Hundreds of people – including teachers, healthcare providers and school board members – filled a ballroom Tuesday at the Stonebrook Manor in Thornton to get an earful about programs aimed at improving children’s health and well-being at the second annual Healthy Schools Summit.

There was much talk about a growing body of evidence showing a link between health, wellness and school achievement.

Elaine Gantz Berman, a member of the Colorado State Board of Education and staunch advocate of healthy schools, gazed at the crowd with a big smile on her face.

Healthy Schools Summit
Speakers at Tuesday's Healthy Schools Summit.

“Our time has finally come,” she said. “We’re there. We’ve made it. You’re here. This year, you didn’t have to come. You came because you wanted to come.”

Gantz Berman put the spotlight on the tiny Bethune School District on the eastern plains, which is doing everything the Colorado Legacy Foundation and other event sponsors want to see happen: The school cook went to boot camp and learned to cook from scratch for kids and teachers; recess was moved to a slot before lunch; students get at least 30 minutes of physical activity every day; parents are banned from bringing unhealthy snacks to school for classroom parties; there are “biggest loser” contests for staff; and students are given pedometers to clock their walking mileage to and from school.

Fuel Up to Play 60

The first session of the daylong event featured the Fuel Up to Play 60 program. The “60” in the title refers to the number of minutes of physical activity students should get every day at school. The country’s dairy farms are kicking in $250 million for five years for the program, which is now in more than 64,000 schools nationwide. The NFL is kicking in $100 million.

Cindy Haren, chief executive officer of the Western Dairy Association, talked about a new generation of kids who are increasingly diverse, are independent and curious but are more prone to childhood obesity and related health problems and are often raised by grandparents.

This generation “could be the first generation who don’t outlive their parents,” she said.

“It’s serious but it’s solvable,” Haren said. “Fuel Up to Play 60 motivates and rewards schools to make sustainable changes.”

The program hinges on access to healthier foods and 60 minutes of exercise every day. (See video above).

Boltz Middle School Spanish teacher Jamie Quiros embraced the program at her school and has been amazed by the results. Once sedentary middle schoolers, who only wanted to sit around and talk to their friends, are now walking on the track with their buddies, playing Hacky Sack or tossing a Frisbee.

Playworks staff help Healthy Schools Summit participants get some exercise before lunch.
Attendees at the 2nd annual Healthy Schools Summit participate in physical activities with a Playworks coach before lunch.

“I’ve had a blast with it even though not PE teacher or a health teacher,” she said.

The main goal of the program at Boltz was to increase the number of students eating a healthy breakfast at school. She and colleagues set a goal to increase that number by 15 percent. They ended up doubling the number from 40 to 80 students.

The school launched new programs:

  • Breakfast at Boltz – A month-long targeted focus aimed at getting kids to eat at school. Students could win a raffle or gift cards if they participated. One student won a Wii, another an iPod.
  • Walkin and Talkin Wednesdays – Each Wednesday, students earn beads if they walk laps on the track after lunch. Students with beads could earn prizes. “It targeted kids not in sports – those kids who might not be getting physical activity otherwise.”
  • Activity kits – Students helped secure the money and place the orders for fun things to include in activity kits that could be checked out by teachers during study hall on the school’s Fun Fridays. The kits include Frisbees, Hacky Sacks, Chinese jump ropes and more. Of all the initiatives, Quiros said that was most successful. “It looks like an elementary school at recess every Friday at Boltz Middle School…I’m blown away by the number of 13- and 14-year-old kids running and playing and having fun.”

Experts tackle bullying and climate issues

Another panel, featuring EdNews Parent experts Finessa Ferrell, director of the National Center for School Engagement, and Linda Kanan, director of the Colorado School Safety Resource Center, tackled bullying prevention and safe school climates.

Kanan said mental health and emotional well-being go hand-in-hand with nutritious food and exercise when it comes to defining a healthy school. She pointed to one survey showing that 5.5 percent of 9th through 12th-graders stayed home at least once a month because they didn’t feel safe at school. Another study showed a link between bullying or harassing behaviors and school shooters. She also said the connection between bullying and student achievement can’t be ignored.

Kanan also touched on cyber bullying and sexting, pointing out that 75 percent of kids use cell phones today and 88 percent of them use them to send text messages. Half of the kids surveyed said they sent or received more than 15 text messages per day. But when the 14- to 17-year-old girls were polled, they said they sent or received 100 text messages per day.

Sexual orientation and bullying

Ferrell told a personal story that involved her then fourth-grade daughter, who was bullied and left out of activities and sports when friends learned that Ferrell was gay. Ferrell found teachers who were too uncomfortable to discuss the matter and a counselor, who accused Ferrell of doing a disservice to her daughter, encouraged Ferrell to send her daughter to another school.

Today, Ferrell’s daughter is a successful teen who fights for the rights of others and won’t keep friends who use the word “gay” in a derogatory fashion.

Ferrell pointed to a need for connection and engagement to school for all students, especially those who feel like they could be singled out because of differences. She said adults can be bullies too.

“We have to train teachers and administrators how to talk to parents, how to talk about being homosexual the same way we talk about being heterosexual… I think we really need to look at a whole school change, not get bogged down about what is bullying and what isn’t bullying.”

In Colorado, 57 percent of LGBTQ students who were harassed or assaulted in middle and high schools never reported it to school staff, according to findings of the 2007 national school climate survey conducted by the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network.  (See CLF’s Health & Wellness Best Practices Guide for data.)

The timing of the Healthy Schools Summit coincided with November being declared Healthy Schools Month in Colorado.

The event was jointly hosted by the Colorado Department of Education, the Colorado Legacy Foundation and Colorado Connections for Healthy Schools. The summit was also sponsored by the Gay & Lesbian Fund for Colorado, Kaiser Permanente and Western Dairy Association. The keynote speaker was Howell Wechsler, director of the division of adolescent and school health for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, who discussed  the critical link between health and education.