Originally published May 2, 2019 in AgriLife Today.
By Paul Schattenberg
More than 1,600 youth from 17 schools in the Harlandale Independent School District walked over 338,190 miles while completing the Walk Across Texas after-school fitness challenge presented by the Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service.
A concluding Walk Across Texas celebration was held recently at Vestal Elementary, the winning school of the district competition. Student participants were presented first-place medals and school staffers received certificates of appreciation. In addition, Vestal received a first-place trophy that will rotate to the winning school of each year’s competition.
“Walk Across Texas is an eight-week program designed to help Texans of all ages establish the habit of regular physical activity using a team approach,” said Angie Gutierrez, AgriLife Extension family and community health agent, Bexar County. “Each team works together toward the goal of walking 832 miles, which is the distance from the easternmost to the westernmost points in Texas. And these teams far exceeded that goal.”
The 17 participating schools, mainly elementary and middle school levels, were all part of the Harlandale ISD’s Leadership Enrichment Academics Partnership, or LEAP, and Afterschool Centers of Education, or ACE, 21st Century Program after-school initiatives.
Students from kindergarten to high school age participated with walking, play during recess, engaging in a physical education class and various physical activities during evenings and weekends all being translated into miles.
Participating LEAP sites were Bellaire, Gilbert, Morrill, Schulze, Vestal and Wright elementary schools and Harlandale, Kingsborough and Leal middle schools. Participating ACE schools were Adams, Carroll, Collier, Columbia Heights, Gillette and Stonewall elementary schools, Terrell Wells Middle School and STEM Early College High School.
Harlandale ISD provided extensive program support through the assistance of Maria Ayon, 21st Century ACE family engagement specialist; Nicole Davis, LEAP extended day facilitator; Danielle Grant-Stanfield, extended day program coordinator for ACE and LEAP; and various site managers and employees from each school site.
Ayon said the competition helped students “get away from television, cell phones and computers and become more engaged in outdoor and team activities.”
“Many of the students came to school early to participate in physical activities, and we also noticed there were fewer behavior problems during the competition,” she said. “It also got their families involved by going for walks around the neighborhood or in area parks.”
The Walk Across Texas competition helped the students in other ways besides promoting physical activity, added Vestal Elementary principal Marianela Gonzalez.
“Being part of this healthy competition also helped them be more mentally alert in class and helped with their emotional well-being,” she said.
Grant-Stanfield said the competition spurred participants into finding different ways to convert physical activity into walking miles and gave them a sense of accomplishment.
“The students were really motivated and got very involved in the competition,” she said. “It helped them learn how to set a goal and then reach that goal, plus it helped them understand the importance of being physically active.”
The Walk Across Texas program began with a kickoff at the Scheh Center in the Harlandale ISD, where County Commissioner Chico Rodriguez provided opening remarks encouraging youth and families to participate as a means of increasing their physical activity. The kickoff event also featured information stations staffed by representatives of more than 20 agencies and community organizations focused on nutrition, health, wellness, safety and family enhancement.
After four weeks, a celebration was held at Bellaire Elementary, which had accumulated the most miles at the midpoint of the competition. Students were rewarded with a field day that included a range of games and physical activities.
By the end of the program, however, Vestal Elementary had taken the lead.
“Vestal will display its first-place trophy and that trophy will then go to the school taking first place in next year’s program,” Gutierrez said. “This has been a great experience for the young people who participated and has also been beneficial for their families. Next year, we’re hoping to have the Harlandale ISD school parents participate in a healthy Walk Across Texas competition with the students.”
She said the program also motivated school employees to be more active, and they are already making plans to develop adult teams for next year’s competition.