Technically speaking, the enormous Front Range urban and suburban school districts and the tiny rural school districts on the Eastern Plains, the Western Slope and the San Luis Valley are indeed in the same state: Colorado. It’s just different worlds they sometimes seem to inhabit.

La Jara Elementary in the San Luis Valley found letting kids plant tortillas garden made them more interested in eating fresh produce.

Throughout the state, districts large and small confront the same epidemic of youthful obesity, nutritional and physical activity challenges, and all the other health-related issues plaguing modern society. And officials in nearly all districts are of one mind in wanting to make their schools as healthy as possible.

But what works in large, urban districts often isn’t practical in places where the superintendent doubles as the principal, there are no funds to hire school nurses or qualified P.E. teachers, and access to health services may be severely lacking throughout the community.

As a result, health experts are going out of their way to study what’s working in the state’s smallest and most isolated school districts, and to share that information in hopes they can learn from each other, without trying to force Denver-sized projects onto Campo-sized districts.

Thinking differently about rural schools’ needs

“From the beginning, we’ve recognized that Front Range urban school districts have different successes and challenges than the small and the frontier districts,” said Stephanie Wasserman, director of health and wellness for the Colorado Legacy Foundation, a nonprofit organization that focuses on boosting student achievement and improving health and wellness in schools.

“We’ve really tried to think differently around how we could provide the same support to rural schools that we do to larger districts,” she said.

Earlier this year, the Legacy Foundation identified five rural school districts that have come up with creative ways of addressing various health needs in the areas of physical education and activity, nutrition, employee wellness, health education and health services.

Meanwhile, another health-related organization, LiveWell Colorado, has also identified some rural school districts that have excelled at developing farm-to-school programs and other student-led health initiatives.

The Legacy Foundation thought about compiling what some of its grantees are doing into a “best practices” guide specifically tailored for rural schools. But after meeting with a group of rural education officials, they scrapped that idea.

“They said they didn’t want a guide. They wanted to learn from their neighbors,” Wasserman said. “Rather than have another binder or set of documents, they really wanted contact information in the districts next door, and to have a mentoring relationship. We thought that was a brilliant idea.”

Case studies highlight what’s possible

This summer, the foundation released its 2011 Healthy Rural Schools Districts Case Studies. Each case study includes a summary of the challenges a particular district faces, the solutions it has come up with, the results it has achieved and advice on how other similarly-sized districts might proceed, including what they can do for little or no money.

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“The part about doing things for free was really important for rural districts because they’re so resource-strapped,” Wasserman said. “They want to know what’s the low-hanging fruit anyone can do without having to look for new dollars.”

Copies of the case studies went out to every rural school superintendent in the state last month. Wasserman says initial feedback has been positive.

“We hear again and again that schools are very interested in addressing this issue because they see such a strong connection between healthy students and academic outcomes,” she said. “But they don’t need new initiatives. They want strategies that align with what they’re already doing.”

Here’s a look at what some rural school districts are doing to promote health:

Comprehensive health education in Center

Ninety-one percent of the students in the Center School District in the San Luis Valley qualify for free or reduced-price lunches, the highest rate in the state. Substance abuse is rampant, as is teen pregnancy. Proper nutrition is an ever-present concern, given the poverty of the community.

Katrina Ruggles, the school prevention and health education coordinator, has been dogged in applying for grants to fund health education programs in the district. Despite competing demands for increased emphasis on math and reading and CSAP-tested subjects, the district has managed to offer comprehensive health education from kindergarten through high school.

Center School District hosted a summer conference on healthy relationships for youth.

“We require health education for graduation,” Ruggles said. “We also require it for seventh and eighth-graders. But we’ve also been creative in integrating health topics into other areas. So students may be asked to do a writing assignment on a health topic, or health standards may be taught in science class. The kids hear the same message from a variety of sources, not just from the health teacher, and that has helped our program be more successful.”

As a result, over the past 15 years graduation rates have steadily risen, attendance has improved, more students are taking part in athletics, and the reported use of marijuana and tobacco by students has been halved.

“When kids are making healthier choices, getting involved in fewer distractions, they’re more likely to make their other goals in life,” Ruggles said.

“Health education has become a part of the school system. What’s made the difference is administrative support, and student support. We have strong student involvement and buy-in, and a lot of student-let activities.”

Youth advocacy in Las Animas

Bent County is in a health crisis, with some of the highest rates of obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular disease and smoking in the state, and nearly half the county’s residents are uninsured or underinsured.

Before Tammy Pryor became community health coordinator for LiveWell Bent County, she worked for the school district doing tobacco prevention work. In 2007, she got involved with the anti-tobacco Get Real coalition and, by 2008, Bent County had the largest anti-smoking coalition in the state. Armed with the backing of the schools and legions of fired-up youngsters, the coalition successfully waged a campaign that year for tobacco-free parks and trails.

By 2009, the money for tobacco prevention work had dried up, but Pryor went to work full-time for LiveWell, still very much believing in the model of youth advocacy. Last year, LiveWell Bent County partnered with the local high school’s Future Business Leaders of America club to stage a “Biggest Loser” campaign, complete with flash mobs.

