MILE DAYS Dispatches: Gauer Elementary How to Help an At-Risk Community
By Jeff Venables
May 6 marked the 60th
books. The ARA’s NATIONAL RUN A MILE DAYS, now in its seventh year, was held appropriately before,
during and after the anniversary, from May 2 through 12. The MILE DAYS initiative continues to grow, most notably as the premier event of a larger, year-round effort to fight sedentarism and obesity among young people, the AMAA YOUTH FITNESS FUND. One major goal of the fund is to support grassroots mile training programs for elementary and middle schools. AMAA and the ARA are planning to award grants through the program to a minimum of 30 schools, with a gift of 500 – 900 “BE A MILER” t-shirts per school to support mile training efforts within each physical education department.ARA executive director Dave Watt says, “This is a direct result of our fundraising success through our AMAA runners at the Boston Marathon. We have doubled our net fundraising totals in a year—thanks to some motivated fundraisers this year who ran Boston.”A Problem with Several Facets Despite recent modest reductions in overweight and obesity among some populations, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention continue to remind us that during the past 20 years there has been a dramatic increase in obesity in the U.S., with more than a third of U.S. adults now obese and 17%—that’s 12.5 million—of youth aged 2 through 19 now obese. As nutritionist Dr. Keith Kantor, author of the book The Green Box League of Nutritious Justice, points out, “It used to be kids would watch too much TV. Now instead of just TV it’s also electronic games, Facebook, etc. and the kids are literally on it hours a day—that’s their activity.” The rise in childhood obesity is indeed closely correlated with the rise in screen media availability and use. Dr. Debbie Schroeder, principal at Gauer Elementary School in Anaheim, California, has been fighting the trend toward sedentarism in youth for years. Hers has become a model school in the MILE DAYS program, promoting running for her young scholars all year round. Her insights from the front lines of the battle might serve other communities trying to get kids moving and to embrace a fitness lifestyle permanently. Dr. Schroeder notes, “In communities such as the one surrounding Gauer School, there are additional issues of high density living in which concrete and asphalt dominate the landscape, as well as issues of safety with high traffic volume and criminal activities. There is a tendency for some families to keep their children indoors as a form of protection from negative influences. All of this leads to a sedentary lifestyle.” But it is the hope of many like Watt, Kantor and Schroeder—and most likely Sir Roger Bannister as well—that families, schools and communities can all help provide the top-down leadership needed to set children on a different path.
Make it Family Business
Dr. Kantor is a huge advocate of starting in the home. “To get the kids involved you have to get the whole family involved. Some parents tell their children to do it but they don’t do it themselves.” He anniversary of Roger Bannister’s legendary sub-four minute race into the history cites the classic example of an overweight dad ordering his kids to exercise. “If he says go out and do exercises and he won’t do them with you, it doesn’t work.” One strategy for families to consider is declaring a “Screen Sabbath,” one day per week during which all tablets, computers, TVs, games and mobile devices are switched off, allowing the family some quality time together—hopefully outside!
Tools for Schools
Schools are the next line of defense against bad diet and inactivity. The CDC has some terrific resources on their website, detailing blueprints for families, hospitals, schools and communities. For downloadable PDFs, visit: http://www.cdc.gov/obesity/strategies/communitystrategies.html. For example, schools can apply for a salad bar to help students eat more fruits and vegetables. It’s also helpful to limit foods and drinks with added sugar, fat and salt that can be purchased outside the school lunch program. Schools can also download the CDC’s School Health Index, a self-assessment and planning tool designed to improve health policies and programs.
Q and A: First Principles
The ARA asked Debbie Schroeder to comment in more detail on what Gauer School has been doing specifically, and the following are excerpts from that correspondence.
Your school is notable for its year-round commitment to walking, jogging and running. Any advice for other communities and schools that wish to make MILE DAY last all year?
For me, it always starts with setting an example that paves the way for others. It’s important for staff members to adopt a healthy lifestyle, and then share their experiences with their scholars. If you are currently struggling with being physically fit, then you have an even greater opportunity to demonstrate for your scholars that it is never too late to take the first step, or in the case of running, the first stride. Additionally, be creative about how physical fitness can be infused throughout the school day. Undoubtedly, academic skills improve when the scholars feel better physically. It’s all about what we call the triangle of life with physical, social-emotional and intellectual fitness forming the triangle, with the heart in the center of it all.
What are some ways you’ve been able to introduce physical fitness into the school day?
Instead of having our scholars sit at the tables and wait for the morning bell to ring after breakfast, they walk or run a designated course while talking with friends. In addition to P.E., our scholars are provided with mini-breaks during class to get the “wiggles” out. On Fridays, they also participate in dance classes taught by two experts in this area. After school we offer clubs for cheerleading, dance, running, volleyball, etc. Our scholars also track the number of miles they walk or run in the Gauer Gators Running Strong Program. Many of our scholars participate in weekend 5K races when we can get free access or discounted fees. We thank race organizers in the local area for this generous gift. As a staff, we share what we do for our own health. I think most of our scholars know that I get up extra early so I can practice yoga and run my four miles every morning. As a school, we celebrate the gift of good health by taking care of ourselves.
How have you been able to use the ARA as a resource?
