Originally published Aug. 13, 2017 in the Gainesville Times.

Parents don’t bring cupcakes in for celebrations at McEver Arts Academy. In fact, other than lunches brought from home, there isn’t a lot of outside food in the school.

Students are encouraged to exercise through physical education classes, daily recess and even special classes on Fridays where the children can experience such opportunities yoga, dance and adventures in fitness classes.


McEver Arts Academy second-graders Ally Benson, right, Adan Castillo and Juan Martinez, left, all 7, perform yoga moves Friday morning along to the video “Cosmic Kids Yoga.” McEver is one of 15 schools in Hall County that were named to the America’s Healthiest Schools list released by the Alliance for a Healthier Generation. Photo by SCOTT ROGERS/The Times.

“I think we’ve done a lot of things here that have kind of changed the culture of how we do our day-to-day,” said Gary Gaddy, a McEver teacher who is the school’s wellness champion overseeing the program there.

The effort to encourage students to live healthier lives isn’t just at McEver. Since 2011, Hall County Schools have sought to make encouraging healthier lifestyles a priority in the schools.

And the efforts appear to have paid off.

A total of 15 schools in the district were named to the “America’s Healthiest Schools” list released last week by the Alliance for a Healthier Generation — nearly half of the total number of schools in Georgia to receive the honor. Nationally, 323 schools were named to the list.

Jacob Weiers, wellness facilitator for the school district, said the announcement last week was the second time Hall County has had 15 schools recognized. He said a total of 24 Hall County schools have made the list at some point in the past six years.

“Wellness is important to the future of our students, because the healthy habits they form now will carry over into their adult lives,” said Weiers, who worked for 14 years as a physical education teacher before taking his current job in March 2011. “Our goal is to give each student the tools to live a healthy and productive life after they leave our schools. I am extremely proud of the work of our wellness champions at each one of our schools. They work diligently to bring wellness opportunities to our students and staff.”

The alliance recognizes schools at the gold, silver and bronze levels. McEver, Spout Springs and White Sulphur elementary schools each were recognized at the silver level by the alliance this year. The other 12 Hall County Schools achieved bronze-level recognition and included nine elementary schools — Sugar Hill, Chestnut Mountain, Chicopee Woods, Friendship, Lula, Oakwood, Riverbend, Sardis and the World Language Academy primary campus. The other three bronze-level schools were North Hall High, North Hall Middle and Chestatee Academy.

Weiers said the schools are selected based on criteria in six different areas — health and safety policies, health education, physical education, nutrition, staff wellness, and family and community involvement. Bronze-award schools were judged on 26 different components in those areas, including the requirement of 20 minutes of recess per day and 60 minutes of physical education per week for all students.

At the silver level, the schools were judged in 41 different components, including 90 minutes of physical education per week and more strict requirements about food served to students.

Weiers said the program in Hall County focuses on both healthy eating and physical activity. There is also a districtwide 10-week running club curriculum that has been going on for six years for students in fourth through sixth grades. The curriculum trains the students to run a 5k race, something that has gone on for all six years. Weiers said 763 students participated in the run last year. The running club program also teaches the importance of proper eating, rest and character education.

Some of the elementary schools also offer “brain breaks” for students, a 5-minute to 10-minute break from the classroom for students to get up and be physically active.

“We believe students learn best when they are physically active,” Weiers said. “It makes them a more focused learner.”

At McEver, Gaddy said the program has gained the support of the entire school community —students, faculty, staff and parents.

“We’ve eliminated outside food sources as far as what goes in the schools,” he said. “They still bring their lunch, but parents don’t show up and bring cupcakes. They don’t show up and bring Subway or McDonald’s for their kids to eat with them at lunch. We’ve also limited things that our staff has access to in our staff parties.”

On the exercise side, Gaddy said physical education classes and daily recess are emphasized, as well as the CREATE Clusters, which stands for connect, reflect, explore, apply, think and experience. The clusters, offered on Fridays, offer students the chance to try things like yoga, dance and adventures in fitness classes.

Gaddy said this is the second year in a row McEver has achieved silver status through the alliance.

Phil Brooks, wellness champion at  White Sulphur, said this is the third time his school has received recognition for achieving silver-level honors. Like McEver, Brooks said his school has the extended physical education time, recess and a school policy limiting outside food for students.

He said one of the keys to the success of the program has been a “total buy-in” from everyone in the school

“For lunch, we just make suggestions for lunch,” he said. “If their parents packed it, then we really don’t have a policy. But for snacks and birthday parties and those type of things, we try to limit that.

“We’ve had an ongoing wellness club, basically a fitness club after school, and we’ve had that at least four or five years or more,” Brooks added. “That’s really been good for us as far as promoting wellness.”

Spout Springs is the only school in Georgia that has achieved the alliance’s gold level, winning that recognition twice, according to Tom Adam, wellness champion at the school.

“We’ve been doing wellness seven or eight years,” Adam said. “It has been nothing short of a culture change. We kind of led the way.”

Adam said Spout Springs works on the nutritional issues and limits food, as well as extended physical education classes, daily recess and brain breaks. The school also has a wellness lab where students can use bikes and other machines.

He said the fact that so many schools in the district are heavily involved in working to make students healthier is good for the district.

“We all push each other,” Adam said.

Weiers agreed.

“The future health of our students is definitely worth the investment,” he said. “We are committed to the long-term success of our students, and we believe that the changes we are making will become part of the fabric of our schools … I am committed to finding ways to incorporate wellness to add to the school experience and not take away. I believe that wellness is not something we should stop and do, but rather it is something that should be part of who we are.”

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