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Chicago’s Cold is No Match for Namaste Gold

“Namaste” is a greeting that translates to, “I bow to the divine in you.” The ancient Sanskrit word is often spoken at the end of yoga sessions; but it is also the name for a school that has achieved a distinctive health culture, one certainly worthy of a bow, or even Gold-level recognition from the Alliance for a Healthier Generation.

The Deep Dish on Chicago: A City in Need of Healthy Changes

Ten years ago, Namaste Charter School was founded on Chicago’s southwest side with the goal of combining rigorous academics with a commitment to health and wellness in one of the city’s toughest neighborhoods. Namaste’s students are 90 percent Latino or African American, and more than 85 percent are eligible for free or reduced-priced meals at school. “In Chicago there is a dual problem. We have an achievement problem where there’s a very large achievement gap; kids are not performing at high enough levels nationally to be successful at college and career. And close to 50 percent of students enter kindergarten overweight or obese. So those two things together in Chicago had a connection for me personally, as a teacher,” said Namaste Founder and Executive Director Allison Slade.

Slade knows firsthand the challenge of getting students to perform well academically when they are not properly nourished. “I saw my students coming to school with orange fingers from [their cheesy snack food] breakfast. I’d try to pull them into their guided reading group at 10 o’clock in the morning and they couldn’t focus. They had no nourishment left in them and were not ready to learn,” she said.

In 2010, Slade was introduced to the Alliance for a Healthier Generation’s Healthy Schools Program, an evidenced-based initiative that strives to create healthier school environments where students can learn more and flourish. Having already made significant strides in creating a healthier school culture, Slade recognized that the Alliance’s resources and support could help Namaste reach new heights. Specifically, the definitions provided in the Framework of Best Practices, the Smart Snacks Product Calculator, and the Product Navigator assisted her staff and community in defining what it means to be healthy. “You know, summer in Chicago is super hot. Teachers asked: Can we serve popsicles or can we not serve popsicles? Well there isn’t really a straight answer to that. So we said: You can serve popsicles if they meet this guideline,” said Slade. “The Alliance has been really helpful in providing research-based definitions for those things that we think are foundational for the school.”

Teaching Healthy Habits, Family-Style

Even though nutrition, health, and wellness are some of Namaste’s core values, the school still faced roadblocks when implementing healthier changes to align with the Healthy Schools Program Framework of Best Practices. Because students arrive at Namaste through a lottery, not all parents are necessarily as committed to health as the staff. Some parents were afraid that their kids wouldn’t like healthier foods and therefore wouldn’t get enough to eat at school. “No parent wants their kid to be unhealthy, but often they just don’t have a base understanding of what healthy is,” said Slade.

To help educate parents, Namaste began hosting morning workshops called Friday Family Breakfast. Parents and kids eat a healthy breakfast together, such as a breakfast burrito with a whole wheat tortilla, and then take the recipe home to try. Students perform songs or skits for their parents and then everyone participates in a 20-30 minute workshop on a nutritional topic such as the difference between eating whole fruit and drinking fruit juice. Slade gushed, “At our last Kindergarten breakfast, nearly 90 percent of the parents came!”

Namaste staff also distribute a detailed list of healthy snacks that meet the USDA’s Smart Snacks in School standards to parents to prevent miscommunication around birthday and holiday celebrations at school. Slade encourages other schools to be specific about what foods are allowed to be served so that everyone is on the same page. “You feel bad when a child’s parent shows up with cupcakes, which are typical for a birthday celebration. It’s so easy to say: just this once. But if you do that, you’re opening the door for a lot of problems,” she said. “Decide what you believe in and what is important to you and don’t waiver in those beliefs.”

Students have responded positively to the healthier options served at school, which Slade credits to introducing kids to fresh fruits and vegetables early on. Slade said, “For years, we have received the USDA Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program (FFVP) grant and that has been instrumental in building our students palettes to be excited about fruits and vegetables, to taste them, and then to try them when they see them on their lunch plates.”

Chicago’s bitter cold winters present another challenge for Namaste’s staff, who take kids outside for recess every day that the temperature rises above 15 degrees. “We do a lot of things to help families be prepared—we do a coat drive and a glove and hat give away every year so that the kids are appropriately dressed to be outside,” said Slade. On especially chilly days, staff modify the amount of time kids spend outside and supplement their activity with indoor recess. Namaste has three indoor fitness spaces including a large gymnasium, a converted classroom for yoga and other gross motor activities, and a fitness center with cardiovascular equipment and room for strength and flexibility exercises. Teachers at Namaste are also trained in yoga and perform movement breaks throughout the day in their classrooms. Given the long, cold winters, staff and students tend to get creative. “Kids will just walk up and down the stairs—we’re a 4-story building and you do get quite winded!” said Slade.

Performance Boost

At its core, Namaste is a school focused on giving its students everything they need to reach their greatest potential. Slade measures her success by how well her students are performing and she has data to show that a healthy learning environment leads to academic success.

Every year since Namaste opened, it has outperformed its comparison school in the Chicago Public School District. “Chicago Public Schools maps where the kids would have gone to school if they were not at a charter school and uses a weighted average of the scores at those schools to compare with our students’ scores. Every year we have outperformed our comparison school in reading, math, and science by over 10 percentage points in the state of Illinois!” explains Slade. “We also have a very low suspension rate and an almost non-existent expulsion rate. And in a city where kids are really struggling to stay in school, that’s something to be really proud of.”

10 Years Wiser

Slade and her staff at Namaste have learned a thing about creating a healthier school environment over the years. For example, Slade encourages schools to think about potential new staff members’ commitment to wellness when hiring. “Making sure that teachers and staff are really aligned with the mission is really important,” she said. “It’s an easy thing to give up when you’re making sure that they are also qualified, and bilingual, and everything else, but it’s super important to continue the momentum.”

Along those lines, she also suggests that staff model the behaviors they want students to emulate to ensure authenticity. “We put our money where our mouth is here. We have a trainer come twice a week to do a boot camp with the staff. We have Zumba once a week. The leadership really leads that charge,” she said.

Lastly, Slade cautions not to be discouraged if change takes time. She tells other school leaders, “You can’t go from A-Z. We made those small changes too—we went from white bread to half white/half wheat, and now we have only whole wheat bread.”

Learn more about Slade and her work as an Alliance Ambassador (spoiler alert: her favorite snack is almonds!).