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."