Momentum Helps School Move from Bronze to Silver
Highland Park Elementary School in Prince George’s Country, Maryland, received the Bronze National Recognition Award from the Alliance for a Healthier Generation’s Healthy Schools Program in 2010. The school earned this award by giving students opportunities to eat better and move more. The wellness committee undertook a wide variety of initiatives to promote healthy habits among its students, like making “green smoothies” out of fresh fruits and vegetables for students to have at snack time, teaching students to keep a food diary to make them more conscious of what they eat, and increasing the amount of time the students engaged in physical activity.
According to Karen Purnell, the school’s cafeteria manager and a member of the school wellness council, to receive the Bronze level award was “very exciting after all that hard work.” However, the award did more than just increase enthusiasm for the wellness efforts; receiving the award actually led to forward momentum in creating positive change at Highland Park.
As a result of the recognition the school received from the Alliance, a company donated fruits and vegetables to the school, allowing the students to sample produce they might not be familiar with, like jicama and persimmons. According to Fay Anderson, the school nurse and another member of the wellness council, the program was a huge success.
“The kids were encouraged to at least try it, and if they didn’t like it, they could say they didn’t like it, but they at least had to try it. It got to a point where they were looking forward to it at the end of the day. There were just a handful of students that might not like a particular fruit or vegetable, but the majority of them tried it and liked it.” Purnell added that one of the reasons the program was so successful was that the staff and the teachers would always talk to the kids about the particular fruit or vegetable they were trying and if the kids were enjoying the conversation, they were willing to “jump right in” with the tasting.
The best part of the program, aside from the fact that it introduced the kids to different fruits and vegetables, was that it was so easy for the school to manage. Purnell explained that the program was not burdensome for the cafeteria staff because the fruit and vegetable samples came prepackaged and all the cafeteria had to do was deliver the product to the classrooms by the end of the day. This initiative helped the school provide extra servings of fruits and vegetables to their students, beyond what they were served at lunch.
In addition to getting the fruits and vegetables donated, the school was also able to leverage its Bronze Award to get track markings installed on its grounds. This helped Gerald Greenlaw, the physical education teacher, to “double-down” on his commitment to increase the amount of physical activity students were engaging in. Although the wellness council had already increased the amount of physical education the students were receiving in order to meet the Bronze level standard of 60 minutes per week for elementary school students, Greenlaw wanted the school to meet the Silver level standard of at least 90 minutes of physical education per week.
Although he finally managed to achieve this goal by rearranging his schedule and teaching more classes, Greenlaw found increasing the amount of physical education offered to students to be one of the wellness council’s biggest challenges because “classroom teachers are required to have their students focus on reading and mathematics for specific time allotments,” but physical education is not similarly prioritized.
In order to increase physical activity even further, the wellness council had to be creative and think beyond structured PE classes and find opportunities to get kids active throughout the day. Greenlaw began to exercise with students before school, running with them on the school’s new track, while Purnell would play music in the cafeteria at the end of the lunch break so the kids could dance; something that was especially popular among the younger children.
Another successful initiative the wellness council undertook was making sure all items sold at school fundraisers met the Alliance’s nutrition standards for competitive foods and beverages. In order to keep the fundraisers profitable, but still meet the necessary standards, the wellness team members had to think beyond food, to items such as cards and wrapping paper.
Despite these impressive accomplishments, the wellness council at Highland Park faced a fair amount of challenges in its attempt to meet the Silver level standards outlined in the Healthy Schools Program Framework, a set of best practices designed to help schools improve policies and programs related to nutrition and physical activity. For example, the team found that it was very difficult to make the necessary changes when decisions were under the purview of the district. In order to satisfy the framework’s school meals requirement at the silver level, the team had to make sure that all the salad dressings in the cafeteria contained no more than 80 calories per serving. Because it’s up to the district to make the final decisions as to which salad dressings to order for all the schools in the area, the wellness team at Highland Park struggled to get the kinds of dressing they needed. According to Anderson, the school had some low calorie dressing, but making sure that all the dressing was low calorie was a challenge.
In the end, the team decided to only serve the salad dressing that met the framework standards for the students. Because this limited the choice students had in termsof salad dressing, the team had to compensate by finding other ways to make salads exciting for students. They did this by putting out a variety of vegetables to show students that salads don’t always have to be “just lettuce and tomatoes,” and by getting creative with vegetable shapes; for example, by incorporating cucumber “spirals” to make salads more interesting.
Beyond changing the school’s food environment and increasing physical activity opportunities for the children, the wellness team also made sure that its students received a comprehensive health education curriculum. The health education lessons at Highland Park Elementary cover everything from incorporating physical activity into everyday life to reading nutrition labels. Greenlaw believes that teaching his students about the importance of staying physically active and choosing healthy meals is crucial because educating kids about nutrition and fitness while they are in elementary school gives them a foundation for making good decisions into adulthood.
The school’s initiatives are clearly having an impact on the students. Anderson, the nurse, said she has students come to the health office and tell her that their parents tried one of the “green smoothie” recipes she sent home, while other students come by just to see if she has any extra fruit. Purnell, the cafeteria manager, has also noticed positive changes in the students’ attitudes towards healthy eating. Whereas before she couldn’t get the kids to eat vegetables and watched healthy food go to waste, now the students have gotten to a point where they are actually asking for fresh fruits and vegetables. Purnell adds that the staff are also benefiting from the changes being made at the school. “I think it’s been really beneficial for us, as the staff, because we’re eating better too; I am eating much better and my doctor is so happy!”
Despite the large number of successful initiatives already underway at the school, the council is constantly looking for ways to further the health of the students and staff. According to Purnell, the members of the wellness council always check the Alliance’s website before their meetings in order to get ideas for new initiatives and improvements they might like to try. The wellness council’s energy and drive to do more lend their efforts the forward momentum necessary to create sustainable and comprehensive changes to the school environment. Highland Park Elementary provides a powerful example of what a school can accomplish once it commits to improving health. Although challenges remain, Highland Park shows that success leads to further success, as enthusiasm increases for the wellness efforts and more opportunities present themselves for improving the health of the school’s entire community.