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Shaping up Shelby: Healthy students, healthy families

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Starting with elementary schools, Shelby County Public Schools is trying to make sure students learn to make healthy choices – and take them home.

By Todd Martin

It’s no secret; no matter how healthy a lunch you eat that afternoon letdown works its way in. That sluggish, tired feeling of a long day can be a lot to take in.

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But at East Middle students start to stir for a different reason.

As the clock gets closer and closer to 1:30 in the afternoon, students are ready to go. They will line up at level 0 (which means quiet as a church mouse, no talking) and slowly walk outside.

With a beautiful afternoon on Monday, they quickly started gulping in that fresh air and walking through the parking lot on the north side of the building.

East student Bill Rupert said he looks forward to the fifth period walk, known as the Missile Miles, everyday.

“It’s one of the only times we can talk to our friends and not get in trouble,” he said. “It’s disappointing when we can’t walk outside because of the weather.”

The 15-minute daily walk was instituted last year by former East Principal Christine Powell and carried on this year after Powell retired.

“Part of our school improvement plan was to try to include more physical activity, so we started this last year,” teacher Tina Eden said. “This year we had to look at it and decide if it was worth missing fifteen minutes of instructional time to get this activity in. For us, it’s definitely worth it. It gets every child involved in some physical activity every day, and for some of these kids it might be the only exercise they get all day.”

Eden said the teachers set expectations for the students to behave, and when the students meet those expectations, they can walk and talk to their friends. And that social time is what drives most of those students to enjoy the experience, with the exercise as almost a secret hidden bonus.

“We may skip a day if there is something important to work on,” Eden said. “But when we miss it, you can definitely tell. They need that social time, and when they burn off some of that extra energy, they’re more focused in the afternoon.

“And it’s nice for the teachers, too. We can walk with students and get to know them better in a social atmosphere. It shows them that we care, that we’re really interested in what’s going on. And if there’s a problem with a student, we can use this time to talk one-on-one and really learn what’s happening at home or the in halls or wherever.”

This mixture of social and physical activity isn’t only happening at East, either.

The Shelby County Board of Education repeatedly has asked the elementary and middle schools to try to provide opportunities for the younger students to get more and more exercise to help fight the national issue of childhood obesity.

And the schools have responded.

Each elementary school offers different programs, most revolving around running, that also try to teach students to make healthy choices, with the goal of those lessons learned becoming lifetime habits.

The district’s efforts at the urging of the board are coming at a time when the state is lacking in requirements.

“Research shows that every minute of physical fitness gives a minute of better focus and concentration,” said Traci Earley, the district health coordinator. “The PE teachers have a curriculum to follow that works on age appropriate levels, but nationwide obesity is a problem, and we need to provide children with the education on how to be healthy and how to take care of themselves.”

In elementary school the students are required to have 20 minutes of activity every day, and that doesn’t include the PE, which they may not have every day.

Earley said that time can’t be taken away, like in years past when students may have recess taken away for bad behavior. And they can’t just sit in down and chat, either.

“It’s not structured, but they have to be moving around and doing an activity,” she said. “But it’s not something that’s really planned.”

In high school the only requirement is a half-credit of PE, which also contains a health and wellness class.

That’s why starting with those young students is so important, it gives the schools the opportunity to get those habits engrained for when students are older.

Southside Elementary was one of the first schools to implement an after-school program. Tiger Trails started in 2009, with just fourth- and fifth-grade girls, and that has spawned a boot camp for boys in the same age. Beth Cathcart, Southside’s Family Resource and Youth Service Center director, has watched her effort continue to grow and include a few grants and other activities, along with beginning to include second- and third-graders in the spring.

An ESPN report on the decline of PE and recess in schools as a force behind the issue of childhood obesity spurred Cathcart’s work. All her time with the after-school programs is strictly volunteer, as is the time of the several teachers who help her organize the events.

“That episode got me to thinking about it, and there’s an organization called Girls on the Run at Dunn Elementary in Louisville,” she said. “But it’s mandatory with them that you do a lot of fundraising, so we decided to kind of model our program after that, but make the tweaks and changes we needed to make along the way.”

The program, which was originally intended to help young girls with self-esteem and hygiene, grew and grew.

“Those aren’t issues that fourth- and fifth-grade boys are so interested in,” she said. “So we decided to start the boot camp, and the ROTC students from Collins come down and work with the boys, and they just love it.”

Cathcart works closely with Diana O’Toole, the healthy lifestyle coach who came aboard with the schools’ OVEC Project Balance grant two years ago and splits her time with a Henry County school.

O’Toole works with the PE and classroom teachers to try to help them implement physical activity into their daily plans.

“That’s where the Take 10 initiative comes in,” she said. “Teachers at Southside have been wonderful with working ten minutes of physical activity into their daily plans. And it can be anything, like when they’re reading, if they see a noun, they stand up and sit down, just something to get them moving.”

And O’Toole noted that the staff has worked hard to set a positive example for the students.

“We’ve had more than twenty-five staff members compete in a biggest-loser competition here,” she said. “And since January, the staff has lost a combined three hundred and twenty-five pounds.”

O’Toole also applied for and received the Fuel Up To Play 60 grant, which is in conjunction with the National Dairy Council and the National Football League.

And Southside isn’t the only school working with that grant. Wright Elementary Family Resource and Youth Service Center Coordinator Hettie Harless has also been working through Play 60 grant and has seen it grow at her school as well. Through the grant the school is fostering a healthy lifestyle, and Hettinger has started a running program.

“We have all kinds of kids that participate, from overweight to kids that are already runners, to those that are good in school and those that aren’t,” she said. “They’re setting goals and going home and talking about those goals.

“There are families working out together and kids joining cross-country teams when they get to middle schools. They’re setting goals to run or walk 5K’s, and we had six in the Turkey Trot last year.”

All these programs, and those at other schools as well, are fostering positive change in Shelby County, but there is still work to be done.

“We have something in place at all the schools, and our principals and teachers are really good about sharing information,” Earley said. “But all this has to take place in the home, too. Children and parents need to make good, healthy decisions at home and at school before anything will really start to take hold.

“That’s why we’re trying to give the students as much information as we can, so they can take it home and share it with their families.”