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Mingo schools fight poverty with fitness

Bill Clinton helps W.Va. kids get fit

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- In 2010, Mingo County Schools Superintendent Randy Keathley took a hard look at the facts. Thirty two percent of his fifth-graders had high blood pressure, according to West Virginia University screening, and 35 percent were obese.

Twenty-seven percent of second-graders were already obese.

More than 80 percent of all students qualified for free or reduced-price lunches.

"It threw us," said Keathley, a Williamson native. "It caused us to refocus our attention. Hungry or sluggish kids don't perform well."

Mingo's academic achievement was well below the state average, and the absentee/dropout rates were above state average.

In the past two years, Mingo schools have launched a system-wide wellness campaign. "Our children deserve no less," Keathley said. "Research tells us, the lower the income, the worse children's health and achievement is likely to be." Many studies show that, the lower the income, the higher the probability of diabetes and obesity.

Mingo already has the state's highest hypertension rate and almost a 40 percent obesity rate, "so what we're doing will affect the future," Keathley said.

"We expect substantial results over time," he said, "but we're already seeing enough results to know we're on the right track." 

* Between Sept. 1 and Feb. 1 of this year, there were 195 fewer out-of-school suspensions system-wide than there were in the same time period the year before. "Disciplinary referrals have dropped sharply," Keathley said.

* Mingo's Westest scores rose in reading and math after the first year of the wellness program, especially at the elementary level. Elementary proficiency scores rose 8.1 percent for all students in reading and 14.4 percent for all students in math.

* Mingo's dropout rate was cut in half in the past year, moving them from above the state average to below the state average.

* The county's attendance rate rose three points to 96 percent.

"We haven't really substantially changed anything else, so I would say it's the wellness program," Keathley said. "Talking with our principals, it's evident that the overall atmosphere of the schools is changing. I would say students are feeling better about school and enjoying it more."

Mingo County has become one of five West Virginia school systems recognized by the USDA's Healthier U.S. School Challenge, which promotes "excellence in nutrition and physical activity."

How are they getting those results? They're making changes on several fronts:

They're beefing up after-school physical activity and added several sports: volleyball, golf, track and soccer. "Counties like Kanawha already have those, but they're not common in southern West Virginia," he said.

With help from the state Office of Child Nutrition, all cooks were trained to cook healthier meals from scratch. Mingo adopted the universal free breakfast program and doubled the number of students eating breakfast. They serve a fresh fruit or vegetable snack every afternoon through a federal program for low-income elementary schools.

Teaming up with the Mingo County Diabetes Coalition, they started a running/walking program in middle schools. Every eighth-grader got a pedometer and a 10,000-steps-a-day challenge. They ran/walked their own 5K. "We hope to spread this program to all grades," Keathley said.

"The collaboration with the community groups has been phenomenal, because students are getting healthier messages in school and out of school," he said.

Every Mingo school also joined the Healthy Schools Program of the Alliance for a Healthier Generation. That's a free national program that includes 158 West Virginia schools, sponsored by the Bill Clinton and Robert Wood Johnson Foundations. The program helps schools plan next steps for their wellness program and give teachers workshops and materials for four years.

As part of the Healthy Schools program, each school now has a wellness coordinator who organizes ongoing activities for kids and teachers. "It's an important step beyond the wellness council," Keathley said, "Someone is responsible for making it happen."

You can see it happening

On a recent Friday at Mingo's Lenore K-8, about 60 kids were rocking out on the stage with several teachers, no partners, boom box blasting, constant motion, shifting easily from the Macarena to The Twist to the Wobble. Every five minutes or so, the music segued. So did the kids.

"They love it, dancing through the decades," said principal Sabrina Runyon. "We teach them the moves, and they go at it!" In the gym, other students shot hoops and ran relays. One group was training for a 5K.

It was Fun Friday, last period every week, Reward Friday for students who make it through the week with less than three violations in any class. Instead of candy or objects as rewards for responsible behavior, they choose activities like free time in the gym, shooting hoops or running relays with their friends, or dancing with a teacher who teaches them cool dance moves.

"This works better than any reward system we've ever had," principal Runyon said. "We make it so much fun they don't want to miss it."

The reward system is part of the schoolwide wellness program. "We're weaving physical activity through the whole week now," she said. "We've been doing it more than a year now, and we see the benefits. When kids stir their brain cells by moving, they focus better and perform better.

"Our discipline problems are also way down since we started this." Last year, 47 violations were reported in January. This January, only two violations were reported. "We feel the extra movement lets them release energy they would have spent acting out," she said.

She shifted the schedule to get the kids moving more:

* Lenore now serves universal free breakfast and cooks from scratch.  For 18 minutes of the 47-minute lunch period, all students go outside or to the gym in bad weather. "If we can pull that off with 600 students, any school can," Runyon said. "It's a matter of making a schedule and sticking to it, like a well-oiled machine."

* Kindergarten through 4th grade get another recess during the day, so younger kids get two activity breaks.

* Teachers cannot take away recess as punishment. "Lots of times, a misbehaving kid just needs to get up and run around." Instead, they get a violation, the loss of a class trip or party, or if necessary, a visit to the office.

* Runyon often plays a "Jammin' Minute" over the PA system first thing. Sleepy kids stand beside their desks and stretch and move. "Teachers do that kind of thing all day too."

* Music classes involve movement: modified yoga, physical learning activities to music.

When the wellness coordinators from the various schools met in January, Superintendent Keathley came too. "I'm here because I want you to know how important I think your wellness job is," he told them.

Amy File, state program director for the Alliance for a Healthy Generation, listened as each school described their activities. Some listed teacher wellness activities too. "We've got 17 teachers signed up to run the Hatfield-McCoy Marathon," said Lenore's Pam Chapman. "The kids are impressed."

"I see a big, positive difference in just in a year," File told the coaches. "When we first started, you were organizing one-day events, like the Cupid Shuffle. This year, I'm hearing about things that go on week after week. I'm hearing about teachers as role models."

File gave all the coaches a new DVD of quick classroom exercises. "The Alliance is always giving us useful stuff, and it costs us nothing," said Kay Maynard, Mingo wellness coordinator.

Wellness coaches, existing staffers, get paid an extra $250 a year from excess levy funds. "Obviously, we don't do it for the money," Chapman said. "I'm a believer."

"We get a whole lot of value for that little bit of money," Keathley said.  "Our excess levy lets us do the after-school activities and have the wellness coaches," he said. "We're very thankful for that, because it's working."

Reach Kate Long at 304-348-1798 or katelong@wvgazette.com

"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.                         


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