Wellness advocate Anita Courtney envisions a magnet school program in Fayette County with a health sciences curriculum, desks that allow students to exercise while studying, a significant garden, a workout room, relaxation rooms and extensive natural light.
There might be daily yoga and meditation classes, like those that physical education teacher Mary Kay Sliney leads at Lafayette High School, and regularly scheduled activity breaks.
There would be no use of food as a reward in class, and only healthy food would be served at school events and student birthday parties.
Courtney, director of the Tweens Nutrition and Fitness Coalition, recently spoke of that vision with the Fayette County school board, and she voiced her concern about uneven and inequitable wellness policies among the district’s schools.
All schools follow the same food guidelines in their cafeterias. It’s what happens outside the cafeteria that concerns her. Some schools reward students frequently with food; have no class party guidelines, so kids get cupcakes during the school day; and allow fundraisers that sell candy bars, doughnuts and cookie dough.
Veterans Park Elementary has only healthy fundraisers, has stopped the cupcake pipeline for school parties and has wellness training for teachers, Courtney said.
Some elementary schools have 15-minute recess periods; others have 30.
If you happen to be in a school with good wellness practices, you are likely to grow up healthier and have an edge in life. It’s not fair to the kids in the schools that don’t prioritize wellness practices.
Anita Courtney, wellness advocate
Bryan Station Middle School has daily health and physical education for students, but in other middle schools, Courtney said, “students can graduate without ever having had a day of PE or a single health class.”
“There is such inequity, because there isn’t a system to assess and hold schools accountable,” she said.
“The school wellness environment is a significant contributor to student well-being. If you happen to be in a school with good wellness practices, you are likely to grow up healthier and have an edge in life. It’s not fair to the kids in the schools that don’t prioritize wellness practices.”
Courtney’s group is a community partner with the district. Its mission is to put the brakes on the childhood obesity epidemic by promoting healthful eating and physical activity.
Debbie Boian, the district’s interim wellness coordinator, said some district officials have discussed a health and wellness magnet program and are waiting for new Superintendent Manny Caulk to share his vision, after specialists finish auditing district programs. District staff also are waiting for school board members to present their priorities regarding wellness.
Kansas, Arkansas and Florida have health and wellness magnet schools, and Courtney said the programs are becoming popular across the United States.
Courtney said such a program in Fayette County could offer courses in anatomy, physiology and nutrition to prepare students for careers in medicine, nursing, nutrition and psychology.
“It’s certainly worth looking into,” said Boian, the wellness coordinator. She said many students might choose health care and wellness careers, and “we owe it to them to look at it.”
Sliney said that since she began teaching yoga and meditation classes at Lafayette in 2010, students report being less stressed and doing better in math class. In addition to the daily classes, some Lafayette teachers are using videos featuring meditation techniques during breaks in the classroom.
Courtney’s coalition is cosponsoring a workshop that can help teachers improve their own health and incorporate wellness policies in the classroom.
Under state law, the district must review its wellness policies every year. At that Jan. 25 review with school board members, Courtney said this year’s wellness report is the strongest she has seen. She said it’s more detailed and reflects an increase in wellness initiatives.
She did, however, recommend improvements: using a standardized assessment method for all schools, having a full-time district wellness coordinator, and improving the districtwide wellness policy.
Courtney suggested that once the federal government finalizes school health and wellness policies, three policies be adopted districtwide in Fayette: end the use of food as reward, require at least 20 minutes of daily recess for all elementary students, and have at least 50 percent of food served at school events meet federal healthy-snack guidelines.
School-based councils make their own decisions, so districtwide decisions are limited, Boian said.
But, she said, “we are trying to provide as much support as we can to the schools.”
A new peer-to-peer training program for teachers about wellness, healthful snacks and physical activity in the classroom is designed to improve student achievement, Boian said. “I think once teachers begin to hear that from their peers, it will be easier for them to buy into it and implement it into their own classrooms without us having to force it on the schools.”