School health programs get kids, community in shape
Students dash back and forth across Challenger Middle School's football field, swooping up rubber chickens and toy vegetables from the opposing team's side and bringing them back to their own.
Capture the protein, gym teacher Judy Gonzalez's spin on the playground standard capture the flag, teaches kids about the importance of controlling portions and burning calories.
"With the obesity rates, we want to teach them how to eat healthy and how to move," Gonzalez said. "We want to really teach them skills that they can take for their lifetime and not just middle school years."
This activity is one of many that Challenger Middle School, 100 E. Elvira Rd., has added as part of an effort to promote nutrition and improve students' health.
In the cafeteria, student council members give green bracelets carrying the message "Go for the Green" to classmates who participate in a spin-the-wheel activity that requires them to answer nutrition questions.
Gym classes incorporate lessons on skateboarding, rollerblading and other activities students can do to be active outside of school without joining a team.
Some days, the school gets a visit from the Activate Tucson "Moving Van," which is filled with hula hoops, balls and Wii exercise games.
It all started when the school adopted a school health advisory council under a program for which Pima County received a $15.75 million grant to fight obesity.
In addition to promoting school health advisory council, the Communities Putting Prevention to Work program fosters workplace exercise programs and farmers markets, among other initiatives.
School health advisory council bring together administrators, teachers, parents, students and others to help strengthen wellness policies, activities and resources in schools and the wider community. The councils evaluate, plan and raise funds for school health programs and educate the community about healthy living.
Ray Andrade, assistant principal at Challenger, said focusing on nutrition is integral to building a learning community, noting that healthier students focus better in class.
"Kids become better students," he said.
Aimee Molina, an eighth-grader and student council member, said the program has taught her the benefits of being healthy and exercising.
"It teaches me what I'm supposed to eat and what's good for my body," she said.
Jennifer Reeves, an associate researcher at the University of Arizona's Department of Nutritional Sciences, works with the more than 150 school health advisory councils in Pima County. She said the impact on shows in Challenger Middle School's test scores, which have improved to above average in recent years.
"Now, when you walk into the school, you see a banner that says this is a performing-plus school," she said.
Scott Going, chairman of the Community Putting Prevention to Work schools team in Tucson, said he hopes the success at Challenger and other Pima County schools will change attitudes toward activity and healthy eating.
"School should be the healthiest place you can go," he said.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has promoted such councils nationally, saying they increase academic achievement in addition to making students healthier.
The Arizona Department of Education and the Arizona Department of Health Services are working together to urge schools around the state to follow Pima County's example, though there's no requirement to add school health advisory councils.
"Because we see such a connection with health and academic achievement, it's making an investment in the careers of these children and the potential that [they] have to go and contribute a lot more to us," said Hope Wilson, manager of the Department of Health Services' Coordinated School Health Program.
Barry Liemkuehler, who as a Department of Education health and nutrition program specialist helps schools add health councils, said the idea is catching on around the state.
"Schools absolutely understand now the importance of their community partnership," he said.
On a recent morning, Challenger Middle School kicked off National Nutrition Month with Andrade, the assistant principal, encouraging students during morning announcements to eat green vegetables as part of the "Go for the Green" campaign. Teachers led discussions about healthy meal choices.
Later that morning, students assembled in the gymnasium to hear from Cate Dill, a Massachusetts physical education teacher who has been biking, skating, running and hiking across the country.
"If you had a choice between taking the stairs and taking the elevator, which one is the healthier choice?" she asked.
"Stairs!" the students shouted.
As for the future, the school has a new, larger salad bar cart and is having students taste test fruits and vegetables they'd like to have featured. The campus fields are getting walking paths and exercise stations so families can take advantage of the facility.
Gonzalez, the gym teacher, said parents have told her that their kids are asking for healthier meals at home. That kind of excitement suggests that the program will keep paying dividends, she said.
"We just want to make it bigger and better," Gonzalez said.