Building a Healthier Tomorrow

Many parents struggle with the desire to provide their children nutritious meals, as they pull into the drive thru yet again because of hectic schedules. They know their family needs exercise, and not just the kind available through a Wii. Providing healthy choices for physical education and nutrition can be tough. With this in mind, Frisco Independent School District (FISD) continues to answer the call.

FISD has implemented many changes during recent years to help students and families reach health and wellness goals. On many campuses, students are offered several opportunities for physical education. One of many examples would be Coach Knippenberg (Coach K), Sonntag Elementary physical education teacher, who fosters a love of exercise. He uses the physical education curriculum as well as extra programs such as Jump Rope for Heart and Hoops for Heart. Coach K’s hard work is proving to be successful, as his students seem to love to exercise!

The recently acquired SPARK physical education curriculum at FISD is a terrific additional resource for PE teachers. SPARK is a ‘research-based, public health organization dedicated to creating, implementing and evaluating programs that promote lifelong wellness.’ Created in 1989, SPARK seeks to improve the health of students by providing exceptional, evidence-based health programs. Frisco teachers can access research-based lesson plans aligned to the NASPE (National Association for Sport and Physical Education) National Standards.

Like many Frisco teachers, Coach K utilizes this resource and others to give the kids a basis of knowledge to live healthy lives. As a former exercise physiologist in the cardiopulmonary rehabilitation program at Medical Center of Plano, Coach K has firsthand knowledge of the importance of heart health and nutrition. He seeks to teach good health through proper nutrition and exercise, which can help keep students from dealing with health issues in the future.

Abby, a first grader at Sonntag Elementary, commented, “The best part of PE is doing the jump ropes and going to different stations. Jump rope is my favorite, and it makes me healthy. It keeps your body moving.”

Jump Rope for Heart and Hoops for Heart are two national educational fundraising events supported by the American Heart Association and the American Alliance for Health, Physical Education, Recreation and Dance. Many Frisco schools participate in these programs, promoting healthy living and support for children with heart-health issues, while letting students have fun engaging in physical activities such as jumping rope or shooting hoops. School sponsors provide students and families with information regarding heart-healthy habits as they raise awareness and funds for the American Heart Association.

FISD’s emphasis on physical education has not gone unnoticed, as Superintendent Jeremy Lyon, Ph. D. was recently appointed by the SouthWest Affiliate of the American Heart Association (AHA) to serve on the affiliate board of directors. Dr. Lyon has the distinction of serving as the first school superintendent on the board. During his two-year renewable term, Dr. Lyon will help guide the AHA’s efforts throughout the Affiliate’s region that consists of Arkansas, Colorado, Oklahoma, New Mexico, Texas and Wyoming.

Dr. Lyon was welcomed to the board by SouthWest Affiliate Executive Vice President Midge LaPorte Epstein and commended for his support of programs such as the AHA’s Jump Rope for Heart and Hoops for Heart, establishing his desire to help promote health and wellness within schools and the community.

“It is an honor to contribute to the efforts of the American Heart Association, particularly in their commitment to improve the cardiovascular fitness of children,” Dr. Lyon said. “The American Heart Association provides leadership and advocacy for building a healthy and fit generation of children in schools and I hope to help them accomplish their goals.”

Another fitness program several campuses are participating in is Marathon Kids. Founded in Austin, Texas in 1995, Marathon Kids’ message is that children desire to be healthy and active and they will make healthy choices if provided with support and knowledge. Some components of the program include the 26.2 Mile Challenge, developing positive nutritional habits and providing resources for families and communities. In 2004, Marathon Kids expanded beyond Austin to Dallas, Houston and other metropolis areas such as Los Angeles and Baltimore, and last year more than 286000 K-5 students signed up for the 26.2-mile challenge, which gives students of all abilities and fitness levels the opportunity to achieve the goal of running/walking 26.2 miles.

Based on studies completed by the University of Texas School of Public Health, in coordination with the Michael and Susan Dell Center for Healthy Living, evidence was found that children who participate in Marathon Kids choose to engage in more habitual minutes of daily exercise, eat more fruits and vegetables and have improved self-confidence.

