Even the middle schoolers were dancing.

You know a school wellness initiative is working when you see a bunch of 12- to 14-year-olds – boys, no less – of various size and ability jumping around and dancing on a chilly morning in front of the entire student body.

Granted, the entire student body at Coal Creek Canyon K-8 in Jeffco is small, at 145 students. But the school has made health and wellness centerpieces of its culture.

I spent the first day of the school’s annual Health and Wellness Week in the pristine mountain community about a month ago, taken on a tour of the school’s many initiatives by parent advocate Jamie Fanselow, a petit blond whose own athletic career was limited by an injured disk. I now know I can expect to see Fanselow at any number of healthy schools events because that’s the sort of passionate and committed parent she is. (It doesn’t hurt that she’s very soft-spoken and non-confrontational…I imagine her approach works well with parents and teachers who are tired of being lectured).

But one person alone cannot a healthy school make. The health initiatives at Coal Creek Canyon began six years ago, thanks to a small group of parents. Today, the school is heralded by state leaders hoping to put a dent in this alarming childhood obesity epidemic.

Health and Wellness Week

To kick off Health and Wellness Week, the school had lots of events planned to engage students, staff and community. The students began their Monday outside, with a parent volunteer/personal trainer leading them in dance moves. A trainer was also enlisted to offer a free workshop to parents who wanted to get their exercise groove on. There would also be a guest speaker (a dad and ultra-runner) and a fundraising walk for juvenile diabetes.

Later in the morning, all the school’s students and some parents and staff ran or walked the 1/10-mile course around the school grounds as part of the school’s 3-year-old Recess Mileage Club. This year, students are attempting to symbolically summit some of Colorado’s 14ers. If they “summit” one, they get a colorful engraved carabiner.

Mileage club with 100 percent participation

Fanselow is in charge of the mileage club and says it’s the best way to get all students involved in physical activity – even those who don’t have the resources to be involved in organized sports. She noted that some of the mountain school’s students travel 45 minutes by bus.

“For kids growing up in single parent homes or in homes where both parents work, they may not be able to participate in soccer or skiing or some organized sports out there,” Fanselow says. “Anybody can get out there and run or walk a lap. You don’t need equipment, transportation or money. They’re all doing it and having a good time.”

The key to what’s happening at Coal Creek Canyon is that it’s not just a single special event. There’s something happening basically every day – whether it’s “salad day” in the school cafeteria or the Kale Cook Off in January or the media-free week in the spring. The school also just started some indoor gardens. Being at 8,500 feet, it wasn’t realistic to have an outdoor garden. More whole grains, fruits and veggies are also being served to kids at lunch.

“It’s not a single event and it’s over,” Fanselow says.

School staff  have embraced the new programs – even the facilities manager, the bus drivers and the principal’s secretary have been eager participants in the mileage club, for instance, Fanselow says. In fact, there’s 100 percent school participation in the club.

Other health initiatives

The health and wellness committee offers tips to parents in the school’s monthly newsletter, managed to get the PTSA to switch to iced tea and water served at events in lieu of sugary beverages, and provides suggestions for healthy school celebrations.

Health advocates at the school quickly learned not to ban cupcakes outright, but to take a measured approach.

“Health and wellness can be a sensitive topic for people – especially in the areas of food,” Fanselow says. “It’s important to value small steps, not wipe out cupcakes and get everyone running 100 miles. Do small things. Add good things rather than banning or taking away…We add veggie trays or fruit platters to our celebrations.”

Many of these initiatives are paid for through the health and wellness committee’s $1,200 annual budget, some of which comes from the Jeffco Healthy Schools grant, said Fanselow, who co-leads the committee.

Parent Andrea McAdoo likes what her kids are learning at school.

“This is something they will carry through their whole lives no matter what profession, no matter what they end up doing,” McAdoo says. “It’s about knowing how to be healthy and understanding how easy it is to integrate it into your life on a daily basis.”

Principal Scott Thompson, new to Coal Creek Canyon this year, is also enthusiastic – especially about the mileage club.

“It’s a great opportunity for kids to get out and show us what they’re made of,” he says. “If we get kids outside and doing a little exercise, they’re much better academically inside.”

Challenges remain

The challenge remains fitting in physical activity and an emphasis on healthy food when teachers and administrators are so overwhelmed with the basic task of teaching students and producing solid test scores, Fanselow says.

“I understand how teachers and administrators are really limited for time,” says Fanselow, a former teacher. “It feels like one more thing. We try to find ways to integrate (programs) without taking time away from school. Instead of standing in line, get the kids moving. This is an empty space of time. Or, at recess, especially middle schoolers, instead of standing against the wall, get them moving somehow.”