FIRTH, Neb. — Midway through the afternoon on a recent school day, Torey Dudley led her kindergarten class out into a hallway at Norris Elementary.
Little arms flexed as Dudley led the youngsters through a set of pushups against the wall.
A few more exercises, including a yoga pose to focus and shoulder rolls to loosen up, and they filed back into the classroom, ready to hit the books.
Called Ten at Two, the short structured breaks are among the simple, low-cost strategies the Norris School District has been working into its daily routine the past half-dozen years to add physical activity to the school day.
Norris isn't alone. But the way it has integrated the strategies throughout the district have put it at the head of the class in Nebraska and nationwide. In fact, the 2,000-student district south of Lincoln has even caught the eye of the White House.
Last month, Superintendent John Skretta was among six speakers who participated in a conference call to help first lady Michelle Obama launch her “Let's Move! Active Schools” initiative. While the earlier phase of the first lady's campaign focused on nutrition, the new round is aimed at physical activity. About 250 education leaders from across the country listened to the call.
The goal isn't to create schools full of super-athletes, but to help foster healthier students. Increasingly, educators and health advocates are recognizing that healthier kids — physically, emotionally and socially — make better students, a conclusion backed by a growing body of research.
“We truly believe we have to address the health of our kids to address their academic excellence,” said Julane Hill, director of coordinated school health for the Nebraska Department of Education. The Nebraska Board of Education put that belief in writing in 2010 when it adopted a policy encouraging districts to adopt comprehensive health plans.
On the White House call, Skretta described some of the techniques the school has used. The Ten at Ten and Ten at Two initiatives get elementary-age kids moving — in the halls, in the gym, outdoors — at times of the day when attentiveness slips. Other classrooms dance to streamed music videos or Dance Dance Revolution tracks played over intercoms. Middle school students take similar breaks.
Students may play a quick game of knockout with a Nerf basketball and hoop or select exercises listed on activity balls. Some third- and fourth-graders sit on posture-promoting, wiggle-busting exercise balls or pump portable bicycle pedals under their desks. Elementary and middle school science classes occasionally act out complex concepts, promoting not only activity but also recall.
“They ace this part of the test,” science teacher Janet Myers said as her seventh-grade students completed an intricate cell division dance set to the theme song from “Peter Gunn.”
Skretta said some might see such activities as taking time away from instruction. But research indicates that kids need to be alert to process information. Many of the teachers have been trained in techniques to promote activity.
“Our teachers are not making this up as they go along,” said Skretta, 44, the father of four boys who has run about a dozen marathons, including in Boston. “Honestly, they're pretty sophisticated in how they've done this and this is a reflection of their acumen in instruction.”
When kids get back to work, he said, their blood is moving, their neurons are firing and they're more receptive to learning.
And students know what's expected. As soon as Myers' students finished with cell division and a few other activities, they sat down and pulled out study guides. “As soon as I say 'Game over,' they're ready to go,” Myers said.
Mary Jo Rupert, Norris Middle School principal, said teachers are encouraged to get kids moving every 20 minutes or so during the 73-minute classes that are part of the school's block schedule. Kids with behavior problems get cards they can present to a teacher whenever they need to get out and move, according to a prearranged plan.
Cindy Larson-Miller, a high school science teacher, also incorporates activity or “brain breaks” in longer classes and before tests or quizzes.
“A lot of people think this is an elementary thing,” she said. “But these kids need it, too.”
Classroom breaks aren't the only part of Norris' strategy. The district teamed up with the local natural resources district to build a half-mile walking path around the building.
It also offers fresh fruit and vegetable bars at all grade levels, and this year added a Grab and Go breakfast program at the middle school, which has 150 or more takers a day. Primary grades grow — and taste — veggies in the elementary school's gardens.
Skretta said a lot of districts are embracing similar concepts. Norris, he said, got in early and has been able to tap into a lot of assistance.
Norris is among some 260 Nebraska schools — along with 190 in Iowa — that have received tips, tools and other assistance through the Alliance for a Healthier Generation, a nonprofit that now is one of three managing partners in the first lady's initiative. The district adopted a school wellness policy in 2006.
Skretta said the school district has not yet tried to correlate fitness and test scores.
But a 2010 report by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and a recent study by the Lincoln Public Schools and Creighton University found is evidence that physical activity can help improve academic achievement.
Norris also was among five schools or school districts to pilot State Education Department “institutes” focused on the coordinated school health approach in 2010-11. Now 24 schools, districts and even one educational service unit have gone through the program.
“We're getting there,” said Hill, the State Education Department official. “Once the administrators see how health really impacts students' academic achievement, it's like a light goes on.”
Skretta said his district has room for improvement on snacks available a la carte. That's currently up for review under proposed federal rules.
The district also hopes to start construction on a new fitness center this summer, which would be open to the public when it's not booked for school activities. The district already offers an annual family adventure race, launched by Skretta and Jim Craig, school board president and adventure race promoter.
Said Skretta: “It's such a great way of encouraging families to be active together.”
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