Providing balanced nutrition to students is another way FISD promotes healthy living. Debera Tredennick, director of child nutrition for the FISD, stated the district “wants to create an environment where it’s easy for students to make good choices” about nutrition.

The department strives to provide a variety of fresh fruits and vegetables, some familiar and some perhaps not. Edamame and sweet potato fries have recently been sited in the lunch line. A far cry from cafeteria choices in the old days, the department also provides knowledge about healthy choices. By visiting friscocafe.org/Home/tabid/2166/Default.aspx, parents can read about various programs, such as the Harvest of the Month. This feature focuses on a different vegetable or fruit each month. The produce pick is displayed in the café with information provided about the item, and is often presented in fun ways (check out the photos of cauliflower in November).

Four years ago, FISD accepted the HealthierUS School Challenge, a voluntary certification initiative recognizing campuses that have produced a healthier school environment through highlighting nutrition and physical activity. The purpose of the HealthierUS School Challenge is to improve the health of America’s students by creating school environments that instill health and wellness values. Schools are evaluated in areas such as quality of food served with an emphasis on fruits, vegetables, whole grains and fat-free or low-fat milk and milk products, nutrition education and opportunities for physical activity. All FISD elementary schools now carry the distinction of Bronze Medal Winners of the challenge.

Two years ago, Ms. Tredennick started applying for grants to receive salad bars for FISD cafeterias. The salad bars allow students to have a greater variety of produce choices, and it gives them the opportunity to self-select portion sizes. Students can take more of a favorite while only trying a small sample of an unfamiliar item. “It takes a lot of support at the school level to get one,” stated Ms. Tredennick, “but slowly and surely schools are finding salad bars incorporated into their lunchrooms. Around 20 bars have been implemented into FISD elementary schools with several more coming soon. Ms. Tredennick mentioned the reaction to the salad bars around the district has been “very positive.”

The salad bars are placed into elementary schools rather than secondary for several reasons. Because younger children are so impressionable, they make the transition more easily. In addition, it is simply logistically more difficult to incorporate salad bars into the secondary schools because of the complex scheduling. Although salad bars haven’t arrived at the middle and high schools yet, Ms. Tredennick says the menu always includes a fresh salad choice.

The new elementary schools opening in the district will feature salad bars as well as “flipped” lunch lines. This innovative arrangement means students would enter the lunch line, select fruit and veggie ‘sides’ first and finish filling their trays with the main entrée last. This new way of piling up the plate places an emphasis on fresh produce and encourages healthier eating.

The improvements to school nutrition are not without difficulties. Changes, from new salad bars to fresh, healthier ingredients for better menu items, are costly. It can also be difficult to promote change within the schools and community. The department continues to seek better ways to share valuable resources concerning FISD nutrition as well as tips for healthy living. And, of course, the biggest obstacle of all, as every parent knows, is appealing to picky eaters.

There is hope! The appealing produce contained on the salad bar at Sonntag Elementary has captivated many students who daily ask to eat in the cafeteria. When questioned about why they favor the bar, Abby said, “I like getting healthy things because it makes my body stronger.” Her favorites are carrots, apples, bananas, grapes and salad (which usually means plain lettuce). She recalled, “I tried tomatoes and I didn’t like it.” But hey, at least she tried them!

FISD employee Alex Stephens usually supplements his lunch with two or three helpings from the salad bar. Like other district staff, he is excited to see the commitment to health within the school system. “I think promoting healthy habits is good for the overall community. People will have the potential to feel better and can be healthier for their family.” Different health programs within the district can play a dual role according to Mr. Stephens, highlighting the “promotion of community, family and education of health and wellness.”

Mr. Stephens, along with teachers throughout the district, understand the significance of health education. He pointed out that health education is important, as “it will help in [students’] development which is related to how well they could do in the classroom.”

Parents and teachers alike applaud FISD’s tradition of promoting healthy living. Dr. Lyon will help the district continue this tradition of health and wellness emphasis as he achieved the Superintendent’s School Health Leadership Award from the American School Health Association in 2012.