Alexandria, VA–(ENEWSPF)–November 18, 2009.
MRS. OBAMA: Well, thank you so much, Principal Gates, for everyone here. I’m not going to talk long because I’m really here to listen and learn. You know, we know the statistics, we know that the school lunch and nutrition program is a major part of kids’ lives because so many kids are getting most of their meals here. And we also know that we can do better in those areas, because those programs, the low rates of vegetables and fruits in those meals and the high rates of foods that have high calories probably plays a role in some of the statistics the we hear, that one in three kids in this country are obese.
And that’s what we have to really combat, because that’s a reality and if we don’t do something about it now it’s only going to get worse.
So I have just been thrilled to be working with Secretary Vilsack, he’s been a wonderful partner. As some of you may know, a few weeks ago we hosted an event on the South Lawn where we really emphasized fitness, we talked about nutrition, we had kids from schools all throughout the area — and their parents — and really spent time showing how you can create healthy foods that kids enjoy, that are cost effective and easy to do with the current resources that the system provides.
And we also had a little fun, too — I hula-hooped — (laughter) — probably got a little too much attention from the hula-hooping, but the goal was really engaging families and kids in the whole area of fitness. And one of the things that we talked about was the healthy schools initiative that the Department of Agriculture has been supporting. And I made a commitment then that if more schools got onboard that I would invest in visiting those schools, learning more from them, seeing the kids. And this is really the first stop on that promise. And my hope is that we’ll be visiting more and more schools and there will be more and more schools that figure out how we can make this happen.
It’s because of successes that you all are having here that it shows us that even when there are few resources there are ways to improve what we’re doing in nutrition and fitness. So I’m thrilled to be here, to learn more about how you’re making it work. I’m glad that there are other schools and administrators here who are interested in figuring out how to make it work in their schools. And I stand by the commitment that I want to see more and more schools joining and meeting the standards of the healthy schools challenge, because I want to be visiting more schools that are making these changes and making the environment better for al of our kids.
So with that I will turn it back over to Principal Gates, and I know there are several people who are going to talk more about the efforts you all are doing here. So thank you again, and congratulations on what you’ve accomplished so far.
PRINCIPAL GATES: Thank you both for your remarks.
Talking about how we make it work, we’ve asked three of our panel members to expand upon that a little bit and we’ll start with Jean Consolla.
MS. CONSOLLA: Thanks. Over the last few years what we’ve learned at Hollin Meadows is that in order to make our kids academically strong and physically healthy we first have to address their social and emotional needs. And this focus on students’ social/emotional well being is not really an afterthought, but it’s really the foundation upon which we have built this community of caring learners.
And for many of our students this is a stable environment, this is the most stable environment that they’re going to experience. Here at Hollin Meadows almost 50 percent of our students live in poverty. We have students who have just arrived from another country, many not knowing a word of English. We have students who spent last night in a shelter and who don’t know if they’re going to be staying in their home by the end of the month.
And what we do at Hollin Meadows for every child is that we make each child feel that they belong here, that they’re significant and that school is a fun place to be and it’s a place where they can learn. And we do this in a variety of ways, both formally and informally.
Every August, the week before school begins, all of our teachers go to our children’s homes for a visit. They make that connection. Every, single child — every teacher goes and visits. I’ve done it, it’s a lot of fun. And we greet each student in the morning out front, when they’re getting off the bus, in the lobby, when they’re going into the cafeteria for the first meal of the day.
And when the children go to the classroom they start off each day with a morning meeting. They gather together with their classmates, they greet each other, they share what’s going on in their lives. They engage in a low-risk, fun activity. And then they make that transition to the academics through their morning message. And the result is they’ve created a community where they feel safe, they feel connected with each other.
Two years ago we took this up another notch and we spread it out to the whole school community. And each week we have a school meeting where we get — we do half of our students in K-6 on Tuesday, half on Thursday, we sing songs, we do performances, we have birthday recognitions, we do announcements. And we just make it really fun and inclusive.
And what we’ve found is that implementation of these practices — the morning meeting, the school meeting — has directly mirrored our closing of the achievement gap in reading and in mathematics. And our latest efforts have focused on recess. And in a time when many schools are decreasing the amount of recess or even eliminating recess, we’ve actually extended it. We went from 20 minutes to 30 minutes. And I would love to say that the driving force was to lower childhood obesity or to increase physical activity — but it wasn’t; I’d be lying to you if I said that. It was, again, the social/emotional needs of the children.
Because we know that when kids are engaged in productive free play they develop self-responsibility, they practice skills such as negotiating, they communicate with each other. And this is critical to their academic success and to their healthy well being. So we kind of back-doored with the physical fitness piece of this.
But it wasn’t just about adding 10 minutes to the recess time. We looked at how the quality of the recess — and so what we did was we looked at activities that were inclusive and that would get those kids active for the 30 minutes. So there’s no sitting on the sidelines and there’s no waiting your turn. It’s go, go, go. The more running, the better.