“The kids got all dressed up in ’80s clothing, with ’80s music on their boomboxes, and we would calmly walk into the bank or convenience stores and start dancing.”

“The kids got all dressed up in ’80s clothing, with ’80s music on their boomboxes, and we would calmly walk into the bank or convenience stores and start dancing,” Pryor said. “It was the start of a whole youth task force.”

Since then, Pryor has organized the teens to be vocal and efficient advocates for healthier living. They learned to write press releases and design advertising campaigns. They did a survey of their secondary school classmates’ eating habits and launched a campaign to encourage them to eat more fruits and veggies.

A seventh-grade class has been working with an urban planner to design trails, and they presented their proposals to both the school board and the city council, where they go the go-ahead for the design.

A school health advisory council, formed three years ago, has given teen members the chance to advocate for improvements in school lunches.

Now the youth task force is creating a media literacy toolkit for other young people to use to promote healthy eating.

“So many times, rural communities just get lost in the shuffle,” Pryor said. “They don’t see themselves as role models. But here we are, acting as a role model for other communities wanting to advocate for healthier lunches, to advocate for building trails and parks.”

Improving nutrition in Campo

Nearly everyone in the tiny Baca County community of Campo, population 125, is related by birth or by marriage. So when Campo School District superintendent Nikki Johnson set out in 2009 to improve the diets of her 54 students, she wound up making the whole town healthier.

Funded by a two-year $20,000 Legacy Foundation grant, the district’s health and wellness campaign focused on getting students and staff to make smarter food choices. Out went the sodas from the school vending machine, replaced by bottled water and healthy snacks.

In order to expose the students to new foods, Johnson launched “Thursday Tasties,” providing healthy snacks that began with a different letter of the alphabet each week.

“Once we served yam smoothies for the letter Y. It was crazy how popular they were, and how the kids thought they were so neat.”

“Once we served yam smoothies for the letter Y,” said Coantha Johnson, school librarian and health and wellness coordinator. “It was crazy how popular they were, and how the kids thought they were so neat. The kids requested them again, and they wanted the recipes.”

Salads started showing up more often in the cafeteria, as did more whole-grain flour. Johnson used grant money to buy pedometers for district staff, and got them involved in exercise competitions.

“The biggest obstacle was just changing the way we’d done things for a long time,” said Johnson. “One of the nicest things has been the feeling like there’s been a whole transformation of our school. You see the kids making healthier choices.”

As the kids’ eating habits were changed, they brought their lessons home with them.

“Down here we’re like one giant family,” said Johnson, whose husband is a cousin of the school superintendent. The superintendent is the school cook’s sister-in-law.

“There aren’t that many of us, and everybody gets along well,” she said. “We can work together. We don’t have to deal with a lot of attitudes. Our school is a large part of the community, so it’s natural that what happens here carries over.”

Getting to know farmers in the San Luis Valley

Fifty-thousand people reside in the six counties and 81,000 square miles that comprise Colorado’s San Luis Valley. The region has a rich agricultural heritage and is home to some of the state’s more productive farms.

Most of the food produced in the region, however, never winds up on local plates.

“Most of our food is shipped out in semis,” said Liza Marron, president of the Mountain Valley School Board, one of 14 school districts in the region, and coordinator for LiveWell Alamosa. “If we eat San Luis Valley food, it’s traveled to Denver and back.”

LiveWell Alamosa has concentrated on getting schools in San Luis to put in school gardens, and teach the children the gardening skills that have served the valley’s residents for so many generations.

“People think kids won’t eat vegetables, but we’ve seen that if they have a relationship with their food, they love to eat it.”

“When they care for the plants, it’s amazing how ready they are just to pull it from the ground and eat it, dirt and all,” Marron said. “People think kids won’t eat vegetables, but we’ve seen that if they have a relationship with their food, they love to eat it.”

Out of the region’s school garden initiative came another, more ambitious project – a farm-to-school initiative that seeks to link up local growers with local schools. Officials in all the San Luis districts are trying to increase the amount of fresh local produce, beef, flour, honey and eggs served in the schools.

Part of that includes a “Know Your Farmer” program. “We write their bio, and put it up at the place where the food is served,” Marron said. “Kids crave this. They are so disconnected from their food source. But when they learn about farmers, get their hands in the dirt, it’s a profound experience for them.”

The short local growing season poses challenges, especially since much of the food grown in the valley is harvested while school is not in session. But at least one school district, La Jara, is serving about 30 percent locally-grown food.

“That may not sound like a lot, but it’s huge for the dinosaur of a system we have set up right now,” Marron said. “In my district, just harvesting carrots and taking a box into the lunchroom and serving them has been a huge victory.”

Of particular concern right now are potatoes. Last month, the U.S. Senate blocked a Department of Agriculture proposal to limit school lunchrooms to two servings a week of potatoes and other starchy vegetables. That was an unpopular proposal, particularly in potato-growing regions in Colorado.

“I know they’re controversial,” Marron said. “But fresh potatoes are very high in antioxidants. It’s more what you do with them. We advocate not frying them, but having potato bars with broccoli and cheese. We want every school to have San Luis potatoes served.”