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America's healthiest schools ranked

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  • Mississippi middle school allows students to bring water into the classroom
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By Tracey Minkin
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The average American child spends nearly 12,000 hours in school, from kindergarten through 12th grade. That's a big chunk of time during which he or she can develop good (or bad) health habits.

Happily, schools today are recognizing the many benefits of a healthy head start -- and Health magazine wants to recognize the ones that are doing an A+ job. To find the health stars in America's vast public school universe, we asked education officials in every state for their nominations; we scored those based on how they measured up to some tough criteria (see How we chose our winners, and the semifinalists were ranked by our panel of experts (at right). Congratulations to all of the inspiring winners!

West Babylon Senior High

West Babylon, New York

1,510 students in grades 9 through 12

What can you say about a high school where the assistant principal strolls the cafeteria with a basket of fruit?

Top honors go to this outstanding school, which scored high across the board in every category -- from nutrition to employee wellness. At West Babylon, all soda machines have been removed, so the only drinks available are water, milk, and fruit juice; the revamped cafeteria features a menu that emphasizes healthy choices, like wraps and yogurt, and has replaced fryers with state-of-the-art ovens; and participants in after-school activities are encouraged to stay on campus for healthy snacks and light meals in the cafeteria.

A districtwide commitment to fitness is paying big dividends, too: The student obesity rate dropped 2 percent in just one school year -- and continues to decline. And West Babylon is particularly proud of its new physical education curriculum that focuses on overall wellness, social skills, and lifetime and adventure activities. This initiative appeals to even the least-athletic students and received praise from fitness judges Jennifer Caputo and Harley Pasternak.

"This approach shows how students of all skill and ability levels can be exposed to and benefit from being physically active," Caputo says.

But perhaps the ultimate winning aspect of West Babylon is the commitment of its students, who drive the School Wellness Council and conduct only healthy fund-raisers. No more candy sales! Instead, kids sell baby carrots, sugar-free gelatin, raisins, and nuts.

Amory Middle

Amory, Mississippi

479 students in grades 6 through 8

A battle against its state's obesity problem, combined with admirable creativity, make this middle school not only Mississippi's shining star but also a national model. The fitness push at Amory was off the charts: The school collaborated with a home-improvement retailer to build a rock-climbing wall, set up an on-site fitness center that offers twice-weekly family-friendly activities from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m., and implemented a schoolwide mission to get (and keep) kids moving.

"We have become Dance, Dance Revolution," principal Cheryl Moore says. "We traverse the rock-climbing wall, play ping-pong, power walk, and much more."

Amory also wowed panelists with its hydration policy, which allows students to bring water into the classroom, and its healthy-snack policy, which bridges the gap to lunch. Plus, the school provides great nutritional education through its healthful lunch menus and special events like the Healthy Wok workshop.

The school's faculty-driven push to incorporate health education throughout the curriculum earned a high mark from health-ed judge Areva Martin, who saw this as a way to give students "a solid foundation for healthy living."

Rawhide Elementary

Gillette, Wyoming

170 students in grades K through 6

Our panelists raved about this small, rural school's commitment to health and the way the sprawling 5,000-square-mile district helps to make it happen. "This is a model of excellence that should be copied around the nation," judge Martin says. "Collaborating with parents and community stakeholders is one of the most important aspects of promoting healthy living. This ensures that healthy lifestyles aren't just talked about while in school but are actually practiced at home and in the community."

With district financial support, Raw­hide employs a Building Fitness Coordinator in addition to its physical education instructor, a remarkable step for an elementary school; as a result, students get 20 minutes of daily "wellness time" in addition to recess and PE. The Cardiac Club, which gives students and faculty the opportunity to do a variety of fitness activities, meets every morning. Plus, there's a walking loop on campus.

Rawhide's strong health component begins in kindergarten and covers nutrition, personal safety, drug-abuse prevention, and lifetime fitness. And the staff is encouraged to stay healthy, too, thanks to TriFIT testing (which is used to monitor and improve fitness levels), yoga classes, and discounted fitness-club and recreation-center memberships.

This commitment to teaching children how to be healthy kids and active adults, combined with Rawhide's staff-wellness initiatives, demonstrates a consistency of message that impressed judge Pasternak. Healthy ideas for your school

Anthony Elementary

Leavenworth, Kansas

300 students in grades K through 5

"Bravo!" cheers Pasternak, who gives his highest score to this urban elementary school. Anthony created its "Eat, Exercise, Excel" program to turn itself from a school struggling with low academic performance to one that achieved excellence rankings and a 95 percent reduction in office referrals all in a year, largely by emphasizing fitness and nutrition.

On the fitness front, Anthony's students get almost an hour of activity every day through three 30-minute PE classes per week and a daily 45-minute structured recess, during which students rotate between three different games (participation is mandatory). This active break is a hit among the kids. And teachers have noted numerous benefits, including increased attentiveness after breaks and less bullying during recess. "This program shows the full benefits that can be derived from increasing physical activity," says Caputo, who gave the school her only 10. Meet our healthy-school experts

Another innovation: Lunch is eaten in classrooms amid a family atmosphere that emphasizes conversation. "The noise level is low, making this the ideal time for teachers and students to build positive relationships," principal Janine Kempker says. This impressed judge Amy Lanou: "Anyone who has visited a school cafeteria knows that the loud and rushed atmosphere isn't conducive to healthy eating, good digestion, or nutrition education."

