- 05-22-06, 05:59 PM #1
School union inspires anti-obesity movement
School union inspires anti-obesity movement
By JOSIE HUANG, Staff Writer
CALAIS — Yawns and foot-dragging typically signal the first day back from vacation. Not so at Calais Elementary School, where random bursts of dance music sound along the hallway every day.
"Slide to the left! Now, slide to the right!"
"Take it back now, ya'll."
In Jen Donovan's classroom, fifth-graders are up on their feet, twirling and clapping as they do every day to a recording of one of their favorites, "Cha Cha Slide." When the last beat fades, Donovan says, "Now it's time to do some real stuff."
"Nooooooooooo," the students moan, still standing.
In a state with New England's highest rate of obesity, students here can't seem to get enough of daily classroom workouts. It's been that way since they became part of a first-in-Maine policy implemented this year in grades K-8 of School Union 106.
Mathematics teachers lead students in jumping jacks while reciting multiplication tables. In social studies, students memorize the continents while performing a song and a skit. Some teachers prefer to take students for walks outside.
No minimum time has been set, but some teachers say they add up to 20 minutes of exercise on certain days. This is on top of 40-minute physical education classes twice a week, and at least two hours of recess a week. Most students at Calais Elementary also participate in the 90-minute after-school program.
The new policy comes at a time when the federal No Child Left Behind law is emphasizing standardized testing more, spurring school districts around the country to cut health and art to make more time for reading and mathematics. In Maine, physical education classes are bearing the brunt of cuts, physical activity advocate Amy Root said.
"A lot of this is being dictated by needing to meet the Maine Learning Results," said Root, who works for Take Time!, a partnership between the Maine Center for Public Health and the Maine Nutrition Network.
In 2004, Take Time! encouraged nearly 20 Maine schools to try workouts in the classroom. School Union 106 is the first district in the state to integrate the workouts into a policy, though other schools, such as Gardiner's, could follow, Root said.
The school union's health coordinator, Heather Henry, said each of the district's three school boards Ç in Calais, Alexander and Robbinston Ç adopted the policy unanimously.
"We have a huge obesity epidemic in Washington County," Henry said, noting that a state survey shows that 59 percent of the county population is overweight or obese. "Change is hard, for sure," Henry said. "But up here, people are more than willing to do what it takes to help keep kids healthy."
Henry, a 40-year-old mother of two teenagers who has climbed Tanzania's Mount Kilimanjaro, said bursts of physical activity in the classroom allow students to burn off excess energy so they are less restless in class. They also help the brain work better, she said.
Fifth-grader Sarah Smith embraces the notion.
"It gets your brain moving for class and it's healthy," Smith said. "And if you don't exercise, you can get really fat."
If anything, it was the teachers who needed the most convincing, Donovan said. Some worried about when they would be able to fit exercise into the schedule. Others, she said, didn't want to look silly doing the hokey-pokey or the chicken dance.
Donovan said younger teachers and teachers of lower grades were the first to shrug off those fears.
"It just takes a few people to get on board, and everybody follows," Donovan said. The added emphasis on health in school is paying off for more than students. Students ask for copies of different songs played in class so they can share them with their relatives, friends and fellow Girl Scouts.
Parents can watch their children exercising by flipping to the public-access TV channel, which several times a week airs a video taped by students from the local technology school.
The health education also extends to food. At Calais Elementary, teachers can tell students to refrain from eating junk food they've brought to school. And every Monday, students are asked to make a special effort to bring nutritious snacks to school, such as fruit and yogurt.
School nurse Sue Clark said the school policies are adding to a growing awareness about health that is apparent throughout the city.
"I see families where everybody is overweight out walking," Clark said. "I'm like, 'Yes!' They're working on a cooperative effort. It's in the forefront of their minds."
An involved community was visible at a family nutrition-and-fitness night last month. A couple hundred parents and children showed up to watch the demonstration of new additions to the fitness program: seven Sony Play Stations and the popular video game "In the Groove."
As with the more famous arcade game "Dance Dance Revolution," players mimic dance moves on the screen while stepping on a special sensor-studded mat that records the players' accuracy.
The game will be used after school as part of a nationwide pilot program called Generation Fit, and in the classrooms by teachers who want it, Henry said. It is also being rolled out in some Litchfield schools.
Early signs show it's already a hit.
"This is more fun than playing Pokemon," spiky-haired second-grader Bradley McFadden said of his GameBoy game. "It rocks hard."
Parents looked on appreciatively from the gymnasium bleachers. Because it is so isolated, the Calais area doesn't offer many play outlets for children, Marcia Lund said. The roller skating rink and the mall are in Bangor, two hours away.
"Kids here have to make their own activities," said Lund, whose daughter is in second grade.
As far as he is concerned, Patrick McDonald said he wants his daughter Jana, a kindergartner, to get as much activity as she can at school, even though she is "fireball" at home and has earned a yellow belt in karate.
"I don't think you can have enough," said McDonald, a car parts store manager and part-time police officer who wants to start working out himself. "A healthy body is a healthy mind."
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