Physical fitness central to Sacramento district’s focus on the ‘whole child’

September 26, 2016

First-graders at Taylor Street Elementary School finish a mile-long walk and run.

When Gov. Jerry Brown pushed his idea for giving local schools and districts more control over decision making, few people would have predicted that in at least one California elementary school district physical education would rise to the top of its list of priorities.

That’s what happened in the K-6 Robla School District on the outskirts of Sacramento, which serves mostly low-income Latino and Asian students. Using funds received from the Local Control Funding Formula, the district hired five new physical education teachers this year – one for each school in the district.

But school leaders have gone way beyond more P.E. They have come up with an ambitious plan to revolutionize the way the district’s 2,200 students, their families, teachers and staff eat, exercise and relax – with additional help from charitable organizations.

The district has hired Linda-Kate Hale as its full-time coordinator of school climate, who also is a certified yoga instructor. Three days a week, Hale holds 30-minute yoga classes after school with as many as a dozen staff members.

Students may be able to practice yoga soon as well. A team of graduate students at UC Davis is training Robla teachers how to teach yoga to kids in kindergarten and transitional kindergarten, which serves students who turn 5 between September and December.

“I think this is something that other districts will follow,” said David Gordon, Sacramento County superintendent of schools. Robla, he said, is “ahead of the curve on physical health, school climate and mental health.”

School Superintendent Ruben Reyes has been the prime catalyst for the district’s focus on physical fitness and health.

A graduate of nearby UC Davis, he was the first in his family to attend college. In 15 years in the district, Reyes has served as principal at three of the Robla’s five schools.

In the future, he wants to put even more emphasis on exercise and healthy eating. “Besides teaching kids math and language, we also have a responsibility to the whole child, and that includes physical activities,” Reyes said.

Other districts in California, including Williams Unified in rural Colusa County and Santa Monica-Malibu Unified in Los Angeles County, also have placed a high premium on physical fitness, making room in their Local Control and Accountability Plans(LCAPs) to fund additional P.E. teachers.

One element of Reyes’ plan involves daily walks. That’s why on a recent Friday morning, 45 first-graders and their teachers at Robla’s Taylor Street Elementary School walked from their classroom right after attendance was taken and crossed a street to get to a neighborhood park.

For the next 30 minutes, the students and their teachers walked, ran and smiled for three laps around Robla Community Park, a distance of about a mile. When they returned to class, they were wide-awake and attentive, said teachers Ann Thomas and Patricia Tobia. “They are so calm,” Thomas said of her students after their exercise. “I think it’s this!”

Students in every grade level walk or run at least a mile a week – and the most ambitious aspire to run 100 miles in the school year.

“They are so calm,” first-grade teacher Ann Thomas said of her students when they returned to their classroom from a mile-long walk. “I think it’s this!”

The walking, running and healthy eating habits of students have grabbed the attention of parents, too. Every Thursday morning, after dropping off their kids at school, dozens of parents walk a mile around the community park in about 30 minutes, just as their kids do.

Taylor Street Elementary parents began walking together last spring during a series of nutrition classes at the school that extolled the health benefits of fresh vegetables. The classes were sponsored by the Health Education Council, a local community organization.

The first few walks drew only a handful of parents, said Oscar Velasco, who distributes food from the Sacramento Food Bank to Robla parents every Thursday after their walks.

Since the current school year began, the parent walking groups have grown to include as many as 70 parents, Velasco said. After finishing their walks, parents line up for a free bag of fresh produce. On a recent Thursday, Velasco handed out 1,030 pounds of corn, apples, red onions and carrots.

Two of the regular walkers are Ester Miranda and Rosalva Mora, who became friends after participating in the nutrition classes.

“We want to walk for our health and pass it along to our families,” said Mora, after she and Miranda finished the last of their three laps around the park.

Clifford Hill, a cafeteria worker and playground supervisor at Taylor Street, said the weekly parents’ walk are helping him become more aware of eating healthily.

“I had a bad eating habit for a long time,” he said, but the school’s focus on fresh vegetables and fruits has inspired him to change his habits.

The food giveaways help families in neighborhoods where for years there have been no outlets for fresh food. The district’s geographic area, which includes many warehouses, is what sociologists call a “food desert” – where nutrition choices are sparse leaving only junk food from convenience stores and fast-food restaurants. That will change with the opening of Viva, the first new supermarket in the area in 20 years, said Reyes.

In the past few months, students and parents have learned that drinking water, rather than sugary soft drinks, is best, thanks to a local United Way campaign called “Rethink the Drink.”

Other barriers to good health in the district included the lack of venues suitable for physical activities. The district’s current focus on physical fitness began when Reyes noticed that too many fifth-graders were unfit.

It was no wonder that students were struggling in physical activities, Reyes said, given the absence of baseball fields, dance studios or other recreational facilities in the district

But there are some soccer fields in North Sacramento, including one in Robla Community Park. Jonathan Kaye, a first-year P.E. teacher at Taylor Street, hopes to coordinate an intramural soccer program later this year, in which players from each school in the Robla district compete in a tournament.

Kaye also plans to start a 100-mile running club at his school, which will challenge students to run more than a mile a week.

In its quest to promote health and fitness in the entire school community, the district has started serving up supper-time meals made from scratch two days a week, with additional days to be added.  “Students’ older siblings can participate  if they choose,” said Mike Henkel, the district’s chief business officer.

The effort is the result of a partnership with the United Way and the Davis Unified School District.

So far, homemade lasagna, made with fresh ingredients, is the students’ favorite, Henkel said. “We are heading in the right direction.”

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