INDEPENDENCE, Mo. – At Christian Ott Elementary School on Tuesday, a bunch of fifth-graders stretched, balanced, crunched, and jumped.
But they weren’t in gym and they weren’t on the playground.
The 15 minutes of noontime calisthenics was actually a classroom “activity burst,” one of the periodic breaks led by their teacher, Susan Keefe. As the drill sergeant, Keefe aims to improve students’ concentration and boost their physical fitness while stressing the merits of good health.
“I like it because it relaxes me,” said student Cloey Stallings.
Those mini workouts have helped add up to big things at Ott and the Independence School District.
Along with 14 other schools in the district, Ott recently joined the top ranks among more than 15,000 schools nationwide, serving more than nine million students, which voluntarily participate in the Healthy Schools Program.
With major funding from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the program aims to reduce the prevalence of childhood obesity. Healthy Schools is an initiative of the Alliance for a Healthier Generation, founded in 2005 by the American Heart Association and the William J. Clinton Foundation.
Keefe was on hand Sunday in Little Rock, Ark., when former President Clinton recognized this year’s award winners. Bentwood Elementary School in the Olathe School District also earned recognition this year.
All of the 16 area schools among this year’s winners achieved bronze status through Healthy Schools, which sets out numerous benchmarks in seven categories that include student and staff wellness, school meals, and even the types of food rewards earned for fundraising efforts.
For instance, bronze winners must meet nearly three dozen criteria as specific as requiring school meals to include milk with no more than 150 calories per eight ounces and mandating that teachers spend at least 30 minutes per week on health education instruction in classes kindergarten through second grade.
Schools must build upon those achievements to win silver and gold.
Healthy Schools has recognized approximately 900 medalists since its inception. The Olathe and Independence school districts have had previous winners and according to program officials, other schools throughout Missouri and Kansas have also medaled.
Five schools have achieved gold – two apiece in New Jersey and California and one in Illinois.
According to program officials, an analysis of 21 schools that entered the program in 2006 showed that children’s average body mass index decreased significantly, bringing more kids into a healthy weight range between 2007-2008 and 2009-2010.
It took some changes at Bentwood to achieve the bronze, said Principal Cathy McDonald.
For instance, as required, the school instituted a breakfast program for students. The staff also poured through lesson plans to document how often classes focused on nutrition and science.
The increased focus on wellness also prompted McDonald to start putting out a water pitcher to ensure staff stayed hydrated.
“If I’m not there,” she said, “they miss it.”
Health and wellness has been a big priority for the Independence School District for much of the past decade, said Supt. Jim Hinson.
The district has had a longstanding relationship with Dr. David Katz, a Yale University physician with an expertise in nutrition, weight management and chronic disease prevention.
But, Hinson said, the Healthy Schools Program provided an overall framework to tie together the district’s various efforts.
One step lauded by program officials was the move by the Independence district to open up the Van Horn High School weight room to all students and staff after school.
That focus on nutrition and exercise has opened staffs’ eyes to such obvious innovations, Hinson said.
The focus on physical activity fits well with Keefe, the fifth-grade teacher at Ott.
She’s a fitness buff whose regimen includes running laps around the playground. Plus, she said, she could relate to some of the more fidgety kids in class because she was like that herself as a young student.
“For the kids who are really, really active…it is a time they can release that,” Keefe said.
Alex Vieyera, a student, said the activity bursts “make my body feel more flexible. It helps my body.”
And Cloey, his classmate said: “It cools me off, and it makes my mind focus.”