Phares grew up active, wants kids active and fit
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- James Phares, to be sworn in as state superintendent of schools on Wednesday, grew up in Elkins. "I was a very active kid. Just about any evening, you'd find me out playing baseball, football basketball, Hide and go seek, tag, et cetera.
"Anyone who wonders if I will promote physical activity in the schools doesn't know me," he told the Gazette.
He comes into the office on the heels of ex-Superintendent Jorea Marple, who gained national attention for programs aimed at increasing child fitness and lowering obesity. Phares said he agrees with those goals.
One in four West Virginia fifth-graders now has high blood pressure. Twenty eight percent are obese. "That's unacceptable," he said.
His wife taught physical education and health for 25 years before she became a physical therapist. Two of his sons are PE teachers. "The whole family is physically active," he said. "The biggest slacker is me."
When he and his wife -- his childhood sweetheart -- moved back to Elkins, "we were driving around in our old neighborhoods, and I asked her, "What's missing?"
"There were no children outside playing," he said. "In my day, a kid couldn't go two blocks without getting into some game or some activity," he said. Now kids are inside on digital games, he notes, "and parents feel it's riskier now for kids to go outside."
He favors an increase in physical activity at school, he said.
"But here's the problem: Schools cannot find time to do adequate physical education. So there has to be other spots built into the day for physical activity."
A year ago, Marple challenged schools to add 15 minutes of physical activity to each child's day. "In Randolph, we made sure that every one of our schools had resources to do that," Phares said, "then we monitored to make sure they used them."
Randolph teachers say that Phares made it mandatory, directing that children should be up and moving around during every class period.
A good county superintendent "provides resources for schools so they can come up with their own plans," he said. "For instance, at Homestead Elementary, they start their day now with calisthenics and do math and word problems or recite things as they do them. At Tygart Valley High School, they walk the students down the hallway and through the gym.
"Probably the biggest thing I did to support it was I'd go out and talk to the schools about what they were doing. A lot of people don't understand the power of the local or state superintendent coming in and asking teachers about what they're doing. Once you show interest, they become encouraged to do that.
"That's how I operated as a local superintendent, and it will be how I operate as state superintendent," he said. "I show an interest. Put out challenges. Set expectations."
Nutrition: 'We're serious about it.'
Before Christmas, he was already going from office to office at the Department of Education, talking to people. "I'm doing my homework," he said. "I introduce myself and then I say, "OK, what do you do?"
When he talked with an employee who was throwing a holiday office party, Phares asked if the refreshments would pass Office of Child Nutrition guidelines.
"I understand that it was a holiday party and no kids were involved," he said. "I asked the question because it's something we have to think about if we're serious about it."
He supports the Office of Child Nutrition's efforts to make more nutritious meals and increase the number of children who eat them. "I was a knucklehead early on. I didn't think it would work. But I had to learn, like everyone else."
All but one Randolph County schools hit their targets this year, he said. "But it was tremendously difficult to get it going at first, because we had to change mindsets. Cooks, all good people, had certain mindsets about how they prepared food, etc. etc.
"Then we had to go through two wars with the students, the ketchup wars and the ranch dressing wars. Students wanted more ketchup, he said, but "that was prescribed by USDA to keep he calories and salt intake where it was supposed to be. It also took them awhile to get used to the USDA recipe for ranch dressing with less salt."
The current war has to do with portion size, he said. "They can have all the vegetables and salad they want, but what they want is four hamburgers," he said.
The wars die away as people get used to the new situation, he said. "Our cooks work with our dietician now." Students eat the ranch dressing.
Good data are needed
Phares said he wants to support Healthy Schools programs. "I think my role will be: How do I facilitate the kind of data collection through the Office of Healthy Schools and Office of Child Nutrition that will show the value of what's happening?"
The Office of Healthy Schools coordinates statewide physical activity and school nurse programs. In February, major federal funding for that office runs out. Marple had told the Gazette she intended to keep it.
"We are hoping to keep it," Phares said. "There is value in that office, but resources are always an issue, and part of our mandate is to make it more efficient.
Good data will be needed to show the programs are having an impact, he said. For instance, "in Randolph County, I've got data from one school that shows the Healthy Schools programs have helped with discipline." An assistant principal "gathered data prior to the expansion of our breakfast program and after. It shows discipline referrals decreased," he said.
He wants to keep and perhaps expand WVU's CARDIAC health screening program that gathers data from year to year on children's blood pressure, cholesterol and level of obesity. "This is invaluable data," he said.
Counties with no local levy cannot provide adequate health care, he noted, so school health care is unequal from county to county. He favors more funding for school nurses, but doesn't think it's politically possible as long as their salaries come from the same pot as teachers' salaries. He's "all for" school-based health centers.
He praised the state's Physical Education Academy that trains working PE teachers. "They're changing the emphasis away from sports that a few people play well to life sports activities that people can do all their lives." He also wants policy to require certified PE teachers.
He wants food at all Department of Education gatherings to meet Office of Child Nutrition standards. "If we require the kids' food to meet those standards, ours should too," he said. "We need to walk the walk."
Reach Kate Long at 304-348-1798 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
"The Shape We're In" has been supported by a Dennis A. Hunt Fund for Health Journalism fellowship, administered by the California Endowment Health Journalism Fellowships at the University of Southern California's Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism.