Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Is This a Million Dollar Idea, Already Done, or a Dud?

As I was driving home yesterday following the taping of my monthly radio column with CBC's Ottawa morning I was wondering - would parents enroll children in schools where health was their focus of excellence?

Certainly there's precedence for parents paying more for schools known to be exceptional at things like drama, football, languages, University prep - parents pay more for these institutions because they want to give their kids a leg up on life. Are there schools out there with a health focus and is there anything that would give kids more of an up leg than health?

Given how far society has strayed from health, especially with our children, I can't help but imagine that a school which along with the provision of academic excellence made healthy living their exceptional focus would in fact be a great draw. And I want to explicitly note I'm not suggesting this school be established, designed or promoted with childhood obesity in mind or as a target as the lessons to be taught and the layout of the school day would benefit kids of all shapes and sizes.

So what would this school look like? Off the top of my head it would include a whole gamut of healthy living lessons, behaviours and choices. From from farm to table cafeteria meals, to involving kids in cooking (including for the school), to cultivating their own community/school garden, to standing desks (at least for some subjects), to actually healthy breakfast and lunch programs (proven to improve behaviour and concentration), to frequent and healthy snack and activity breaks (also proven to improve learning), to a focus on sport that includes both competitive and non-competitive activity outlets and programs, to actually useful and valuable nutrition and cooking classes, to a focus on the role of healthy living in primary disease prevention, and ideally take place on a campus that was not and could not be within walking distance of corner stores and fast food establishments.

Does such a school already exist? If one existed in your neck of the woods, would you consider sending your kids there?

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  1. Fiona McKenzie5:39 am

    Hi Yoni

    these schools exist in Australia and absolutely I would send my children there! IF the Principal supports educating the future citizens with healthy food and healthy behaviours then I am all for it.

  2. If I had kids, and such a school existed near me, I would sent them to such a school! I would also like to see such a school include other basic life skills, which I consider cooking and nutrition to be, like budgeting, household management etc, and even interpersonal skills. Then it would really be a home run school preparing kids for the realities of life.

  3. I like the concept but I would wonder about the implementation considering almost nobody agrees what "healthy" would actually be. I eat a Paleo'ish diet so you can only imagine my opinion on low-fat dairy and "health whole grains" that would likely dominate most folks meal plans.

    I agree on the frequent breaks part, but don't really think kids need frequent snacks. Just a minor point of contention but you could probably already see how it would be hard to find consensus here.

    As for activity, I really like Mark Sisson's vision of gym class. http://www.marksdailyapple.com/how-i-would-change-gym-class/#axzz23WGshUki

  4. Anonymous7:45 am

    All I know is that here in Alberta, we have APPLE Schools and EverActive Schools, two separate programs. As I don't have children, I don't know much about them...

  5. Yoni,
    I think this is absolutely a million dollar idea, and in fact the Toronto District School Board has designated 2 schools as "Health and Wellness Academies" as of September. (Check out their website for more info.)

    I've been in touch with the schools and have offered my services as both consultant and facilitator.
    My vision for what should take place in these "academies" is very much in line what you've described above. I'm waiting to hear how things are going to roll out and what type of contribution I'll be invited to make.

    I'd love to connect with you to discuss this in more detail!


    1. Happy to chat Janet.

      I am highly skeptical of the public system's ability to deliver this sort of a school given the limitation they'd have in regard to things like Food Guide and school food policies. Looking at the link their emphasis is on "30 minutes of activity a day" which suggests to me this is a feel good project and not a real one.

      Would love to be proven wrong though, so here's hoping they're wonderful and exemplary!

  6. Anonymous8:02 am

    I think one very important aspect of health is mental and emotional health, also. In addition to the healthy cooking, gardening, and eating there needs to be an emphasis on developing healthy coping skills, dealing with stress, conflict resolution, etc. because many people use food or other unhealthy habits as a way to deal with life.

  7. Having a ten year old who struggles with weight and fitness here in America, I would trust nobody to run this sort of school and would not send my kid to one for that reason. Unless the school is being run by Dr. Yoni, forget about it. In this country, we have too many people who think they know what they are talking about when it comes to weight/health/fitness, but far too many of them are too influenced by factors other than science for me to trust anything they say or do. If we had a school like this in America, it would end up being sponsored by McDonald's, and everyone would eat happy meals with apple slices for lunch, call themselves healthy and blame my son when he continues to struggle.

    1. Anonymous12:52 pm

      "everyone would eat happy meals with apple slices for lunch, call themselves healthy and blame my son when he continues to struggle."

      I can't agree more! Unfortunately so many people perscribe to the idea that "thin = health" that I fear kids would be exposed to just another unbalanced view of what it means to be healthy.

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  9. I have looked into starting this type of school and am still strongly considering it. It is possible to work within the current school system and have "alternative" schools, as long as you are meeting Ontario's academic curriculum and a principal agrees to have you under the umbrella of their school. Working within the public school system allows the program to be accessed by children from all economic levels; the other option is to go the private route and charge tuition.

    The Health and Wellness Academies are very similar to the model I had in mind, but with some changes. For example, the minimum daily physical activity would be increased (what they list is technically the standard in Ontario already), there would be a focus on physical literacy (not just absolute minutes of activity), gardening and cooking skills (depending on the grade level) would be taught, and I favour an alternative academic program that allows for guided discovery when possible. Eventually I'd like to see a volunteering component as well.

    I'm just finishing my PhD (population health) and have a Bachelor of Education, along with teaching experience, so I'm seeing this from both the teacher and health science perspectives. Providing a school environment where children and youth can thrive in all aspects (health, personal, academic) is my passion! I'd be interested in knowing what kind of program you have in mind.

  10. I just want to add that the idea is to model healthy behaviours, not just teach them!

  11. Anonymous9:23 am

    Don't forget about mental health. I would love it if schools would teach healthy stress and affect management, communication skills, conflict management, healthy relationships, etc.

  12. Casey9:48 am

    Sounds like Namaste Charter School: http://www.namastecharterschool.org/namasteway.html

  13. I was just having this conversation with my family! Learning essential skills reading, fitness, cooking - essential lifeskills! Along wth Home Ec, "Shop Class" has also been taking out the curriculum - so not only do you not get a foundation of how to live well, eat well, be physically active, but students are no longer learning the industrial arts - woodshop etc. How to build and fix things, all of which incorporate physical labour as well.
    We need to recreate schools as urban farms - where one can grow, develop, build and manage!

  14. This is among my ideas of an ideal school as well. It's one of the main reasons I homeschooled my two sons.

  15. I vaguely remember talk of a charter school in California years ago with an emphasis on nutrition and excercise, incorporating multiple excercise breaks between classes and healthy food. Also if you'll cruise over to NeverSeconds, a blogspot blog, you'll see various kids posting their lunches along with the bloggers daily account of her lunch. Some schools seem to have a bit of this focus as they have parents cooking in the lunch room, or they have to bring their own and they aren't allowed to bring packaged foods etf, it's interesting

  16. Anonymous1:02 pm

    I am currently reading the book Spark, the Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain by John J. Ratey. MD Not so new any more I suppose since the book was written in 2008. However, this post made me think of the first few chaqpters of the book that discuss in great detail the program at Naperville Central High School. While it only seems to focus on exercise and the tremendous change in the grade scores of the kids at this school since this new PE was introduced, I would say that they are a public school that is setting these kids up for success on many levels.

    A little bit of research on the schools web site reveals that the nutrition aspect can use some help ... perhaps that is wehre they should focus next.

  17. My concern would be what is considered
    healthy - I would not be happy with alternative medicine that is NOT backed by reliable research like homeopathy, etc.
    Saw this today:
    Colorado hospital lowers prices on healthy foods in cafeteria http://thefrugaldietitian.com/?p=42265

  18. Anonymous1:25 pm

    I am aware of a couple of examples of schools in our area that are doing just that and are part of the public school system. One school has actually started to use physical activity as a teaching tool in all subjects and are seeing great results. Several other schools in this district are also adopting a comprehensive approach and we would be happy to arrange a call with you to discuss what they have done. You can send me a tweet @inmotion_senb if you would like more info.

  19. Anonymous4:31 pm

    Yes in New Zealand a great example is Rhode Street Primary school, led by Shane Ngatai, very inspirational and good sound nutrition. The school has amazing vegetable gardens and it has effected not only the kids nutrition but other outcomes such as connectedness and community spirit.

  20. Anonymous5:09 pm

    My kids' school in Alberta will be an APPLE school starting this school year....I plan to stick my face in there volunteering as it is a small rural school. I was really happy and excited until I watched to video about what APPLE schools are all about on the website and saw them toting chocolate milk as part of the healthy bits. :( Not so excited anymore.......

  21. Anonymous10:01 am

    You've described the average rural American school...in the 1800's.

    White sugar and white flour were rare (if you could get them, you couldn't afford them). Every home had a garden/animals and raised their own food. People ate a lot of chicken and turkey because they were easier to tend and process. If you were lucky enough to have a nearby schoolhouse, it usually meant walking a mile or two each day. There were no school lunches, each child ate what they helped their family produce: organic, wholesome food with no snacking.

    Ironically, the education wasn't too bad, either. With his "eighth-grade" education and a strong work ethic learned at home, Grandpa went on to become an engineer. He designed and produced aircraft parts in the war, worked to develop the first radar-range (the microwave) and in retirement owned a successful gas station and mini-grocery.

  22. If I was looking for a school for my kids, academic standards would be at the top of my priority list, good programs in the arts would be second, a varied and welcoming athletic program would be third, and I'd consider courses that supported a particular religion or health philosophy to be drawbacks and perhaps even dealbrakers.

    I would not choose to send children to a school that was focused on indoctrinating them into a particular life philosophy. I think it's more important for children to learn how to think analytically, how to research areas of interest, and how to take a step back and evaluate both their own thoughts and feelings and what they're being told by people in authority. That way, they would be well equipped to make their own decisions about personal habits and beliefs as adults.

  23. This school does, in fact, exist. The target is obesity treatment. The curriculum involves culinary instruction, nutrition education, exercise participation and instruction along with accredited academics and cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) to elicit change. The behavioral component is the main focus and the students receive one on one and group CBT treatment each week. Wellspring Academies have been paramount in changing hundreds of lives since they first opened in 2004.

    The program is rooted in scientific research, backed by an extensive scientific board from all over the world. One of the struggles, however, is the cost to run such an impressive and effective program. The cost to parents is higher, but the question becomes; "How much is your child's health and longevity worth?". As mentioned in the post above, parents are willing to pay thousands of dollars for boarding schools with other academic specialties, why would we not prioritize the health of our children in the same way?

    For transparency sake, yes, I am a Wellspring employee. The director of clinical services in fact. I feel passionately that as the obesity rates continue to rise at an alarming rate in our country (and the world, really) the need for obesity treatment, and not just prevention becomes stronger. Schools like this will become necessary and not optional if we don't change the trajectory of where we are headed.