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Monday
Oct182010

Welcome to Namaste Charter School!

By Patricia Glynn

 Today, youngsters are surrounded by food (primarily junk food) at nearly every turn. They’re also moving considerably less than ever before. And because of all this, our children, it seems, are growing—and, unfortunately, they’re expanding outward instead of just upward.

The statistics are grim: as reported by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), obesity rates among youngsters aged 6 to 11 rose from 6.5% in 1980, to 19.6% in 2008. For adolescents, those aged 12 to 19, the incidence of obesity likewise increased dramatically, rising from 5.0% to 18.1% in the same time frame.

Fortunately, solutions are being developed and innovative leaders are stepping forward to facilitate change. And perhaps unsurprisingly, our industry is also taking steps to help.

One particularly notable project in the battle against childhood obesity began in 2004 in the inner city of Chicago. In the southwest side’s McKinley Park neighborhood, a unique institute was born. Integrating exercise and good nutrition with its rigorous academic curriculum, The Namaste Charter School opened its doors…and opened a new chapter in the lives of a select group of children.

The school was founded by Allison Slade, an educator who now serves as the institute’s principal. She’d witnessed the obesity epidemic, and its consequences, during the years she’d worked as a teacher—such as students “crashing” after eating sugary treats and spending nearly all of their leisure time seated in front of the television. She watched as their health, and subsequently, their grades, plummeted.

Now, alternatively, at Namaste, she watches a very different scenario unfold every day. And it’s one she hopes will be emulated across the nation.

Namaste’s students, approximately 400 of them, ranging from kindergarteners to seventh-graders, arrive each weekday morning at 8:30 via a “walking school bus.” Their 7.5-hour day begins with the Morning Movement exercise regimen (stretches and calisthenics) and a healthy breakfast (fresh fruit, yogurt, and whole wheat bagels). Then the studying begins. Of course, students don’t just sit, listen, and learn at this innovative facility. Because Slade believes in nourishing the mind and body in tandem, academics and movement are taught side by side. Math class, for instance, means doing three jumping jacks, then two more, and then adding them all together to learn the lesson. Further, reciting the alphabet involves mimicking the shape of the letters with their bodies.

Outside the classroom setting, there’s even more activity: one hour of physical education per day, 25 minutes of daily recess, and a weekly 2.2-mile hike to a local park. The fitness also continues long after students return home: a take-home log, monitored by parents, is used to record any extra (highly encouraged) activity.

Interestingly, students at Namaste aren’t just moving more; they’re also being empowered by learning the reasons, and benefits, behind every step they take. They aren’t just blindly following their instructors.

That philosophy—understanding the “why” behind every choice—carries over to the cafeteria as well. To encourage the children to opt for healthier choices (this cohort is, after all, not known for favoring greens), nutrition lessons are incorporated into the curriculum. By learning about healthy foods, as opposed to just placing them within reach, students are, experts have found, more apt to eat them. And so the day’s course might focus on “smart snacking” or “better fast food choices,” while a field trip might entail a visit to a local pumpkin patch. The end result: within three months, the number of students sidling up to the salad bar quadrupled. The cafeteria has also, on more than one occasion, nearly run out of salad.

Also worth mentioning: you will find cookies and chocolate milk here. Namaste is about balance, not deprivation. Indulgent options are indeed available—they are simply served less frequently. Further, any overly-sugary, chemical-filled junk foods that are devoid of nutritional value are, as a rule, always rejected; staff will consistently send back any such deliveries. In other words, according to Slade, you’ll get a gingerbread cookie rather than an Oreo.

Other unique, wellness-centric features of Namaste include family fitness nights, weekly family breakfasts featuring expert speakers, a weekly farmers’ market, and a lending library which loans health-focused books. Slade and her bevy of instructors know wellness begins, and is reinforced, in the home and so parental participation is eagerly embraced and fervently promoted.

The school, thus far, has been an overwhelming success. There’s not only a waiting list to enroll, but, this past June, Namaste was presented with the national Healthy Schools Program recognition award from the Alliance for a Healthier Generation, a partnership of the William J. Clinton Foundation and the American Heart Association. Moreover, the students’ progress, thus far, has been exceptional: Body Mass Index (BMI), monitored as part of ongoing research by the Consortium to Lower Obesity in Chicago (CLOCC), has, for instance, remained steady or has decreased for most of those who attend. Academically, Namaste’s students have beaten the Illinois Standards Achievement Test (ISAT) district average by a notable 15 percentage points.

Namaste’s approach is working. And it is, given current circumstances, sorely needed.

Our industry already does so much to enhance the health and wellness of people throughout the world. We now have an opportunity to give to our future health club members and fitness professionals. We can help students have a healthier future. According to Allison Isaacson, Namaste’s development director, there are many ways those in the fitness industry can assist neighborhood schools, including donating gently used fitness equipment, rallying support among clients, and training staff and physical education teachers. For other tips and recommendations, Slade and Isaacson suggest visiting www.namasteshares.org.

- Patricia Glynn is associate editor of CBI magazine and can be reached at p.glynn@fit-etc.com.

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