Published 12:00 am Monday, June 4, 2007
By Katie Scarvey
Principal Chris Lineberry offers a telling anecdote about an eighth grade class trip to demonstrate how his students have had their consciousness raised about healthy lifestyles.
When the Richfield Elementary School group stopped for fast food, students protested: “This isn’t very healthy, Lineberry.”
The principal was more than happy to receive the heat, because it meant that students were actually hearing and paying attention to what they’d learned at school.
‘It scared me’
In the spring of 2005, Lineberry was shocked by data from Stanly Regional Medical Center on the body mass index (a measure of fitness) of the fourth-graders at his school.
“It scared me,” he said.
Forty-four percent of the fourth-graders were classified as either obese or overweight.
National data on adult obesity from the Centers for Disease Control startled him as well. In 1995, obesity prevalence was less than 20 percent in each of the 50 states. By 2005, only four states had obesity rates of less than 20 percent.
With help from Stanly Regional Medical Center ó which was already running a successful Passport to Fitness program for county fourth graders ó Richfield Elementary (K-8) began an innovative wellness program in 2005-2006 for all students and school staff.
Besides increasing physical activity during the school day to a full hour ó a rather astounding amount given the testing focus of today’s schools ó teachers integrate health and wellness into the curriculum daily. Teachers are also offered a wellness program, and participation is high. Cafeteria offerings have been revamped as well so the school can practice what it’s preaching.
“Learning about nutrition becomes a part of what we do,” Lineberry says.
Last year, the body mass index (BMI) of about 200 K-5 students at Richfield was measured twice.
At the beginning of the year, 56 students were classified as either obese or overweight.
By the end of the year, that number had shrunk to 48.
Lineberry believes that what the children are learning at school is staying with them over the summer break.
“We did not see an increase in BMI over the summer,” Lineberry said, “so something stuck.”
Helping to support the new climate of health at Richfield are some county-wide changes. Schools can no longer use food as a reward, for example. Food also can’t be used to raise funds unless it meets the county’s nutritional standards.
In other words, no candy bar fundraisers.
“We can do the right things for kids not only academically but emotionally and physically,” says Lineberry, who is well aware that high-stakes testing creates intense pressure for teachers to focus on academics, sometimes at the expense of other things.
Lineberry is convinced that incorporating an hour of physical activity a day has benefitted the students without detracting from their academic experience. In fact, he’d argue that students’ academic experience can be enhanced by the increased physical activity.
He points out that Richfield’s pre-K students showed more growth in reading than any other school in the system last year, he says.
Overall, reading scores were up slightly, he says. Math scores were not, but Richfield students’ math scores were consistent with the rest of the county and state. This year’s preliminary testing results point toward increases in proficiency in both reading and math, Lineberry says.Touring the school
On a recent Thursday, Lineberry took the Post on a tour.
The school’s strong focus on physical activity is evident in the first class we visit. Heather Shook’s pre-kindergarten students are outside in the paved courtyard, riding around and around on oversized tricycles.
They are clearly having a ball. Before they go home for the summer, they’ll be given the helmets to take with them.
Shook appreciates Richfield’s emphasis on exercise. When she taught kindergarten at a different school, P.E. was not a priority.
“We got maybe 25-30 minutes of playground time,” she said.
She loves how the children respond to exercise. When they come inside after active play, Shook says she can tell that they’ve released pent-up energy and are relaxed and ready to work.
During parent nights at the school, she says, the children teach their parents aerobic activities they’ve learned. And even in pre-school, children are learning to be aware of portion size.
First-grade teacher Amanda Furr likes to use physical activity as a learning tool.
On this morning, students move calmly between centers.
Bryan Harrison is at a hula hoop center. “P…A…T. Pat!” Bryan jumps from hoop to hoop as he calls out the letters to spell words. “D…A…R…K. Dark!”
First-grader Margaret Deese came to Richfield from another school and says she gets more exercise at Richfield, which she likes.
Marijke Pieterskwiers, another first grader, says she’s learned about calories and serving sizes and how to read food labels.
We move on. Lineberry points out an outdoor basketball goal, funded by the Parent Teacher Organization and local businesses.
Then it’s on to Becca Carter’s fourth-grade classroom, where students demonstrate how they exercise.
