The kids in rural Center, Colo., in Saguache County, are still drying out after Monday’s rain turned their march through downtown to promote their anti-bullying campaign into a soggy slog. But it didn’t dampen their enthusiasm.

Students from Merino High School test some of the items in the "indoor recess boxes" they prepared for the elementary school students to keep them active on rainy days. Photo courtesy of Buffalo School District.

“I think we’re having an effect,” said Kevin Garcia, 16, a sophomore at Center High School, and a member of the school’s bullying prevention group. “When I walk down the halls, I hear people repeating our slogan: ‘Be a buddy, not a bully.’ I think things are going in a positive direction.”

Across the state in Merino, in Logan County in northeast Colorado, the rain just gave teachers a chance to test out the indoor recess boxes that the older kids put together for the younger ones.

“We had noticed that when the weather was bad, they would just stay inside and read or play games that didn’t involve much physical activity,” said Lynn Zemanek, family and consumer science teacher at Merino High School. “So my students surveyed the elementary school teachers about what they’d like to have included. Now, on rainy days, they can pull out those boxes during recess, and the kids can do juggling, or have relay races in the halls, or other active stuff.”

Telling the story to Washington

Meanwhile, Helayne Jones, president and CEO of the Colorado Legacy Foundation, is in Washington D.C. this week to tell federal officials all about what’s happening in Center and in Merino and in more than a dozen other rural school districts across Colorado where innovative health and wellness efforts are blossoming.

Jones will be talking about the work of the Legacy Foundation and the Colorado Coalition for Healthy Schools’ Healthy School Champions Scorecard, which rewards schools and districts for implementing health and wellness practices. Last month, 32 districts from around the state were awarded a total of $42,000 as part of the Scorecard program.

“Almost half the scorecard winners were rural districts,” Jones said. “Colorado was invited to present at this conference because of our work for rural school districts. Anecdotally, there aren’t a lot of others doing this kind of health and wellness work for rural schools, especially in the Rocky Mountain West.

“Our goal is to have rural superintendents learn from each other,” she said. “So often, superintendents say ‘We can’t do that because we’re a rural school district.’ We try to show them that, actually, rural schools districts ARE doing this work.”

Among those who will be hearing about what’s going on in Colorado are U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius.

“This is one of the first times they’ve taken the approach of having two Cabinet members come together to develop recommendations. It reiterates that these topics – education and health – should not be siloed,” Jones said. “Colorado and the Legacy Foundation were invited because we’re gaining recognition as a national model for improving student outcomes and boldly talking about the connection between student achievement and health and how safe students feel in school.”

The Colorado National Guard brought a climbing wall to a recent health fair that the Buffalo School District organized, in partnership with two other community health agencies.

Students come up with ideas adults wouldn’t

The Buffalo School District – home to roughly 300 students, including about 100 at Merino High School – is a case in point.

“We’re as rural as you can get,” said Zemanek, who serves as advisor to the district’s health and wellness committee.

What’s unique about the district’s wellness committee is its makeup: It is composed entirely of students. Zemanek is convinced that that’s made a difference in the ideas they’ve come up with and implemented. Ideas like the indoor recess boxes.

“Another thing is music,” she said. “We stumbled onto playing music purely by accident. We found that listening to music reduces snacking because it addresses the same part of the brain. So during breaks, we play people’s favorite songs, from classical to rock. And the mood of the school has changed. I think adults might not have come up with that idea.”

Ditto for the water infused with lemon. When Zemanek took her students to a conference at a hotel in California last year, the hotel served water with lemon slices in it. The kids were awed. “When we came back, it was something they wanted to do every Friday, just to increase the amount of hydration. I don’t think adult would have come up with that, either.”

Other accomplishments by the district’s wellness committee include building a school garden and greenhouse, and writing the protocols required by the local health department to use the produce grown in the greenhouse in the school’s salad bar. They also labored to insure that 50 percent of the foods served at the concession stand during sporting events are healthy choices, and they began a series of daily physical activity and nutrition challenges.

“Every teacher has x-number of students for the challenges,” Zemanek said. “I have 15 kids on my team. The kids push the teacher and the teacher pushes the kids.”

Students in Merino built a greenhouse, with help from a grant from the Colorado Legacy Foundation, and wrote the protocols required by the health department to use fresh produce grown in the greenhouse in the school cafeteria.

Kids chose to focus on bullying in Center

In Center, the focus has been on bullying.

“We have a peer group of students that meets all year long to address various health and prevention issues, and bullying is one of those issues,” said Katrina Ruggles, the prevention and health education coordinator for the 575-student school district. “They’ve done a variety of things, and the high school students are in charge of everything, from snacks to curriculum. They created their own survey about bullying, and they’re using the information from that to create a social norming campaign.”

They found that 17 percent of students reported being bullied.

“It’s not that big of a thing, but it’s here,” said Garcia. “I’ve been bullied. I’ve been affected by it, and it hurts. I don’t want other kids to go through that. If I can make an impact with this campaign, then I’d like to do it.”

Creating learning laboratories for the state

Jones said the Legacy Foundation’s partnership with the Colorado Department of Education is key to promoting initiatives such as these, both in rural as well as urban and suburban school districts. “In some ways, we help the department to have a learning laboratory. We create pilots to test out, get early adapters for the work the department is trying to get done statewide. We’re really a new breed of public/private partnership,” she said.

While places like Center and Merino are far-removed from the Front Range population centers, what happens there is just as important as what happens in Denver or Jefferson County, Jones said.

“As a state, we have to focus on every child. We can’t focus only on the large population centers,” she said. “Education shouldn’t vary by zip code. Besides, a family in metro Denver today could be relocated and wind up in a rural school district tomorrow. Why should their quality of education be any different?”