Also, daily recommended dietary allowance (RDA) vitamins are available to students (with parental permission), a program used by 70 percent of school families.

Richmond Elementary

Appleton, Wisconsin

277 students in grades K through 6

Instilling health and wellness values is definitely a team effort at this school. Everyone -- PE and classroom teachers, counselors, administrators, food-service workers -- demonstrates and reinforces healthy lifestyle choices for the students, earning Richmond Elementary top scores in every area from our judges. Where did all the school nurses go?

Pasternak loved "Fit in 15," twice-weekly, 15-minute-long activity breaks lead by classroom teachers. And Caputo cited the positive reinforcement of Richmond's Walk/Run for Life program, which rewards students for miles logged during recess. The school also has reached out to area businesses for creative after-school initiatives that include martial arts and "Bus and Bowl," a partnership with a local bowling alley that picks kids up from school and allows them to bowl until their parents pick them up.

A strong commitment to health-and-nutrition education is also yielding lifestyle changes outside Richmond's cafeteria, which is already a healthy haven. "We've found that educating children about making healthy food choices has influenced the choices that are being made at home," principal Bobbie Schmidt writes. Nutrition panelist Rochelle Davis gave Richmond her highest score. And judge Lanou says she's impressed by how the staff sets examples for healthy eating.

Mountain Valley Middle

Mexico, Maine

320 students in grades 6 through 8

Morning at Mountain Valley Middle: Kids and teachers eat nutritious breakfasts in their classrooms. Through this innovative approach, piloted last year, students begin their days more attentively and learn conversation skills and table manners from their role models.

This wasn't the only creative idea our judges lauded at this far-north, rural school. Mountain Valley takes full advantage of its outdoor ethos, getting kids moving in activities like mountain biking, canoeing, kayaking, and even moonlight snowshoe walks.

Special recognition goes to Mountain Valley for facing a growing problem among adolescents: suicide. The school has addressed this issue head-on in its health curriculum. "So often health education focuses exclusively on physical health," judge Martin says. "With all of the influences students are exposed to, ensuring good mental health should be a high priority for all schools."

Miami Springs Middle

Miami Springs, Florida

1,818 students in grades 6 through 8

Healthy reform at this large, urban middle school started in the cafeteria, which eliminated all white-flour products, former principal Gail Quigley, EdD, says. "We don't serve dessert or fried food, and we offer a wide range of fresh fruits and vegetables." Sugary cereals have been banned from breakfast. And all à la carte items meet the stringent criteria of the Alliance for a Healthier Generation, an organization devoted to ending childhood obesity.

"Excellent, and at first difficult, choices are being made about the foods served by the school," nutrition panelist Lanou says.

Equally impressive is the effort at the staff level: Health education that's blended into the science curriculum caught the eye of judge Martin, who called it "a creative way to instill healthy habits in students." Plus, the teachers have set up a gym in their lounge, and they attend on-site Weight Watchers classes and participate in a walking club.

Lakewood Elementary

Cecilia, Kentucky

631 students in grades pre-K through 5

It's never too early to understand that each person is responsible for his or her own health. And Lakewood's students get this message loud and clear in all facets of the school's Nutrition, Fitness, and Health curriculum. Each student sets an individual fitness goal in PE and monitors his or her own progress. Healthiest schools, state by state

"Helping the children set personal goals and giving them valuable feedback about their progress can be a great motivational tool," fitness panelist Caputo says.

Lakewood also prides itself on providing adaptive PE to every student, including those who have special needs. Judges Caputo and Pasternak say this emphasis on making programs available to all students regardless of fitness levels is "essential."

The cafeteria grants students choices, too, and backs this up with extensive nutritional education. "This integrated model and focus on real-life problem-solving are outstanding ways to teach healthy lifestyles," panelist Martin says. "Learning at an early age to be self-sufficient and to take personal responsibility for your own health and life leads to solid decision-making skills."

W.C. Britt Elementary

Snellville, Georgia

900 students in K through 5

Outstanding, culturally sensitive, creative health-curriculum solutions are among the hallmarks of this large elementary school, and they really got panelist Martin's attention. (She gave W.C. Britt her only perfect 10.) This school keeps its students engaged with taste tests, farm visits, school gardening, community-health-related plays, annual visits from local dentists, and more.

"I love the games, contests, and promotions. We know that when kids are motivated, they do their best work -- and that learning goes beyond simply 'preparing for the test.' This program is instilling values that will remain with these students for a lifetime," Martin says.

Our fitness and nutrition panelists liked what they saw, too, but the integration of innovative health initiatives is what put this lively school into the top 10. Martin sums it up: "Community partners, other disciplines, sports, cooking -- I wish schools across the country would use this program."

South Elementary

Pinson, Tennessee

269 students in pre-K through 4

Facing childhood obesity straight on has enabled this school to emerge as a state leader. South Elementary works with strong administrators at the district level and has broad support from its faculty, staff, and families.

The school has established a Life­time Fitness and Wellness Center, an on-site facility that's open not only to students but to faculty members and families, as well. "It's wonderful to incorporate family, teachers, and students into the program," judge Caputo says. "This provides a supportive environment in which everyone can work together, encourage one another, and enjoy family time while being physically active."

South has also instituted a breakfast-in-the-classroom program, which has a 98 percent participation level.

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Copyright Health Magazine 2009

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