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All In: Texas School Has No Limits on Health

Engaged faculty at James Bowie Elementary School in Dallas, Texas have moved the school from the Alliance for a Healthier Generation’s Healthy Schools Program’s Bronze-level recognition to Gold in just three years. And that’s no small feat. “I’m not going to ever say it’s easy. Everyone in our school district really helped,” said Physical Education Teacher Sharon Foster, a champion at James Bowie Elementary School and an Alliance Ambassador for the second year running.

Foster believes the Alliance’s Healthy Schools Program is especially important for students at James Bowie Elementary, given that some may not have access to healthy foods or safe places to play in their neighborhoods. One hundred percent of her students qualify for free and reduced lunch under the USDA’s National School Lunch Program. “Our school is located in a low-income area so it’s important for our staff to get students to understand the importance of eating nutritious snacks and getting healthier,” said Foster. She hopes that by teaching students healthy behaviors at school, they can carry that knowledge into adulthood and share it with their communities. “They can go home and discuss with their parents what we are educating them about in the classroom—as well as in the physical activity classes—which is the importance of selecting healthier food choices and moving more,” she said.

According to Foster, improving opportunities for physical activity and access to healthy food has been well-worth the effort. “The Alliance’s Healthy School’s Program has high standards for healthy living, but it really helps educate our students, our parents, and our staff. It’s a great program for any school to be a part of,” she said.

Students Taste Test and Track Steps to Better Health

James Bowie Elementary School joined the Alliance’s Healthy Schools Program in 2010, and has worked closely with Alliance Program Manager Jeannine Rios to implement the program’s Framework of Best Practices. One of the Framework’s key components is to form a school wellness council to guide action and build consensus among members. The school’s wellness council boasts diverse representation—a parent, student, administrator, and five staff members, including Foster. The committee meets at least once per month to discuss progress towards the school’s goals and reassess their action plan.

The council’s top two priorities were to improve the nutritional quality of food served at school and to create more opportunities to be physically active. The food service staff was heavily involved in the former. “Our food service modified the food they’re serving for our school to comply with the Alliance’s standards. They changed the meal plans to include more whole grains and less saturated fat,” said Foster. The school also removed all vending machines and swapped snack options to those that comply with the USDA’s Smart Snacks in School nutrition standards. Foster found the Alliance’s Smart Snacks Product Calculator to be especially helpful when selecting healthy snacks for the afterschool program.

A team of students weigh in on new, healthier food served in the cafeteria line before changes are approved. “We have a wellness team of eight students—four in fourth grade and four in fifth grade. The students really enjoy taste testing. We do that monthly at school and they rate how much they like different foods,” said Foster.

The school wellness committee also tackled improving food served during celebrations at school. “I found a wide variety of choices through the Alliance’s Healthy Schools Program website. I gave [staff] lists of different fruits and snacks that they could bring in,” said Foster. “We talked about what we were trying to accomplish at school, which is provide healthy snack options for everyone at school not just the students.” Foster used staff meetings at the beginning of the school year to get everyone on board with the changes. “Once we finished explaining to everyone what we were trying to accomplish, removing unhealthy items was never a problem,” she said.

To increase physical activity throughout the school day, the council provided teachers with and tools resources from the Alliance for a Healthier Generation. Part of their strategy included participation in the 100 Mile Club, which encourages students to run, jog, or walk 100 miles over the course of the school year. Students had the opportunity to join 3-mile races on Saturday mornings that could be added to their total mileage.

James Bowie Elementary also piloted a program that gave students pedometers to track their steps throughout the day. Foster logged student activity at the end of her PE classes and shared the data with students and parents during parent-teacher conferences. “When I hand my students the pedometers and they put them on, it increases their enthusiasm for the class and they have fun competitions with one another to see who can run the longest or the fastest.” When Foster shares with parents how active their kids are at school, she can feel their excitement. “The parents are very supportive and encouraging. It’s just great,” she said.

Two times per year, James Bowie Elementary invites parents to attend family fitness nights where they can see first-hand how their kids are learning to be healthy at school. Kids play games staffed by their teachers, bounce in a balloon house, and work up a sweat dancing to music from a DJ. “It’s really a fun time to meet the parents and get them involved in the physical activity the students are doing together,” said Foster.

Modeling Healthy Habits for Lifelong Change

School wellness council members hope to continue to expand their success at James Bowie Elementary into the community. Foster has been visiting other schools in the 224-school Dallas Independent School District to talk about her work with the Alliance’s Healthy Schools Program and encourage others to enroll. “I told them if you’re not in the Alliance, join. It really changed the school environment to become a lot healthier and more active,” she said. Currently, 86 schools are enrolled.

Foster is passionate about the program because she knows it works. She believes that education, coupled with a positive example and access to healthy options results in kids choosing for themselves to be healthier. “We give our students healthy snacks and water afterschool, and they have never complained or asked for anything different. The reason why is because we are educating the students to understand the importance of healthy food in relationship to their bodies and health,” she said. “For me, that’s an achievement and a success that our students are eating healthier and understand the importance of eating healthier—and so do the parents and our staff.” Another credit to her success: She has also seen her students’ Fitnessgram® scores rise as they get stronger and quicker from increased physical activity time throughout the day.

Making wiser choices has become a focus in her own life. “I eat a lot healthier because it’s important to be a good role model. I explained this to the staff: If we’re teaching healthy eating and physical activity, then we have to be involved,” she said. “We have to eat healthy and be good role models for our students.”