Healthy Schools

Boosting movement in the classroom

Chris Strater may look like she’s just hopping around the room, patting various body parts and striking different poses while singing a song about somebody named Tony Chestnut and the people he knows:

PE teacher Chris Strater, right, coaches some Aurora elementary teachers on ways to get more physical movement into their classrooms.

Eileen, Neil, Pat, Bob, Russell and Skip.

And she and the Aurora teachers prancing around with her are, in fact, getting a good workout. Their blood is pumping, their arms and legs are moving, and they’re clearing their heads to better concentrate on the academic stuff they’ve been absorbing all morning.

But Strater, a physical education teacher at Clyde Miller P-8 in Aurora, insists the exercise isn’t just about physical activity. It’s also about homophones – words that are pronounced alike, but have different meanings.

So having youngsters act out a song about Tony Chestnut (toe, knee, chest, nut) who knows (nose) Eileen (lean to the left) and Neil (kneel) and Pat (pat your shoulder) and Bob (nod your head up and down) and Russell (wiggle your legs) and Skip (skip) teaches language arts while it gets them moving.

“This is my passion,” said Strater, who has a master’s degree in psychology and counseling. “We’ve got to get more movement into the classroom. It’s how kids learn.”

The 25 teachers spent all day with Strater learning various strategies to not only build movement into classroom activities, but to make that movement tie in to the students’ academic objectives. They, in turn, will go back to their respective schools and share what they’ve learned with their colleagues.

3R Project: Relevancy, Rigor, Relationship

The process – known as “Project 3R” for Relevancy, Rigor and Relationship of Physical Activity – is being funded through a $20,000 two-year grant to Aurora Public Schools from the Colorado Legacy Foundation, a private organization dedicated to helping schools put health and wellness programs into place.

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Spearheading the project is Connie Fenton, Healthy Schools Coordinator for the district, who wrote the grant and recruited the first group of teachers. She confesses that someone else came up with the catchy title – 3R – and that “rigor” may not always be topmost in everyone’s mind. But the other other two Rs – “relevancy” and “relationship” – are totally what this is about.

“We have a huge need to do more ‘brain-gym’ type things,” she said. “This is what makes children learn…

“The original vision was that we would have all the elementary schools in Aurora represented here. That didn’t quite happen,” Fenton said. “But we just got the grant on July 30, so we’ve really been moving. The grant covered the substitute-pay for all these teachers to be out of their classrooms today, and they’ll go back and do more mini-trainings with the other teachers at their schools.”

School district has long list of initiatives

The Aurora school district has been in the forefront among Colorado schools in its efforts to expand health and wellness opportunities for its students and its staff. Among its initiatives in the past couple of years:

  • Opening health clinics at Crawford and Laredo elementary schools, both located in high-poverty neighborhoods.
  • Creating coordinated school health teams
  • Launching the Go, Slow, Whoa! program to encourage students to choose foods more wisely
  • Sponsoring culinary boot camps for school food service workers
  • Adding “Breakfast in the Classroom” programs and bringing salad bars into school lunchrooms
  • Expanding and improving school playgrounds
  • Assessing and tracking third- through twelfth-grade students’ fitness levels with the Fitnessgram program

But the district has also faced a number of challenges, not least of which is the limited number of hours in the school day and the need to boost academic seat-time. Just this year, the district became the first in Colorado to eliminate all physical education high school graduation requirements.

Add to that the new state requirements mandating that all Colorado elementary students get a minimum of 150 minutes of physical activity time each week, and schools are left to find creative ways to add activity time to the already-crowded school day.

“APS elementary schools who participate in Project 3R will add minutes of physical activity to the elementary student’s school day without impacting the current allotment of minutes per class,” Fenton said.

And, she said, all Project 3R activities will be “no-cost extensions of current classroom activities.”

‘We’ve become less child-centered’

Carla Muller, a fifth-grade math and science teacher at Aurora’s Arkansas Elementary, sees the emphasis on physical activity in the classroom as a welcome change. That’s why she opted to take part in the training.

Betsy Aker, left, and Julie Wilson, classroom teachers at Aurora Frontier K-8, get a quick workout blowing feathers to each other.

“I feel we’ve become less and less child-centered,” she said. “Our objective has been to stuff their heads with as much knowledge as possible, but it’s backfired on us. Our kids are losing focus. It just seems like activity is a way to get them to engage more, and that will boost our test scores in the long run.”

