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2014-07-02 / Family

Food for thoughts

Schools’ Wellness Council weighs later start times, longer lunches
By Jim McConnell
STAFF WRITER


School Board Chairwoman Dianne Smith told her colleagues (including School Board member Tom Doland, left) during last week’s presentation on student health that their challenge is to “address the future and where we want to be.” School Board Chairwoman Dianne Smith told her colleagues (including School Board member Tom Doland, left) during last week’s presentation on student health that their challenge is to “address the future and where we want to be.” Do your children or grandchildren get enough sleep on a typical school day? Do they regularly pass up foods high in fat and sugar and choose healthier options? Do they turn off their electronic devices, get off the couch and go outside to play?

For far too many American school-age kids, the answer to these and many other health-related questions is a resounding “No.”

The result: a national childhood obesity epidemic. According to the Alliance for a Healthier Generation, one in three children nationwide is overweight or obese, leaving them susceptible to diabetes, asthma and a number of other serious health problems.

The Wellness Council, a committee of school leaders, parents, students and community partners, is trying to change that in Chesterfield.

The Wellness Council presented to the School Board last week a comprehensive list of physical and mental health-related initiatives that could have implications for families throughout the county.

“Why are we focusing on student health? Because the research is clear – students who eat healthier and are more active are better students,” said committee co-chair Mary Dunne Stewart, executive director of Greater Richmond Fit4Kids, a nonprofit devoted to improving children’s health throughout the region.

David Wyman, who represents the Dale District on the School Board, called the Wellness Council’s 23-page report “a blueprint for where we ought to be going.

“We’ve been moving in one direction for the past 20, 30, 40 years. Now we’re trying to reverse the tide, but that inertia is very strong,” he said. “At the end of the day, it’s a generational thing. This could be a 20-year plan.”

Some of the committee’s recommendations already are being put into action, such as replacing school water fountains with “filling stations” to encourage students to bring refillable water bottles and rehydrate throughout the day.

Others will be more difficult to implement.

The most significant change the board is considering would move all school start times to 8 a.m. or later, which in theory would allow students to obtain the proper amount of sleep as recommended by the Centers for Disease Control.

Under the current schedule, 11 of the county’s 12 public high schools start classes at 7:20 a.m. Meadowbrook High starts five minutes later.

Students at four of 12 middle schools – Carver, Providence, Salem Church and Swift Creek – are in classes no later than 7:35 a.m.

None of the county’s 38 elementary schools starts before 8:25 a.m. All but 11 of those schools start at 9:15.

There’s an obvious reason for that “tiered” schedule structure: The school system doesn’t have enough buses to transport all 45,000 students who ride the bus to the various buildings at the same time. Bus drivers’ typical daily schedules require them to drop off high school students, then head back out to pick up elementary or middle school students.

School Board member Tom Doland (Matoaca District) pointed out that given the school system’s transportation limitations, it might not be feasible to start every school at 8 a.m. or later.

“We’ve looked at some of these issues in the past and received push-back from the community,” he said.

Board Chairwoman Dianne Smith disagreed, suggesting that previously expressed concerns shouldn’t be “a deal-breaker” for the current board.

“Our challenge is to address the future and where we want to be,” she added.

Superintendent Marcus Newsome said that the effort to adjust school start times won’t be easy, “but certainly doable.” He also emphasized the need to speak with community members and get their feedback on schools ending 35 to 40 minutes later than they do now.

Two other Wellness Council initiatives could have an impact on the typical school day schedule.

The committee called for the School Board to reinstate mandatory physical education classes for all eighth-grade students. Currently, physical education is required in middle school only in sixth and seventh grades.

“PE is critical to a well-rounded education,” Stewart said. “Having it in sixth and seventh grade, but not eighth, was seen by our group as a missing piece to the puzzle.”

The committee also recommended that all students be given a minimum of 20 minutes of “table time” to sit and eat their lunch after being served.

That change likely would require the school system to add additional time to its current lunch periods.

Even with students divided into multiple shifts, by the time they order and purchase their food and find a seat, many find themselves rushing to finish their lunches before the bell rings.

“We have to look at the design of the school day: when it starts, how long it should be, what happens between the opening and closing bells,” acknowledged Donna Dalton, the school system’s chief academic officer and co-chair of the Wellness Council.

That will be just one of the student wellness issues the School Board considers in the coming months. Once the board identifies its top priorities, the committee will reconvene and determine how much those initiatives will cost to implement.

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