The Alliance for a Healthier Generation just released their annual ranking: These are the top physical education and nutrition-based initiatives.
Every year, the Alliance for a Healthier Generation analyzes wellness and nutrition initiatives that public schools across the nation are pioneering. The nonprofit, which focuses on reducing childhood obesity and bolstering youth health education, released their list of America's healthiest schools today—and there are 461 schools being recognized for forward-thinking health initiatives, around 120 more than the previous year.
All the schools on this year's list have championed programs to make healthier food available, and they've worked hard to create spaces where both students and staff are encouraged to be active.
To qualify for an award, schools must serve healthy snacks and meals, invest in physical and health education, and make more resources available to teachers and staff to do so. Plus, these public schools must meet federal nutrition standards and offer breakfast to students.
Out of the 461 schools who received recognition this year, 81% are considered high-need, defined as serving more than 40% of students eligible for federal free and reduced-price lunches, according to Laura O'Connor, the nonprofit's vice president of marketing and communications. These schools are scattered across 26 different states and the District of Columbia. You can view the full list here.
These are this year's 13 healthiest schools, all of whom earned gold-level recognition:
- W.O Parmer School — Greenville, Alabama
- Beryl Heights Elementary School — Redondo Beach, California
- Loma VIsta Middle School — Riverside, CA
- Belcher Elementary School — Clearwater, Florida
- Forest Lakes Elementary School — Oldsmar, FL
- John M. Sexton Elementary School — St. Petersburg, FL
- Skycrest Elementary School — Clearwater, FL
- Spout Springs School of Enrichment — Flowery Branch, Georgia
- Northeast Elementary Magnet School — Danville, Illinois
- Beloved Community Charter School — Jersey City, New Jersey
- Freedom Elementary School — Fort Sill, Oklahoma
- Northwest Prep Academy — Memphis, Tennessee
- IDEA Brackenridge College Prep — San Antonio, Texas
Each one of these schools require students to enroll in physical education courses, including 150 minutes of active time for elementary students, and each meets the Department of Agriculture's nutrition standards for offering snacks—which means that everything from fundraisers to vending machines are just as healthy as breakfast and lunch options.
On top of all that, these schools incorporate local agriculture into school activities—whether that's managing a school garden or serving locally grown food at lunchtime.
Looking for healthier foods for your child? Read on:
- Superfast—and Super Healthy—Kid-Friendly Recipes
- Our Nutritionist Picked the 10 Best Kids' Menu Options at Chain Restaurants
- This Is How You Can Hack Panera's Kids' Menu Like a Nutritionist
But to earn the title of "healthiest school in America," you have to go above and beyond. So here are some of the programs and strategies that have separated these schools from the others:
1) Creatively Bringing in More Fresh Food Into Cafeterias
Whether it's providing fresh fruit or serving meals that are more closely aligned with students' culture, O'Connor says that the top schools are leaning on creative ways to make sure each meal is as fresh and nutritionally rewarding as it can be.
At Loma Vista Middle School in California, there's a nutrition service department that directly works with school leadership to improve meal quality and options—they've added fresh smoothies and yogurt parfaits to breakfast menus, but they also added music and games for students to actually get them to attend breakfasts. This kind of approach upped the breakfast attendance by at least 10 percent.
2) Focusing on More Than Just Recess
O'Connor says that elementary students enjoy at least 60 minutes of physical education per week at any of the schools on the list, while those in middle and high school are required to take physical education classes for at least half of the academic year. For those 13 schools who earned gold-level recognition, elementary students take a minimum of 150 minutes of physical education classes each week whereas middle and high school students are enrolled in these courses all year long.
At Walnut Elementary School in La Habra, California, there's a physical education teacher on staff between two and three days a week, and students exercise at least two hours a week during the academic day. There are also programs like "Walk to School Wednesday" and "Fit Fridays" which encourages activity outside of school hours.
In many cases, entire school districts also implement physical activity policies for their schools, like the 67 award-winning schools in California's Los Angeles school district that now provide resources to students to walk and bike to school each day.
3) Bringing Physical Activity Into Classroom Learning
In addition to recess or P.E. class, the schools with top awards also manage to merge classroom learning time with movement. Some offer before-school physical activities like ballet or yoga, O'Connor says.
At Freedom Elementary in Oklahoma, teachers integrate physical activity into their lesson plans with "brain breaks" and "fit stops" to try to help students remained focused and on task in the long run. Their staff notes that policies like these help students remain better focused and calmer, overall.
4) Considering Mental and Social Wellbeing
In addition to teaching best nutrition values and physical exercise, these schools take time to address mental health and social-emotional development, O'Connor says.
Staff at North Carolina's Williston Middle School do not punish students by restricting physical activity—including recess. And teachers promote physical activity and a healthier approach to mealtime as a way to address any issues affecting students outside of school, including trauma and other related incidents.
5) Asking Parents for Help
Almost every school on this list recruits parents and community members to join official school wellness initiatives and gathers their input on nutrition and physical activity policies.
Spout Springs School of Enrichment in Georgia holds an annual fundraiser, called the Seminole Sprint, which is anchored around physical activity. Parents and community members donate based on the number of laps that students run or walk, and locals volunteer and donate resources like water bottles or t-shirts. This fundraiser brings in upwards of $50,000 each year while promoting better health and wellness for students.
6) Helping Staff Members Remain Healthy, Too
It's not just about students' wellness, O'Connor says—healthy students often rely on even healthier role models to inspire them. Many of these schools offer staff members access to free or low-cost physical activity and fitness programs to help them stay healthy while teaching.
Staff members at Northwest Prep Academy in Tennessee join students in eating healthy meals in the cafeteria. O'Connor says that the shared mealtime resulted in a more cohesive learning environment for the rest of the academic day, and so school leaders banned outside food and beverages for both students and faculty to encourage even more growth.
For more information on the Alliance for a Healthier Generation and the Healthier Generation initiative, visit their website at www.healthiergeneration.org.