The mile run on May 8 helped prepare Gauer fifth graders for their upcoming fitness test (above)
By Jeff Venables
Once again, the NATIONAL RUN A MILE DAYS has enticed thousands of school-aged children, their parents, and their educators to meet the challenge of completing the mile—whether they run regularly or not. Held this year May 3 through 12, NATIONAL RUN A MILE DAYS continued to raise awareness of the necessity of physical activity to combat obesity nationwide.
On occasion, certain schools and communities stand out as model ones during this time of year, going further than the still-impressive requirement of organizing a mile run. This year, among the dozens of schools and communities that continue to stand out, the American Running Association highlights the efforts of Melbourne A. Gauer Elementary School in Anaheim, California.
Gauer’s principal for the past six years, Debbie Schroeder, is a decades-long veteran of the Anaheim City School District—including four years in the district office—but more importantly, Debbie is a lifelong runner. As such, she sees that running is promoted to Gauer’s young scholars throughout the year, not just during the week of American Running Association’s (ARA) “MILE DAYS”.
For NATIONAL RUN A MILE DAYS specifically, which Gauer has been participating in since the beginning of Dr. Schroeder’s tenure there, teachers set up a quarter-mile course at nearby Brookhurst Park for their fifth graders, who were in the process of preparing for the upcoming Fifth Grade Physical Fitness Test. The practice run and mile week were a natural fit: the school awarded orange RUN A MILE DAYS t-shirts to the fastest 12 girls and fastest 12 boys. And so on the morning of Wednesday, May 8, excitement and competitive spirit were in the air.
Two days later, on Friday afternoon, members of Gauer’s Running Club joined participants from the community’s Anaheim Achieves program to run the mile on the school’s field. On May 10 the group of approximately 50 club members did just that, with a finishers’ rate of 100%.
Elizabeth crossing the finish line flanked by Ariel (left) and Juliana (right)
Showing children they can
Dr. Schroeder has been organizing an elementary school running club for over 20 years. Larry Herschler, a longtime colleague of Debbie’s, is equally committed to helping young people discover the joys of running. They developed the club way back when Schroeder was a teacher at Betsy Ross Elementary School in Anaheim. When she made the move to Gauer, Running Club—and Coach Larry—came with her. “I’ve always been a runner. I love running just to clear my mind,” Debbie says. In fact she had completed three miles on the morning of May 8 before coming to work, a distance that in her estimation isn’t out of reach for kindergartners.
Schroeder and her staff at Gauer try to encourage local 5K races for their scholars, the youngest of whom often run alongside their parents, as many do in the Anaheim Achieves program too, which among other things helps support the community by offering child care services for working parents as late into the evening as six p.m.
Schroeder says, “I think that by doing the running club over the years our children have an opportunity to first off know that they can go beyond what they think they can do. And that’s why I like the 5K for them. The mile’s great, but a 5K pushes them even more. They think, ‘I can’t run three miles,’ and then they realize that they can.”
The program’s success is manifest in part by the return from time to time of Gauer alumni as assistant coaches. Two Brookhurst Junior High School girls are back this season to help mentor the younger scholars.
The 100-mile challenge
In February, Gauer launched a unique program to excite the children all year long: each scholar and teacher has been challenged to complete 100 miles of running (or walking) by the end of the school year. Many of them walk or run before school and during recesses to meet the goal, which they keep track of in their personalized running calendars. (Schroeder has completed hers.)
There are incentives along the way, such as a Gauer Gators magic pencil once you’ve reached your 10-mile mark; at 25 miles, a colorful bracelet with a word of inspiration printed on it; a Gauer Power Gators t-shirt at the halfway mark; a 75-mile commemorative shoe tab announcing “Gator Pride”; and finally, for those who make it to 100, a special running-related field trip in June, to be determined based on the final number of eligible scholars. “If it’s a small cadre, we can do something that costs more money,” Debbie says. “If it’s a huge group, we’ll do it a little bit differently.”
