After reading reports from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that suggest healthier students tend to be better learners, administrators inside Colorado Springs School District 11 grew curious: Was there a correlation between student fitness and Colorado Student Assessment Program (CSAP) scores? To find out, teachers and researchers in the district gathered anonymous data about top performers on the Fitnessgram, a measurement of student strength, flexibility, and aerobic capacity, and compared those data with the same students’ performance on the CSAP.
“Almost across the board, there was an indication that students who scored high on the Fitnessgram had higher test scores,” explains Jessica Sharp, director of grants for the school district. The converse was also true, she adds. Kids who didn’t perform well on the Fitnessgram were ranked as only partially proficient—or less—on the CSAP.
While the district’s informal research doesn’t suggest that poor health and low levels of fitness cause poor academic performance, it does suggest a strong correlation between the two, and indicates that improving student health, particularly among low-income populations, might be a key factor in closing the achievement gap in public schools.
This idea—that student health and academic performance are inextricably linked—is gaining traction nationally. Studies coming out of places like the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and Columbia University repeatedly show that physical activity and better nutrition can have a positive impact on a student’s cognitive abilities, classroom behavior, and overall learning. As a result, sweeping change is taking place in schools across the nation as well as here in Colorado, where numerous integrative efforts are underway to teach kids about nutrition, improve their access to healthy food, and increase their levels of physical activity each week.
But bumping up grades and test scores is only one of the motivations behind these efforts, explains Chris Lindley, director of the Prevention Services Division at the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. The fact is that student health has been rapidly declining in Colorado for years. In 2003, Colorado was one of only three states where less than 10 percent of children were overweight or obese. Just four years later, that number had skyrocketed to 27.2 percent and Colorado had fallen to 23rd place. Turn the page for a sampling of Colorado’s efforts to reverse that trend.
? Go, Slow, Whoa
Getting students to choose healthier food options begins with teaching them what those food options are. LiveWell Colorado, an organization focused on preventing and reducing obesity, has been promoting the Go, Slow, Whoa program in Colorado elementary schools. Designed at the National Institutes of Health, the program teaches students about “go” foods they can eat all the time, such as fruits and vegetables; “slow” foods, which are foods higher in fat and sugar that should be eaten in moderation; and “whoa” foods, which are special-occasion treats like birthday cake. “It’s sad but true that a lot of kids don’t know there is a difference between eating an apple and a brownie,” explains Maren Stewart, president and CEO of LiveWell. The program also supplies nutrition information students can take home to their families.
? Culinary Boot Camps
Over the past couple of years, the Colorado Health Foundation has been organizing culinary boot camps wherein school cooks and nutrition directors spend a week learning how to implement scratch cooking. Two years ago, high school staff members from Adams County District 14 attended one such camp, returned to school, and began making lunch items like salad dressing, barbecue chicken, and spaghetti with marinara sauce from scratch. Gradually, the district has been able to cut the amount of frozen and highly processed heat-and-serve dishes from 90 to 50 percent. “This year, we’re going to take it down even farther,” says Cindy Veney, manager of nutrition services for the district.
? Breakfast in the Classroom
Another effort underway in Adams 14—as well as several other low-income districts, including Aurora Public Schools—is Breakfast in the Classroom. “We have many severe-needs kids in the district who show up just in time for the start of school and they’re hungry,” Veney says. This program allows teachers to pick up breakfast for their students, take it to the classroom, and make it available during the first 15 minutes of class. Though only a year old, the program has shown impressive results. Teachers say behavioral problems are down and kids are more attentive. Health clerks say the lines outside their doors at the start of the day have been significantly reduced, if not eliminated. And CSAP scores recorded after the first year of implementation were up three percent in reading and one percent overall over the previous year.
? Better Food Choices
It’s almost impossible to count the number of statewide efforts underway that are designed to improve the quality of food available to Colorado schoolchildren. The Good Food Project, created by Colorado Springs School District 11, encompasses many of them. These efforts include using locally sourced “farm-to-school” fruits, vegetables, dairy products, and beef; offering fresh fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and lean meats; providing vegetarian options; reducing the number of items with dyes, antibiotics, hormones, MSG, trans fats, and artificial sweeteners; and implementing a community garden.
? Recess Before Lunch
In a traditional lunch program, students go from the classroom to the cafeteria, race through lunch, and then hurry out to play. But this approach has been found to cause several problems: Students eat quickly, they don’t finish their meals, and they bring playground drama back to class with them. Simply by requiring students to go to recess before lunch, school districts in Fort Collins, Loveland, and Commerce City have found that students are more likely to eat a full meal and come back to class ready to focus on their studies.
? Increased Physical Activity
Last year, the Colorado Legislature passed a bill requiring each school district to make available an average of 30 minutes each day for physical activity for elementary-age schoolchildren. One concept in Aurora Public Schools brings together physical education, science, math, and reading teachers who work together to integrate physical education with their classes during the day. The initiative not only allows students access to more physical activity each day, but it also teaches them how to chart progress through assessment tools that boost their math and reading skills.
Many organizations are involved in the design and implementation of these health and nutrition efforts, including LiveWell Colorado, the Colorado Legacy Foundation, RMC Health, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, the Colorado Department of Education, Kaiser Permanente, and school districts statewide. To learn more about boosting student health, visit colegacy.org and cdphe.state.co.us (search for School Age Health Initiatives).