By Jennifer Wohlleb
A fitness program in Covington Independent Schools has been so successful that some of its students are trying to walk to Walt Disney World – or at least the equivalent distance.
“There’s a walking club at Sixth District Elementary where they are using pedometers,” said Natalie Westkamp, elementary fitness coordinator of the Fitness Rocks program. “They have log books where they record their steps. They think they can walk to Walt Disney World and even when they are waiting in line they march in place so they can get steps.”
She said the students also are marking their progress on a map.
PHOTO: Latonia Elementary fourth-graders Dominic Pouncy, left and Jermaine Hayes were neck-and-neck as they came out of the collapsible tunnels the school used to set up an obstacle course. The students were participating in a Fitness Rocks after-school program.
This club is just one of many activities Covington has been able to offer students through its Fitness Rocks program. The district started Fitness Rocks at each of its seven schools three years ago through a Carol M. White Physical Education grant from the U. S. Department of Education, with a goal of creating a healthier community. It combines fitness and wellness activities in an after-school program four or five days a week. Students participate in everything from flag football and other organized sports to walking and running clubs and video games that get students moving.
“The activities they do after school are based on the SPARK (Sports, Play and Active Recreation for Kids) curriculum for out-of-school-time,” said Tom Haggard, Covington’s resource development coordinator. “We’ve also used the program to do a lot of professional development with our physical education teachers. They’ve been able to adopt the SPARK curriculum for the school-day instruction and it’s really helped out, giving them lots of resources and ideas and innovative ways to do physical activities during PE class.”
The program also provides a healthy snack.
The district is seeing results. Student body mass has dropped by 4 percent while age appropriate, upper-body strength and endurance has increased 12 percent. The number of students who engage in at least 60 minutes of daily physical activity has increased 6 percent as has the number of students eating fruits two or more times a day and vegetables three or more times a day.
“We measure it by doing four assessments a year at each school,” Haggard said. “We pull a random sample of students at each school and do a quarterly fitness assessment that includes upper body strength, flexibility, an endurance test (running), and we give them a survey to find out how many fruits and vegetables they’re eating a day and what their daily physical activity is.”
Students participating in Fitness Rocks also saw a greater increase in their math and science MAP (Measure of Academic Progress) scores over students who aren’t active in the program.
“It’s been demonstrated how students who are active 60 minutes or more a day have increased academic success,” Haggard said. “And what we’re thrilled with is how many of our students are taking part in this, and it’s not just the athletes or the kids who you think would typically be doing after-school fitness. These are kids who may be overweight or kids who don’t typically join a sports team. But the SPARK curriculum has been really helpful in giving our fitness coaches and PE teachers ways to get all kids engaged no matter their skill level. That’s the key, getting as many of them involved as possible.”
Districtwide, 55 percent of elementary students have participated in the program this year, while 19 percent of high school students have.
Westkamp said activities are geared toward each age group.
“At the high school we have more specific activities, like Zumba, kickboxing, body boot camp and we’ve just started karate,” she said. “For fourth grade on up we have more sports and for the younger kids we focus more on skills, like tossing and catching.”
Haggard said this is the final year of the grant, but thanks to smart management the district will be able to do a no-cost extension for another year.
“We’ve been really working hard, especially this year, at finding a sustainability model because it has been so impactful for the community and parents and students alike; they just love it,” he said.
In addition to after-school activities, Fitness Rocks sponsors family nights at every school that focus on fitness, wellness and nutrition. Program coordinators also are looking at systemic change at the district level.
“Natalie’s been working with our superintendent and the school board about district wellness policies and with SBDMs about school wellness policies,” Haggard said. “We’ve also dovetailed it to a couple of our schools that got the fresh fruit and vegetable grant from KDE and they’ve been able to get even more exposure to fresh fruit and vegetables that they had never seen or tried before. We tried to integrate some of those lessons into our after-school program. Everyone is really buying in to what we’re doing, so that’s going to be really helpful moving forward.”
Westkamp said the efforts will go a little further next year.
“We’re going to try to do a better job setting goals and then celebrating those successes,” she said. “We’re letting students make more decisions and set goals and work toward them.”
She hopes these good habits grow with students.
“By the time these kids get older, this will be the new normal,” she said.