“We talk about the Triangle,” says Schroeder, in discussing the educational philosophy at Gauer. “We want to work on their intellectual aspects,” she says, indicating one side of a triangle formed with her fingers. “We want to work on their social-emotional-psychological; and we want to work on their physical. And then of course right in the center of all that is the heart.”
What is obviously working at Gauer, among many other things, is the way the children are scheduling and motivating themselves to complete their mileage goals—and what better way to see clearly that the whole triangle thrives? This is a school with an intense support structure for scholar autonomy, a winning combination for effective education as well as for later in life.
In April the medical journal Pediatrics published the results of a study conducted through UC San Diego and the University of Minnesota that found “guided self-help” intervention for childhood obesity resulted in significant weight loss and reduced body mass index in 8- to 12-year-olds. The self-help treatment program was held over five months and utilized many components of more intensive clinical obesity treatment. The message is that children can do more for themselves than we thought, with great outcomes. This, of course, is what Dr. Schroeder and her colleagues have been saying all along.
Most of Gauer’s scholars qualify for free and reduced meals. At breakfast, they have three options: eat very slowly, or when finished early read a book or work on homework, or get up and walk or run the recess perimeter. The children may then count that toward their 100-mile log.
Attending a fifth grade mile
Gauer’s seven grades (K through 6) average about 100 scholars per level. On Wednesday of NATIONAL RUN A MILE DAYS, 90 or so fifth graders toed the line in three heats under slightly overcast skies, eager to practice for their fitness test in a few weeks. To keep track of laps, the children received popsicle sticks from the energetic teaching staff working the event—basically, run until you have four popsicle sticks.
Enthusiasm was in abundance as the scholars went out in droves and returned in smaller groups, thinning into a long stream around the course as with each lap the better pacers overtook the less experienced. High fives and loud cries of support were the order of the day. Those who broke the 7:00 mile barrier were proud and seemed to want the best runners to know. Running has cache here; the fastest have something almost approaching celebrity.
One Gauer Gator speedster, Elizabeth (age 11), explains the genesis of her passion: “I’ve been running ever since I was little because my brothers and my sister would run a lot. They would do either track or soccer, which involved running.”
For 10-year-old Brooklyn, the running bug came early as well. “I’ve been running since I was little,” she says. At just 10 and 11, the girls see a clear delineation between their “little” selves and their selves now. It is indicative of the progress they feel, and how that progress can seem to put the self of just a few years ago a lifetime away.
These children have had a different experience than many young people who, whether by inexperienced teachers or a school-aged culture of bravado and gloating, have been unreasonably pushed to go too fast too soon, and have ultimately developed a distaste for running.
For Michael, too, (age 11) running is in no way difficult or unpleasant, as children in a less informed environment can be prone to think it necessarily must be. For Michael it is quite the contrary: “I’ve been running for about four years,” he says. “I just [one day]started enjoying running. I like it because it helps me relax.”
Ten-year-old Ivan is a three-year running veteran and like Elizabeth, Brooklyn, and Michael, one of Gauer’s most fleet of foot. Like several of the others, he has strong family roots in running. Ivan says, “Me and my sister go running on 5K runs. We did a mud run.” And how old is sis? “My sister is going to turn 30 this year.” He was eager to share what he liked most about it: “It makes me buff.”
As the last of the third heat came slowly in to each collect their fourth popsicle stick, the cheers from the sidelines were undiminished; if anything, the final finishers drew some of the heaviest applause. Dr. Schroeder said a few words to the assembled class, presenting her weekend’s half-marathon medal to a Gauer scholar with a serious illness who could not compete in the event that day. In the process, Debbie managed to quiz the assembly on the definitions of both “personal best” and “half-marathon,” a test they passed. A bystander could see in that moment that the scholars of Gauer Elementary are not experiencing a cursory encounter with NATIONAL RUN A MILE DAYS or indeed, with running. They are in every way steeped in it, as is their principal. And insofar as children most key in on the actions, not mere words, of adults, this is the real thing—and what a good thing it is.
Jeff Venables is the editor of Running & FitNews®, the publication of the American Running Association.