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Where There's a Will There's a Way

Do you remember the days when you walked to school? Have you have heard stories from your elders who walked miles, knee deep through the snow to get to school? Well, for some Michigan children, they may not live in a community where walking to school is a viable option. They may not live a reasonable distance, or perhaps they don’t live in a community where they feel safe enough to walk to school. But for many Michigan schools, they don’t let these barriers stand in the way of giving students a chance to live a healthy lifestyle. One such school, Horizon Elementary in Holt, Michigan created a “walking school bus”, one of many initiatives that were acknowledged when they and 17 other Michigan schools were honored as part of the Michigan Health and Wellness 4 x 4 Initiative’s School Wellness Awards. Michigan schools are stepping up to the task to build healthier school environments. In recognition of these efforts, the Michigan Department of Community Health (MDCH) and Governor Rick Snyder recognized 18 Michigan schools for fostering healthy eating, physical activity habits, and tobacco-free lifestyles among students. "Throughout the 18 schools recognized, more than 11,000 students have been impacted by the positive changes made in their school environments," said James K. Haveman, director of the MDCH. "The effort put forth by these schools to promote healthy lifestyles has helped contribute to a decline in childhood obesity; proof that Michigan is moving in the right direction."

The Michigan School Wellness Award program is part of the governor’s Health and Wellness 4 x 4 Initiative. MDCH, in collaboration with the Michigan Department of Education, the United Dairy Industry of Michigan, Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan, and the Michigan Health and Wellness Education Workgroup recognized Michigan’s award-winning schools at a special lunch event during the Michigan Learning Connection Summit at Ford Field in Detroit, Michigan in May, 2014. The Michigan School Wellness Award program aims to engage schools statewide in creating healthy school environments by establishing Coordinated School Health Teams, completing the Healthy School Action Tools (HSAT) and implementing sustainable policy and environmental changes. The HSAT provides tools to help schools create a healthier school environment, and provides students with the opportunity to learn and practice the healthy behaviors that ultimately reduce chronic diseases. The top award level, Gold, schools have achieved each of these elements. To apply for the program, schools provide information about nutrition, physical education/activity, and tobacco-free practices and submit at least one success story. The winners of this year’s School Wellness Awards include:

Bronze Level Awards • American Montessori Academy in Wayne • JKL Bahweting Anishnabe PSA in Chippewa • Carstens Elementary School in Wayne • Thomas Jefferson Elementary School in Wayne • Pullman Elementary School in Van Buren • Ross Beatty High School in Cass • Bothwell Middle School in Marquette • Green Elementary School in Macomb

Silver Level Awards • Borland Elementary in Lapeer • Jack Harvey Elementary School in Macomb • Fitzgerald Senior High School in Macomb • New Haven High School in Macomb • Three Lakes Academy in Mackinac

Gold Level Awards • Mt. Clemens Montessori Academy in Macomb • Atherton Elementary School in Genesee • Donelson Hills Elementary in Oakland • Northwest High School in Jackson • Horizon Elementary in Ingham

This year's winners laud that such achievements are no-cost physical activity, like Horizon Elementary’s “Walking School Bus”. Principal David Hornak told us, “The Horizon Elementary staff know firsthand the impact that wellness has on student engagement and behavior. After taking the Healthy School Action Tool (HSAT) assessment, we discovered that we were giving out too many sweet treats throughout the school year and we were not exercising enough with our children. Born from the fact we have a captive audience for seven hours of the day, the Horizon team of educators have implemented several initiatives that have resulted in a positive impact throughout the building.” Some of Horizon’s initiatives include:

• Tone-up Tuesday: Faculty and students are encouraged to wear fitness clothing to school each Tuesday and teachers find time to exercise with their children in addition to recess and physical education class.

• The Walking School Bus: Horizon has 15 remote drop off locations for children to be safely escorted to school. The result is that we have over 100 of our children that walk to school daily.

• Track: As a result of our initial HSAT data, we raised funds to install a track around our playground.

• Breakfast Club (Spring): Children are permitted and encouraged to exercise on our track 25 minutes prior to the beginning of school daily. As a result, we have up to 200 children that enjoy jogging prior to the beginning of school.

• Breakfast Club (Winter): Children are permitted and encouraged to walk around the perimeter of our gym 25 minutes prior to the beginning of school daily. As a result, we have up to 150 children that enjoy walking prior to the beginning of school.

• Ski/Snowboarding Saturday: Annually, Horizon takes a trip to Caberfae Peaks in Cadillac. This year we had over 200 students and family members that participated in our event!

• Annual 5K: Each May, Horizon hosts a 5K Run, Walk, and Roll for Education. This event is well attended with over 350 participants last year.

“We had a graduate student from Central Michigan University come in to monitor our wellness activities to see if what we were doing was paying off,” Hornak said. “We found that if the kids exercised before and after school they were much more academically engaged and office behavioral referrals plummeted as well.” Hornak said he immediately recognized the benefits and got to work implementing the “Safe Routes to School” program, from which the walking school bus originated, in hopes of recapturing and creating the positive health results every day of the school year. “I knew we had a population that was ripe to consider something like (the “Safe Routes to School”), but I didn’t expect to have the interest we did,” Hornak said. “Instead of going from the garage to the backseat of the car and then to school, the kids are out seeing and talking about the world now.”