Nick Chapla, a physical education teacher at Aurora’s Vassar Elementary, said he’s hoping the classroom teachers at his school will use him as a resource for these types of activities.

“The data on physical activity and movement and how they can be put to work in a classroom are clear,” he said.

Strater has loads of ideas that she would love to see implemented in classrooms. Like blowing feathers, for example.

Strater taught the teachers to form into pairs, then place brightly colored feathers in their palms. They had to blow their feather to their partner, then do a fast physical activity – turning around, clapping hands, touching their elbows – before catching the feather blown toward them.

“What did you hear?” she asked the teachers after the exercise. “I heard lots of laughter. That makes your synapses fire better. And I saw lots of movement.”

She also preaches the value of simple spinning.

“Spinning and swinging your arms is very good. It helps the brain from the inside out,” she said. “Twenty years ago, when kindergarteners came into my class spinning around, I’d tell them ‘Sit still!’ But no more. Now spinning is part of every class I teach. Adults don’t like it much. It makes us sick. But kids love spinning and it’s good for them.”

En pointe

How ballet is energizing one Memphis school — and helped save it from closing

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Briana Brown, an instructor with New Ballet Ensemble, prepares her first-grade dance students for a performance at Dunbar Elementary School in Memphis.

Instructor Briana Brown counts aloud as first-graders in pink leotards skip across a classroom floor to practice their leaps and twirls — a weekly highlight for students at Dunbar Elementary School.

In the South Memphis neighborhood, ballet lessons offered through the nonprofit New Ballet Ensemble introduce students to the art of dance at a school with few resources for extracurricular activities.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Ten-year-old Briana Davis is among 40 students receiving dance instruction at Dunbar Elementary School.

Ten-year-old Briana Davis is among the beneficiaries.

Before joining New Ballet’s class, she danced throughout her mom’s house, just a short walk from Dunbar in the city’s historic African-American community of Orange Mound. Now, Briana is among about 40 Dunbar students who jeté and pirouette in a makeshift classroom studio at Dunbar, or after school in a studio at the group’s headquarters in midtown Memphis.

“I want to keep dancing and to be a dance teacher when I grow up,” Briana said. “I think this is really special. If I hadn’t done ballet at school, I don’t know if I ever would have danced for real and not just at home.”

For eight years, New Ballet Ensemble has been teaching classes at Dunbar and offering scholarships to a talented few to continue their dance education outside of school time. Here under the tutelage of teaching artists who are fluent in classical ballet and other styles of dance, they learn to follow instructions, practice new positions, strengthen young muscles and develop discipline, all while expressing themselves creatively and learning about a world beyond Orange Mound.

But the Memphis dance company’s work has gone far beyond teaching students how to plié and fondu. Thanks to grants that New Ballet helped secure, Dunbar now has a community garden and parent resource center.

And when Dunbar was on the chopping block to be closed this year by Shelby County Schools, New Ballet dancers, instructors and supporters showed up en force at school board meetings. The district later reversed its decision and opted to keep Dunbar open. Superintendent Dorsey Hopson cited community support as a reason for his change of heart.

Katie Smythe founded New Ballet Ensemble in 2001 to teach dance, but quickly discovered how her organization’s work was being limited by a dearth of community resources available to public schools in Memphis.

“We came here to find talented kids for dance, but we found that our access to community partnerships and the school board to be the real opportunity point for us,” said Smythe, who also serves as the group’s artistic director. “The school board and administration learned while trying to close this school how valuable community partnerships can be, I think.”

New Ballet became one of the first outside-of-school organizations to have a stake in the Dunbar school community, said Principal Anniece Gentry.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Youngsters giggle as they watch their instructor demonstrate a dance move.

“When students see community partners are invested in their school, they want to achieve more,” Gentry said. “Our relationship with New Ballet is one I will always treasure. They work to do more than anyone else I’ve seen.”

The parent resource center is one of the most valuable additions. Stocked with computers, coffee and books, the room was created for parents with help from a $25,000 grant from ArtsMemphis, a local advocacy and funding group.

“There are computers for parents to use if they don’t have internet at home,” Smythe said. “I’ve seen parents drop their children off, walk to the room and apply for jobs while grabbing a cup of coffee. (For some parents), there was no positive reason for parents to come to school before this, only if their students were sick or in trouble.”

