and descriptions of plants and wildlife.


The success of the middle school center prompted staff members to continue the program at the high school. Now some of the elementary schools have mini-wellness centers, and policies to promote good health, including prohibiting the use of food as a reward in classrooms.

School staff members want to continue to increase student involvement in wellness efforts by offering a high school level elective course in personal training, so students can learn to help other students exercise. Cummings also would like to enlist some students to create a DVD on which youths talk about the benefits of exercise, discuss safety and diet information, and demonstrate the use of the machines in the wellness center.

Another goal is to spread the wellness message and methodology. The Bay Shore schools have had numerous visitors from other schools on Long Island and throughout New York State who are interested in creating their own centers.

"We give people the framework," according to Cummings. "We explain how we did it, why we did it, and the resources we used to do it."