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Rural Schools Serving As Healthy Role Models

Health experts are studying Colorado's smallest and most isolated school districts to find out what's working in the area of student health and to identify strategies that can be replicated in other rural communities.

An article, "Rural schools as healthy role models," describes how five rural school districts are finding ways to address physical education activity, nutrition, wellness, and health education and services for students and faculty. Education News Colorado, a Denver-based education news service that's part of the non-profit Public Education and Business Coalition, published the article a few weeks ago. (It's also one of Education Week's regional content partners.)

Health issues are a serious concern for many rural areas, and we recently highlighted a new report on the health and well-being of rural children which found they are more likely to have chronic conditions such as obesity, asthma and diabetes. In rural areas, 24.9 percent of families reported one of 16 chronic conditions compared with 22 percent in other areas.

In Colorado, officials have recognized that problems such as childhood obesity, a lack of physical activity and poor nutrition are prevalent in urban and rural areas alike, but the solutions are different, depending on a school district's size and circumstances.

As the article so aptly put it, "what works in large, urban districts often isn't practical in places where the superintendent doubles as the principal, there are no funds to hire school nurses or qualified P.E. teachers, and access to health services may be severely lacking throughout the community."

The Legacy Foundation, a Denver-based nonprofit dedicated to improving public education, released this summer its 2011 Healthy Rural Schools Districts Case Studies, which summarized five districts' challenges, solutions, results and advice. Every rural superintendent in the state received a copy of the report in October, and initial feedback has been positive.

"The part about doing things for free was really important for rural districts because they're so resource-strapped," said Stephanie Wasserman, director of health and wellness for the Colorado Legacy Foundation, in the article. "They want to know what's the low-hanging fruit anyone can do without having to look for new dollars."

One of the highlighted rural districts was Center School District in the San Luis Valley. The district has the highest percentage of low-income students in the state at 91 percent, and teen pregnancy and drug abuse are rampant, according to the article.

The district offers comprehensive health education from kindergarten through high school, requiring students to take those courses to complete 7th and 8th grades and receive a diploma. School leaders say they're seeing graduation rates rise and drug use decline.

In another tiny district, Campo, nearly all of its 125 residents are related. That means the superintendent's efforts to improve the diets of her 54 students resulted in the whole town eating healthier, according to the story.

The Legacy Foundation gave the district a $20,000, two-year grant to help students and staff make better food decisions. Schools made a number of changes, including filling vending machines with bottled water and healthy snacks, giving staff pedometers, and introducing students to new, more nutritious foods each week.

"Our school is a large part of the community, so it's natural that what happens here carries over," said Coantha Johnson, school librarian and health and wellness coordinator.

Other districts have created school gardens, launched farm-to-school initiatives that connect local growers to schools, and started school health advisory councils to give students a voice.

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