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Healthy Bodies, Healthy Minds — Charter School Applies a Holistic Approach to Education
By Carol Patton

Every morning, teachers at Namaste Charter School in Chicago lead 450 kindergarten through eighth grade students through 10 minutes of yoga stretches and vigorous exercises. The school built an on-site fitness center, open to all staff and middle school students. Parents are invited to weekly breakfasts that include oatmeal, fresh fruits, and whole grain breads and a free 30-minute workshop on topics such as healthful food preparation and food safety.

Namaste isn’t your average school. After opening in 2004, founder and principal Allison Slade began incorporating “three strands of wellness” into daily student activities: healthful foods, physical education, and mental wellness. So far, the results would make some principals drool.

Slade, a former elementary school teacher, drew a link between students bouncing off the walls and their inability to concentrate with their Cheetos-stained fingertips. The more she worked with students and parents, the more she realized that many didn’t understand nutrition.

So she added nutritional foods and education to her to-do list. The charter school broke down the topic into simple nuggets that everyone could digest and implement at home.

The school slowly introduced nutritional changes such as making sandwiches with one slice of white bread and the other wheat. Brown rice replaced white rice. One percent milk was substituted for whole milk. Wheat pasta soon became the norm.

“This is a process,” Slade explains. “You can’t overhaul every single thing at once. Start with the little things and you start making a difference. Otherwise, you turn them off totally.”

Moving Target
With help from a state department of education grant—roughly $50 per child—students are served fresh fruits and vegetables for afternoon snacks twice per week, says Allison Isaacson, director of development at Namaste.

She says approximately 85% of students come from low-income homes. Many were unfamiliar with foods such as cauliflower, mangos, or bell peppers.

Last school year, Namaste earned a gold medal from the USDA’s HealthierUS School Challenge and a silver certification from the Healthy Schools Program sponsored by the Alliance for a Healthier Generation (AHG), says Isaacson. This school year, it hopes to receive AHG’s highest honor: a platinum certification.

To do so, it solicited help from Theresa Laurenz, the district dietitian at Sodexo in Chicago, one of Namaste’s foodservice vendors, to ensure the school’s recipes fit AHG’s strict criteria. Each entrée must contain less than 35% of calories from fat, less than 10% from saturated fat, 0 g of trans fat, and less than 480 g of sodium.

“There was a lot of work to find the right product,” Laurenz says, adding that the process of reviewing menus took several months. “We stopped using premixes like [those] used for sloppy Joes. More than half of their content was salt. They had to go out the window. … We had to make preseasonings from scratch.”

High-sodium canned items were replaced with fresh or frozen foods. The cafeteria now serves a 6-inch whole grain pita as pizza crust and tops it with homemade tomato sauce and low-fat or skim cheeses.

“Things aren’t going to be as cheesy,” she says. “In order to fill the space, we had to add a little bit of vegetables. So instead of baked ziti with four cheeses, we had to do baked ziti with vegetables, adding bell peppers, onions, and zucchini and added a minimal amount of cheese.”

While the healthful changes are positive, their impact would be minimal without nutrition education.

“Until kids know the ‘why,’ they’ll just continue their bad habits,” she says. “But if they learn the ‘why’ at a young age, it’s the best scenario to instill lifestyle changes.”

Right Direction
Besides healthful foods, Namaste focuses on mental wellness by teaching students how to peacefully solve differences. Likewise, physical wellness is a big part of daily activities.

Every Friday, students in first through eighth grades walk 2 miles round-trip to the nearby park, escorted by teachers and parent volunteers. They participate in one hour of physical education and 20 minutes of recess. Prior to local construction in 2009, parent volunteers served as a walking bus by escorting students to school along predetermined routes. Students periodically participate in Pacer tests, trying to run 20 meters in progressively shorter time intervals.

Has any of this made a difference?

According to Chicago Public Schools, which analyzed the overall academic performance of the charter school’s students with those at a comparison school, Namaste students outperformed the others by 10% to 12%. Likewise, its biggest discipline issue focuses on the use of “mean words,” not violence, says Slade, adding that students may say phrases such as “You’re not my friend anymore” as opposed to “I’m going to beat the crap out of you.”

“We’re not perfect and continually tweak and change things that can make a difference to our kids,” she says.

— Carol Patton is a freelance journalist in Las Vegas who covers health-related topics for various publications.