[Gauer] Mile Day is the main way we have connected with the American Running Association. It is a highly charged day with everyone’s participation, including parent volunteers. The scholars are also thrilled to “make the news” with their pictures on the website for NATIONAL RUN A MILE DAYS. It makes them feel proud to be a part of something bigger than themselves—a movement to become stronger through physical fitness. How do you feel your school’s efforts may have positively affected the larger community? I believe our parents are in full agreement that our school goes beyond teaching the traditional academic subjects, and they appreciate the enriched curriculum. Often there is a perspective that scholars living in areas of poverty need to focus on the basics, while scholars living in high socioeconomic communities deserve more than this. At this time, our parents have high expectations for what the school offers their children, and they will not support returning to a basic curriculum. In addition, the parents join their children in the physical activities of our school. During dance classes, there are parents that join in on the fun. During races, parents walk and run with their children, often while pushing strollers. There is a high level of parent involvement, and I believe an active campus has contributed to this increased involvement.
One lessen to be learned in Anaheim is that a community needs green space. West Virginia family practice physician and university professor Mark Cucuzzella, MD—who is also a very active member of AMAA—specializes in pediatric obesity prevention in his practice. He has undertaken a hugely successful effort to bring trails to elementary schools throughout Jefferson County, and part of that adventure has led to his founding of a race known as Freedom’s Run. The wildly successful event has now expanded into a whole series, with a spring counterpart to fall’s annual quintet of races: a free kids’ miler, 5K, 10K, half-marathon, and marathon (www.freedomsrun.org). To help fight childhood obesity, families must become and remain engaged in their children’s wellness, and Dr. Cucuzzella sees that as partially attainable by engaging the wider community. Enter the trail-building initiatives, which he began about seven years ago. Beyond green space, you can download information from the CDC to learn more about “complete streets” and how Michigan neighbors are working with coalitions and public health programs to complete the streets in their neighborhoods. On the nutrition side, the CDC also advises neighborhoods to try and assess their retail food environment to better understand the differences in accessibility to healthier foods.
Q and A: Creating Scholar-Milers
NATIONAL RUN A MILE DAYS draws on the power of communities to change the nationwide culture of sedentarism by broadly establishing the goal of individuals of all ages completing one mile of running or walk-running during its series of local events. With a natural focus on children and adolescents due to the manageable distance, the annual week has evolved to 10 days and routinely sees schools and neighborhood groups building up to their events with regular training goals for kids throughout the entire year. The happy results can include more permanent, lifestyle-focused attitudes toward regular exercise and running in particular. For Debbie Schroeder, that focus is deeply personal. Why do you feel the deep connection to fitness that you do? I feel blessed each and every day to be able to wake up and run. For me, running is more than physical fitness. It is a way to embrace the day by taking care of myself first so I can take care of others throughout the day. It clears up my mind, ignites my energy and prepares me to be my best. And, the sights I see while others sleep fill me with gratitude and a sense of awe by observing the stars, moon, sunrise and the birds’ first songs. I wish for all of my scholars to experience this same bliss in whatever form of exercise that becomes their own. However, I do highly recommend running because of its wonderful simplicity. About those scholars…how was MILE DAY framed this year at Gauer? To keep Mile Day fresh, we alter the experience each year. This year, we had waves of grade levels participate, beginning with our kindergartners and ending with our sixth graders for a total of 750. One of our teachers is a marathoner himself. So, Jonathan Juggert started each group of scholars with a dialogue, warmed them up, ran the mile with them and then cooled them down. At the end of the mile, our parents passed out the t-shirts, Mile Day cards and bananas. It was very emotional for me to observe the increasing number of Be a Miler t-shirts on campus that day as each grade level was awarded their finishing prize. It was a coveted prize. Some of our scholars immediately placed their t-shirts in their backpacks because they didn’t want them to get dirty and they wanted their parents to see them. The following day, Be a Miler t-shirts were still the dominant attire worn. You had a visit from an ARA member, didn’t you? Dexter Emoto was sent to our school as a photographer, and his compassionate presence enriched the experience for our scholars, staff and parents. He learned that two of our scholars are currently at CHOC Hospital battling for their lives, one with leukemia and the other with a brain tumor. Dexter inscribed a photograph for each of them with a message of hope, as well as honored them with a marathon medal for their bravery. This act of kindness touched our hearts. He is an amazing man, and we are thankful that he is now part of the Gauer family. Here’s to 2015 Dave Watt has great things to say to Debbie Schroeder and to all of her staff and scholars: “Your school is one of our models. I love to showcase schools with a commitment to fitness and healthy lifestyles as part of the entire school makeup.” Debbie responds: “It makes us immensely proud to be a part of a national movement to get up and run. We are grateful to those that have contributed to Mile Day on May 8th, but will continue throughout the year. The t-shirts were an amazing incentive, and they will bring back wonderful memories for all of our scholars in the years to come. Thank you!” If you are thinking of hosting an event next year, the ARA makes it easy to download tools to legitimize your local efforts. Online at www.runamile.org/host-miler-tools/ you can print event posters, a training guide, the how-to-host guide and completion certificates for your budding athletes. Jeff Venables is the editor of Running & FitNews® and a regular contributor to the AMAA Journal. He currently runs 25 miles per week.