A local non-profit with a mission to close the academic achievement gap in Colorado is betting that by focusing on health and wellness, a school can produce superior academic results as well.

Get Smart Schools is looking for a leader to open a new, one-of-a-kind charter school in Denver to be a model health and wellness school. Such a school would incorporate an emphasis on physical activity and nutritious foods as well as providing access to medical, dental, vision and mental health services; a rigorous health and physical education curriculum; and family and community involvement.

“Instead of going into an existing school and saying ‘do more PE’ or ‘change your food service,’ we want to see a school completely focused on this while at the same time being a college prep school for low-income kids,” said Sari Levy, associate director for Get Smart Schools.

“We think one of the best ways to move the needle is to start a school that will be a demonstration site nationally for what a healthy school looks like.”

Slated opening in fall 2013

The organization is now accepting applications from entrepreneurs who share a vision of such a school. Get Smart Schools received a grant from the Colorado Health Foundation to sponsor that person for a year’s training in how to start and lead a high-performing school.

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Come fall, they’ll begin drafting a charter school proposal, with hopes of opening the school in the fall of 2013.

If accepted by Denver Public Schools, the new school would serve at least 50 percent low-income students. Still to be worked out is its grade configuration.

“If this is where your passions lie, here’s an opportunity,” said Levy. “We don’t want somebody who, just because there’s money available, will incorporate some health and wellness things into a school. We want it to be something people are driven by from the start.”

The Colorado Health Foundation is kicking in $353,000 over three years to launch the school.

“We’re trusting the creative process and the vision of the leader that Get Smart Schools selects,” said Hillary Fulton, the foundation’s program officer for healthy living. “It’s an exciting opportunity for us to start with a leader before the school has even opened, and make sure they are very intentional from the outset about creating a healthy school.”

Nothing like it in Colorado, few national models

No other school in Colorado has such a broad-based health and wellness focus, though Levy says the one that comes closest is Denver’s Girls Athletic Leadership School, a charter school launched last year.

G.A.L.S., which enrolls about 120 sixth- and seventh-graders and will eventually expand to grades 6-12, emphasizes physical activity and movement throughout the day and has about 85 percent of its students enrolled in after-school athletics.

Other older schools have attempted, with varying degrees of success, to “retro-fit” increased emphasis on health and wellness into their curriculum and daily schedule. B.F. Kitchen Elementary School in Loveland, for example, has been honored by federal officials for its efforts to incorporate fitness, wellness and good nutrition in every class. Around the state, many schools are planting gardens and reworking lunch menus to make them healthier.

Levy believes there may be only a handful schools nationwide, however, that have been designed from the ground up to place a major emphasis on health and wellness for students, staff and families. One model that she’s looking at is Namaste Charter School in Chicago’s McKinley Park neighborhood.

Namaste opened in 2004 with 90 K-1 students and has grown annually. This year, it serves 410 students in grades K-7 and it will complete its expansion next year when it adds an eighth grade. The school was founded by teachers who believed existing schools in Chicago failed to holistically serve students.

“What’s missing from a typical low-income, urban school is an attention to students’ physical, social, emotional and mental health needs, and an emphasis on parental involvement,” said Allison Isaacson, director of development for Namaste. “So the school was started to address those needs.”

Longer school day at Namaste

At Namaste, every student gets an hour of gym every day plus 25 minutes of outdoor recess before lunch and 15 minutes of morning movement every day. The P.E. program emphasizes lifestyle fitness so students learn skills and routines they can do on their own.

Namaste Charter School in Chicago promotes wellness with a weekly breakfast for families.

In addition, the school provides healthy breakfast and lunch, including fresh salad bar options and vegetarian options daily, and plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables and whole grains. Since 85 percent of the students are eligible for free or reduced-price lunches, Isaacson said, the easy availability of high-quality food is especially important.

Other components of the school’s wellness focus include its “peaceful people” curriculum, which emphasizes conflict resolution skills and character development, and parental involvement. “It’s important to make sure parents understand what’s being taught in schools so they can continue that instruction at home,” she said. “Just as importantly, involving parents in the school makes them feel respected and appreciated.”

To fit in all these wellness-related extras on top of a rigorous academic curriculum, Namaste has substantially lengthened the school day. Breakfast is served at 7:45 a.m., and classes begin at 8:30 and run through 4 p.m., except on Friday when classes are dismissed at 1:30 and that afternoon is given over to professional development for teachers. “It’s about six hours more of instruction time than in Chicago Public Schools each week. So we essentially have an extra day each week,” Isaacson said.

Hard data to show whether Namaste’s emphasis on health and wellness is actually producing healthier students is difficult to obtain, since comparison data to students in other schools isn’t readily available. But Isaacson pointed out that 72 percent of Namaste students scored in the “healthy fitness zone” based on Body Mass Index, a reliable indicator of body fatness for most children. By contrast, an assessment of children in the neighborhood adjacent to the school – which at 80 percent Hispanic is a comparable demographic group – found that 54 percent were overweight or obese.

In addition, absentee rates at the school are several percentage points lower than for a nearby public school, the school most Namaste students would likely attend if they weren’t enrolled in the charter school. Namaste’s average daily attendance rate was 97.44 percent for the first trimester of this school year versus 95.4 percent for the comparison school. Meanwhile, the rate of students transferring out of Namaste was just 1.9 percent last year versus 8.5 percent for the comparison school.

Colorado model may look different

“We find that not only are our students healthier and better able to come to school but they’re also happier and want to come to school,” Isaacson said.

For its first five years of operation, Namaste partnered with Children’s Hospital of Chicago to measure its students’ health outcomes.

“The biggest takeaway so far is that the Namaste immersion model is the most successful,” Isaacson said. “Students exposed to our immersion in health for years at a time have the greatest positive health outcomes. Short-term fixes that schools tend to do are nice, but they’re not that impactful. What’s impactful are when students are exposed to healthy food, year-round physical activity for many years at a time. This model holds strong merit and further promise for continued study.”

Backers of the Colorado health and wellness school say it may or may not look like Namaste. Certainly, there will be differences. “We haven’t come across a school yet that addresses all the components of a healthy school, though a number do well in many areas,” Fulton said. “We hope that this school can truly become a model that others can emulate.”

Levy said that since there are so few examples already in place to follow, she hopes that educational leaders bring all their creativity to the application process: “We hope it opens doors since there really IS no model as far as what works.”

The first round of applications closed last week, and Levy expects there to be a second round later in the summer. Interviews with potential school leaders will begin in late May.

Disclosure: The Colorado Health Foundation is a funder of Education News Colorado and EdNews Parent.