Danville School Integrates Health, Wellness in Curriculum
An elementary school in Danville, Ill. has earned national recognition for its approach to fighting childhood obesity --- by teaching its students how to stay healthy.
When Carol McIntire arrived at Northeast Elementary School in 2007, her staff was working on creating an environment for students to help them win the battle against childhood obesity. From expanding students' daily physical activities to revamping lunch menus, McIntire's arrival accelerated the process.
Childhood obesity has been linked to an array of health problems, including heart disease, diabetes, and cancer.
Northeast Elementary forged ahead in partnering with the Alliance for a Healthier Generation, a national organization founded by the American Heart Association and the William J. Clinton Foundation. The school initiated a plan to provide healthier food choices and keep kids physically active. A grant from the Illinois State Board of Education increased access to fresh fruits and vegetables. Students were also able to taste test produce not familiar to them. Principal McIntire said the program has been a big hit with students and parents.
"Our fresh fruits and vegetable program that we've been able to have here has been such a key to our kids and our families," McIntire said. "Parents talk about how much that means to kids."
Even before being recognized nationally for its efforts, Northeast Elementary made several healthy changes, many of which surpassed the requirements of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, according to Brenda Demos, the former director of food service at Northeast Elementary. She was instrumental in changing the school's lunch menu.
"Finding suppliers of certain products that met Alliance standards was a labor of love," Demos said.
It was important to Demos and her team to keep as many of the students' favorite menu items as possible, while adjusting the recipes with healthier ingredients. For instance, using turkey hotdogs and whole grain bread allowed corn dogs to stay on the menu. Pizza also received a makeover, switching to whole grain crust and low-fat cheese.
Detailed information - complete with nutritional values - was submitted to the Alliance for all menu items.
Recipes would often go through several changes until they were finally approved. After eight months of hard work, Demos and her staff were successful, giving Northeast Elementary a foundation of recipes and menus on which to build even more healthy meals.
Greg Lazelle, the school's current director of food service, picked up where Demos left off when she retired, and did so without missing a beat. Lazelle has expanded the fresh fruit program, and he is looking for more innovative ways to bring healthier choices to the tables at Northeast Elementary.
The school's cafeteria also houses the gymnasium.
Physical education teacher Beckey Burgoyne leads her students in their exercises, which might consist of shooting and dribbling basketballs, using paddleballs, or navigating across a climbing wall or games.
"Watch the stop watch, and every three minutes I will move you," Burgoyne instructed her students before blowing a whistle and turning on some fast-moving music.
Every day, the students have half an hour of gym class, which includes 20 minutes of moderate exercise. On a recent morning, a group of students smile and giggle as they spend their time playing and moving around. Burgoyne said being able to burn off the energy helps them concentrate in the classroom.
"As a former classroom teacher, I know how important it is to have those students get the exercise, blow off the steam, get some fresh air when it's possible," Burgoyne said. "Then they come back, and they're ready to learn again."
In addition to the exercise students get, teachers integrate health and wellness into their curriculum. Speech therapist Kate Cox created verbal exercises encouraging students to discuss various health and wellness topics while also strengthening their speaking skills.
"Where can I add movement to goals I'm already working on instead of sitting around a table and getting out a bunch of cards, can I get them up moving?" Cox said. "If you aren't focused, you're not getting the directions anyway."
Meanwhile, fifth grade teacher Lisa Unzicker assigns a social studies research project on the topic of food deserts.
"What is a food desert?" she asked her class.
One student responds:
"A food desert is a community which residents must travel at least a mile to buy fresh meat, dairy products, fruits and vegetables. It is where at least 20% of people live below the poverty line and at least 33% live a mile or more from the nearest supermarket."
McIntire credits all members of the staff for making the program work.
"They are constantly looking at their lesson plans for new ways to integrate health and wellness," she said. "Our bottom line is that we do this because it's good for kids."
In Dec. 2010, the school became the first elementary school in the country to be recognized with a gold medal from the Alliance for a Healthier Generation. In the year since then, McIntire and her team are just as committed to their focus on health and wellness and continue to expand access to healthy options.
Northeast Elementary is known as the healthy school and there is already a waiting list for next year's admission. McIntire encourages other schools that are interested in adopting her school's health and wellness model to make one or two small changes at a time, aiming for a large goal of a healthier learning environment.