Building parent relationships have become key to New Ballet’s mission at Dunbar, and Smythe wants to take the group’s learnings to other Memphis schools. It’s already helping with arts education in classrooms at Bartlett and Sherwood elementary schools, and Smythe wants to bring Dunbar-style ballet programs to secondary schools that now teach former Dunbar students at Treadwell and Sherwood middle and Melrose and Douglass high.

But that takes money.

New Ballet is dependent on the National Endowment for the Arts, a federal agency that could experience huge cuts under President Donald Trump’s administration. In addition to $15,000 in NEA funding, the group gets money for its school programs through the Tennessee Arts Commission, which also comes from NEA.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
New Ballet founder Katie Smythe brought ballet to Dunbar Elementary in 2009.

To remind those who hold the pursestrings about educational ballet programs like Dunbar’s, Smythe recently joined other arts advocates to speak with lawmakers in Washington, D.C. Their message: The arts are more than just concert halls, expensive tickets and paintings that people don’t understand. It’s also about helping students to grow mentally, physically and academically.

For students like Briana, support for New Ballet would mean another year of free ballet lessons and after-school programming.

“I really look forward to performing,” Briana said. “Learning to dance is really fun. But being able to show off how much I’ve learned to my mom? That’s the best.”

Emerging partnership

Memphis schools have space. Boys & Girls Clubs have programming. Now they just need money to put clubs in three schools.

PHOTO: Boys & Girls Club
Memphis students show off "cancer awareness" posters they created as part of a Boys & Girls Club program at Promise Academy, a charter school in Raleigh. Three more clubs could open in Memphis schools by 2018.

Grappling with numerous under-enrolled schools and significant neighborhood needs, Memphis school leaders are seeking to fill some empty space by partnering with the Boys & Girls Club.

Shelby County Schools is working with the organization’s Memphis chapter to open clubs by 2018 inside three schools: Dunbar Elementary, Riverview School and Craigmont High.

But first they have to secure about $1 million to pay for the clubs’ first year of operations.

Both entities view the emerging partnership as a way to connect space and programming to strengthen schools and their neighborhoods. The Boys & Girls Club of Greater Memphis also wants to expand beyond its current seven sites.

“It doesn’t make sense to build a $4 or $5 million facility somewhere only to have the population shift due to school closure or neighborhood changes,” said executive director Keith Blanchard. “Suddenly, you have this super nice club and no kids. This way, we can go to where the kids are.”

The partnership would step up the effort of Shelby County Schools to join a national trend in developing community schools, which put facilities to use beyond the traditional school day and emphasize a holistic approach for addressing poverty, health and behavior. The arrangement also would tap into a growth and missional model for the Boys & Girls Club, which has been successful in working with schools in cities such as Orlando.

Blanchard hopes the new Memphis clubs would provide students with an after-school option in schools where extracurriculars are slim, as well as a place to go during summer breaks. Each site could serve up to 240 students.

While the district can provide space and utilities, each site would cost an estimated $330,000 to operate — an expense that district leaders plan to ask the County Commission to cover initially. The long-term goal is to get corporate and donor support.

“The last thing we want to do is open these clubs and have to close in two years,” Blanchard said.

PHOTO: Boys & Girls Club
The Boys & Girls Club operates seven clubs in Memphis.

Under-enrolled school buildings are plentiful in Shelby County Schools, where leaders have closed more than 20 schools since 2012, partially due to low enrollment. At the same time, Memphis school leaders are seeking more resources to serve a disproportionately high number of poor, black and disabled students.

“We are always looking for ways to expose our students to programs/activities that foster good citizenship, character building, and healthy lifestyles that contribute to student success,” a district spokeswoman said in an email this month.

The Boys & Girls Club of Greater Memphis already has one school-based club at Promise Academy, a state-run charter school in Raleigh, where about 60 students attend.

Blanchard said the three newest school sites were chosen because the organization doesn’t have a strong presence in those neighborhoods.

Dunbar Elementary Principal Anniece Gentry said the Orange Mound community would welcome the additional resource.

“There’s not a YMCA or Boys & Girls Club in this area,” Gentry said. “This would be a place not just for students, but for the entire neighborhood, as a way to bring families together. For the students, having structured resources in the afternoon is going to help them to grow even better during the academic school day.”