“I want 10 cherry pickers!” Carter says. Students need no further prompting, and the crisp way they count off together makes it clear they’ve done this many times before.
After the short, vigorous break, students transition back to their pre-exercise activities with amazing quickness. Students at the reading table, with Carter leading the discussion, waste no time getting back to “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.”We continue outside to the oval asphalt driveway where the buses drop off and pick up. During the school day it’s a popular spot, Lineberry says, with classes walking loops for 10-15 minutes at a time. Lineberry would like for the school to eventually have a walking trail.
We then hit the cafeteria, which is noteworthy for what’s missing ó chips, cakes and cookies. Junk food has been banished.
“If I were to walk into the cafeteria with a bag of fast food, the kids would be all over me,” Lineberry says.
Offerings include turkey sandwiches on whole wheat. Bowls of pineapple are a favorite side item.
First-grader Covey Nash says his favorite thing for lunch is vegetables. He’s selected a side of raw carrots and broccoli.
Cafeteria workers say they usually sell out of the raw vegetables when they’re offered ó today, they’ve set out 51.
Next, we visit the older grades. Eighth-grader Trevor Speights says he likes the hour-long block of exercise the older students get. Speights says the exercise calms him down.
He’s lost 15 pounds since last year and his blood pressure has gone down as well.
Natalie Byrd also enjoys the exercise period, which is filled with basketball, games, and running. “Everybody likes having gym at the end of the day,” she says.
Since exercise has become a bigger part of her day, she says she doesn’t tire as easily.
One of her friends who moved to Tennessee came back recently to participate in a school trip to Washington D.C. She told Natalie that she didn’t have any physical activity period at her school in Tennessee and missed that about Richfield. Community involvementWithout the partnership of Stanly Regional Medical Center and the child nutrition staff in the school system’s central office, none of this would have happened, Lineberry says.
Stanly Regional has been “an unbelievable resource,” says Lineberry, who emphasizes that what’s going on at Richfield, as well as several other Stanly County schools, including Endy Elementary, has been a community effort.
Margaret Rudisell, the director of disease management and health promotion at Stanly Regional, has been a big part of organizing the effort.
“Our mission says we’re going to improve the health of the community we serve,” she says. “We had good statistics to show that in the fourth grade, (the Passport to Fitness program) worked great,” Rudisell says. Students’ BMI measurements improved over the course of the year ó one solid measure of success. Still, Rudisell says, they realized that health needed to be a focus for more than one year.
“We’ve seen this increasing obesity trend and know that’s going to lead to heart attack, stroke, diabetes, chronic diseases,” she says.
“If we don’t start turning that around now, we’re not going to have enough health care workers to take care of everybody who needs it.”
Rudisell, who runs a diabetes clinic, says she’s seen 5- and 6-year-olds with type 2 diabetes. “When I graduated from nursing school, you did not see that diagnosed before age 45,” she says.
Lineberry knows that stress and inactivity can take a physical toll on teachers. He’s convinced that when teachers are part of the wellness program, they’ll not only be healthier but more invested in their students’ wellness.
For the past several years, Stanly Regional Medical Center has done cholesterol testing for Richfield staff, who have had access to wellness programming sponsored by the hospital. As a result of the program, Lineberry says, teachers have seen significant drops in their cholesterol and triglyceride levels, as well as their blood pressure.
Having healthier teachers saves the system money, Lineberry says. They’ve seen a a 27 percent drop in staff absence, which at his school means thousands of dollars saved on substitute pay ó not to mention the benefit to the students reaped by having more instructional time with the regular classroom teacher.
People across the state are noticing the positive things happening at Richfield Elementary. The school was recently named the recipient of the 2007 NC Prevention Award for School Excellence by NC Prevention Partners, a non-profit organization that works with more than 1,500 partners across the state to improve the health of all North Carolinians. Long-term approach
Lineberry knows there are no quick fixes to the problem of childhood obesity. He likes to equate the challenge with the four-minute mile.
Years ago, he says, people thought running a four-minute mile was impossible ó until someone did it.
“It didn’t get easier,” Lineberry says. “It just got possible.”
Lineberry wants to make it clear that what’s happened at Richfield is the result of his staff’s hard work.
“The real stars are the teachers,” he says.
Contact Katie Scarvey at 704-797-4270 or firstname.lastname@example.org.