By Terri McLean
For the first time in American history, children could live shorter lives than their parents. That is, unless something is done about childhood obesity.
That was the message – and the challenge – from John Heard III, superintendent of Alabama's Perry County School District, during the KSBA conference clinic, Healthy Students Learn Better – Moving from Policy to Practice.
“Obesity causes so many problems,” said Heard, who was one of four speakers during the session. Aside from serious health problems such as Type II diabetes and heart disease, obesity has been shown to lead to problems in school, including absenteeism, behavior issues and poor academic performance.
PHOTO: Jacy Wooley, a Kentucky program manager for Healthy Schools Program,leads her clinic session in a few exercises while they wait for the next speaker to get ready to speak. They took several brief exercise breaks during this session.
“If you don't think we have a problem, step into one of your schools,” he said.
Heard was so concerned about the problem in his own central Alabama district several years ago that he got involved with the Alliance for a Healthier Generation, whose Healthy Schools Program offers best practice resources and support to schools at no cost. (The program was launched in 2006 with funding from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.) Since then he has become such a believer that he is now an “ambassador” for the program and encourages other districts to follow suit.
“Fitter children perform better,” he said, adding that studies have shown that students who are fitter do better on state math and reading assessments. In addition, students who participate in the recommended amount of physical activity behave better, get better grades and miss less school than their “sedentary peers,” Heard said.
Still, he is often asked why schools should take on such a problem.
“Why the focus on schools? Because 20 percent of the U.S. population spends their day in schools and consumes up to 50 percent of their daily calories on campus. That makes them the ideal places to teach healthy skills,” Heard said.
“Schools aren't the cause of obesity, neither are they the sole solution,” said Jacy Wooley, a Healthy Schools Program manager in Kentucky. “But children are there a good part of the day … and health and success in schools are interrelated.”
Wooley said the Healthy Schools Program provides a framework for helping schools improve in nutrition, physical activity and staff wellness. It uses a six-step process that leads schools through models of change.
“We focus on baby steps and small, achievable goals,” she said.
Such baby steps might be eliminating booster club doughnut sales in the mornings or setting up salad bars in the school cafeteria. Or making sure school meals include as much local produce as possible, as Hart County Schools and some other Kentucky districts do.
“The Alliance brings a lot of good resources to help us help our kids,” said Steve Caven, Hart County Schools’ director of pupil personnel.
Heard reminded attendees that “policies are the blueprints” for successful programs. He suggested that effective, sustainable health/wellness programs in schools might start with a school wellness committee or council, and then follow with reachable goals for nutrition, physical activity, vending machine sales and fundraising activities.
And last but not least, he said staff wellness should be as much a part of a school health and wellness program as anything else. In his district, there are state-of-the-art exercise rooms for staff in each school. School employees also participate in a weight-loss competition called Scale Back Alabama.
“Employee wellness is essential,” he said. “A well employee is a better teacher, a better cafeteria worker ...”
– McLean is a writer from Lexington