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Navajo Nation: Chee Dodge Elementary

 On top of a dry, sandy hill in the northwest corner of New Mexico in a town called Yatahey, sits Chee Dodge Elementary. The school is in the Gallup-McKinley School District, which is the largest district by land in the country, although it only has 35 schools. This is an area so vast that the student population density is only two students for every square mile. Students may travel up to 30 miles by bus to get to Chee Dodge Elementary, but when they arrive they are greeted by a friendly staff, ready for an active and healthy day.

The wind in Yatahey is powerful and often dictates what activities can be attempted on any given day. Buses start arriving at 7:15 in the morning and, if the wind is tame, the students play outside before heading in for breakfast in the classroom. After breakfast the students are up again for a quick dance break before settling down for the first lesson of the day.

Chee Dodge has a 98 percent Navajo student population and is able to offer a daily Navajo culture and language class. During this class period students can often be found playing active games, dancing, walking or running on the outdoor trail. “In Navajo culture we talk about keeping your physical health because life gives you a lot of obstacles,” said Navajo culture teacher Eldora Garcia. “Our elders used to stress the exercise—getting up early to run. In our (coming-of-age) ceremonies you have to run. We teach our children to overcome obstacles by exercising, staying positive and maintaining balance between the physical, emotional and spiritual lives.”

At lunch, students line up for a Chef salad with breadsticks or Sloppy Joes with sweet potato fries, green beans and fruit. Cafeteria Manager Manual Carl admits that the sweet potato fries added to the district menus this year have not been a hit at Chee Dodge. “It’s just not something our students are familiar with. But we hope that if we keep offering them they will start to like them.” The salads, on the other hand, sell out every day.

“We used to allow parents to bring in fast food to eat with their kids,” said teacher Danny John, “but we outlawed that. If parents do it now the kids have to go eat it in the parking lot. We got rid of all our pop machines even though that was a big money maker. We have juice machines but they are not on during the day. It’s just too much sugar.” Most students start with milk and then go to the water cooler to hydrate before heading outside for recess.

Danny John, kindergarten teacher Marilyn Ellison and school health assistant Dornelia Tsosie are the bedrock of the school wellness council at Chee Dodge. John and Tsosie coach basketball and run the afterschool program. This group, in addition to physical education teacher Marcella Wayne, received training in the SPARK PE curriculum, a nationally recognized, research-based physical education program, and decided that, in addition to using the activities during the traditional physical education class, they would also use them after school.

“We did the afterschool program three days a week,” said Tsosie. “It is 90 minutes of active games, dancing, aerobics, walking, diabetes education and working in the garden. The kids love it.” What sits behind Chee Dodge Elementary is, given the terrain, what seems to be an exercise in futility. Despite dry soil that lacks nutrients, serious issues with access to water, frequent frost and wind that sweeps seeds away as soon as they have been planted, the school has built and sustained a miraculous school garden. Second grade teacher Kevin Buggie is the first to admit that most school gardens are “a joke.” With limited funding, frequent staff turnover and shifting school priorities, Buggie believes that most school gardens become a pile of weeds.

However, with support from school staff and administrators, occasional funding boosts from grants and a passionate teacher with a green thumb, a school can take a take a garden bed and turn it into a true outdoor classroom. This “classroom” at Chee Dodge is now one acre, fenced in to keep the wild horses out, with a small greenhouse and water tank. A larger greenhouse, big enough to hold an entire class, is on the way. Part of the space is going to hold a collection of native plants and teachers will be able to expand the integrated lessons on science, agriculture and Navajo history.

Buggie wants the students to see the connection between planting, maintenance and the harvest. And he has high standards for his plants and seeds. “Many adults around here do not have positive experiences with gardening because it is tough in these conditions. I’m determined to do things correctly and to be successful so that these kids do not think that gardening is impossible.” “I used to do more to extend the season, to fight against nature. Now I take a more traditional approach. We teach the kids about the three sisters; that was the Navajo belief that when you grow corn beans, and squash together the plants protect each other. The squash suppresses weeds, the beans offer nitrogen and the tall corn offers support for the others to grow. The practice was that girls would plant corn and boys would plant beans so that is what we do.”

Last year this school garden harvested more than 1500 lbs. of produce so they held a market to sell it to families. The school and garden have been helped with grants and support from NCASH, the Navajo Coordinated Approach to School Health Program. Diabetes education is a mainstay at this school where the Diabetes Education in Tribal Schools curriculum is used during the school day and reinforced in the afterschool program. As most students at the school know someone with diabetes, teachers hope that the extra education will help students make good food choices while sharing the lessons learned with family and friends. The curriculum encourages students to think about what their grandparents ate, the balance of food and physical activity, and to see the connection between healthy behaviors and diabetes.

Although many of Chee Dodge’s efforts to improve student health started before they joined the Healthy Schools Program, kindergarten teacher and school wellness council leader Marilyn Ellison believes that participating in the Healthy Schools Program helps ensure sustainability of all of these efforts. Ellison sees how the Healthy Schools Program tracking and planning tools are what the school wellness council needs to stay goal-oriented and on track to meet its goals. And with direct support and assistance from Gene, as well as access to the Alliance’s national experts on school meals, health education, physical activity and more, the wellness council is confident that they are using research-based best practices that will make a difference.