To many around the country, Williamsburg, Virginia, is best known for its colonial-era history. But the local school system and its partners are taking a very 21st-century approach to improving the health of students, faculty and members of the community.
The School Health Initiative Program (SHIP) was launched about eight years ago as a collaboration between the Williamsburg-James City County school system and the Williamsburg Health Foundation, which fully funds the program. SHIP says it takes a holistic approach as it seeks to anchor healthy habits in the schools and beyond.
“Our goal is really healthy schools for a healthy community,” explained PreventObesity.net Leader Amy Lazev, the program supervisor. “We are trying to bring health and wellness to our students, their families and their whole staff by supporting healthy eating and active lifestyle habits in the school, the home and the community.”
Lazev shared the program’s five core components. They aim to integrate good nutrition and exercise into the lives of everyone connected with the system’s 15 schools:
- In the Wellness Integration Program, three full-time specialists circulate among the district’s schools to teach about healthy eating and kinesthetic learning. The lessons are designed to be “seamlessly integrated” into the curriculum.
- The schools’ Challenge Clubs get kids involved in everything from soccer and running to hip-hop dance and yoga to cooking and tending the school gardens. “Teachers sponsor the clubs and serve as role models for our students,” Lazev said. The Running Club is one of the particularly popular options, she noted; last school year, about 400 students ran in 5K races in the fall and spring.
- A partnership with the school system’s child nutrition services department, which runs the school cafeterias, involves work with a registered dietician – and a professional chef – who focuses on a few schools each year to give culinary training to staff and revamp menus. “And we do a lot of taste-testing with our students to find out what they like,” Lazev said. Getting more fruits and vegetables on the menu is key, as is offering “more appealing food that they will actually eat.”
Wellness leaders are SHIP’s captains. School employees plan healthy activities ranging from gardening to fitness and fun nights. They run staff wellness programs and work to ensure that healthier treats and drinks are available at school celebrations – “so it’s not all about the cupcakes,” Lazev said.
- The newest component, which the program began experimenting with toward the end of this school year and will roll out in earnest in the fall, is nutrition outreach to parents. Tours of local grocery stores will focus on healthy, simple, and budget-friendly meal options. “We know our parents are so busy that often they’re making the easy choice, but it may not be the healthiest choice,” Lazev explained. “Our goal is to make the easy choice healthier and the healthy choice easier.”
As the schools wrapped up for the summer in recent weeks, Lazev said lessons turned to how to stay active and safe during the warm months of school vacation. Kids and teachers discussed sun protection and the importance of staying hydrated.
When it comes time to assess results, SHIP benefits from the expertise of another local institution: the College of William and Mary. In partnership with the college, Lazev said, “We survey our students and parents every few years to see where we’re at.” The most recent data are encouraging, she said, measuring a drop in body mass index among Williamsburg students between 2010 and 2013, as well as finding that kids are eating better and that the younger ones in particular are getting more exercise.
Also encouraging, Lazev said, is when the program’s administrators “see cultural changes and shifts in our community. We’ll hear from parents that their kids are inspiring them.” She noted, for example, that some parents of Running Club members have taken up the activity as well, competing in the 5K races alongside their children. “They thought to themselves, ‘Maybe I can do this, too.’”
Donna Brutkoski authored this report.