Teachers cannot keep their children out of recess because they’d miss their homework or because they were misbehaving in class. Recess is as important as reading and math and science and social studies.
We’re pretty confident that we’re on the right track to developing healthy children. And by focusing on the social/emotional health we’ve strengthened our academic program. Our kids feel empowered to take risks in the classroom. They share what their strategies are about solving a math problem or what they think the author’s purpose is. And when our students feel safe and valued in this community they’re more likely to take risks. They will go out and join with Debra in the running club. They’ll try a new game at recess. They’ll take that big-kid risk and try a vegetable. (Laughter.) And say, oh, okay, I can do that, I’m in a safe space here.
At Hollin Meadows we like to say that we’re nurturing healthy risk-takers. And as a mom and as an educator I am just thrilled to be sharing in this dialogue. And I’m grateful that we have an ally in the First Lady and in the Secretary in raising healthy children.
And with that I’d like to turn it over to Louise, who will talk about how the community has joined us in that effort.
MS. GRIFFIN: Good morning. Thank you for taking the time to visit our school and for your commitment to our children and the nation.
About five years ago, several parents in the PTA took a very progressive and innovative idea at the time to start a garden and actually turn it into a reality. As a parent and a community member, it’s just been an amazing process to watch. The synergy here of the administration and the staff, the parents, the students and the community is almost indescribable.
Time after time we’ve been able to take ideas and turn them into concrete reality. We’ve been able to transform our environment. We used two big PTA events and school events — one is Earth Day, where the entire community comes together to beautify the school, create gardens, we have a wildlife habitat, we’ve painted murals, we’ve created outdoor learning spaces. And most importantly, it adds to building that community that Jean talked about.
I’ve witnessed our students and parents in the gardens on Earth Day, and everyone is welcome and comfortable. I never tire of seeing the children’s faces that have never planted, never been in the soil — and to see that light bulb go on when they connect that the plan they’re planting is something that they see in the grocery store. And for a lot of our kids this is the first opportunity they have to do that.
This week we’re actually harvesting lettuce that every student in the school had the opportunity to participate in the working beds and plant. And we have a huge Thanksgiving luncheon that’s actually tomorrow and all the children will be harvesting this afternoon to get the lettuce harvested. And just being there and watching the community come out, the parents are here. And so it’s no going through the line like a normal cafeteria Thanksgiving lunch, everybody sits at a table much like this and is served. And they’re eating the lettuce that they grew and it is just such an empowering day and just to see the kids who probably didn’t eat salad before.
We know that children are influenced by their environment. Our gardens expose our students to healthier foods, but also healthier lifestyles, the importance of being outside, the need to protect the Earth and being green and recycling. And most important to me, making intentional choices about how they live their life.
It’s been my pleasure to watch the children stay actively engaged in their science lessons and to hear our students answer Chef Kass this summer when we were actually in your garden — (laughter) — and they could actually tell him about the edible parts of a plant, they could tell him about composting. It lets me know that the impact that the community and the parents are having by bringing this opportunity is attributed directly to the learning in the classroom. And that’s what gives me the energy to continue to provide my time and talents here at Hollin Meadows.
As a mom here, I know that my children will leave here prepared for what lies ahead, but also engaged in learning. And it’s just a wonderful, wonderful environment. So thank you for coming today.
MRS. OBAMA: Just a quick question — how do you get more parents engaged? I mean, it sounds like parental engagement is pretty high here.
MS. GRIFFIN: It has truly been a grassroots effort. The team of parents that came together are actually very intentional in making a personal connection with each other. Someone came to me when I was new at the school and shared the vision with me. And we do it pretty much one parent at a time and have been just very successful with that.
MRS. OBAMA: Great, thank you.
MS. McCONNELL: We’re very fortunate in Fairfax County. I’ve been with the district 44 years and it’s still a lot of fun feeding the children of this community. We’re blessed in the sense that our school boards and our superintendents through the years have always followed the very strong nutrition philosophy that our program started with in the ’50s. And we have a very good partnership throughout the district and that’s very important in a position such as mine, that you do get support at the top and so forth.
We have, since 1986 — which is hard to believe — a competitive food regulation that we got approval on that preclude the sale of anything in competition with our program for the entire school day. So we’ve never sold soft drinks and candy and I think it’s because of our strong nutrition philosophy.
We had 61 schools that won the challenge last year. And the challenge is a multifaceted partnership, really, when you think about it. And I think it’s a wonderful initiative and I’m delighted that you’re both supporting it, because it shows what can happen in the wellbeing of our youngsters when you involved physical education, you involve the school lunch program, nutrition education and the dietary guidelines and meeting the federal standards.
And I think what’s great about the upcoming new federal standards I think they’ll be very realistic. We take a great deal of pride in Fairfax in promoting fresh fruits and vegetables. It’s costly, but I think it’s very important that that be something we promote. And we have some very good nutrition education materials that we’ve developed to promote it.
My team not only supervises operations, but they’re required to do nutrition education in the classroom. And we’ve developed a great number of programs to complement what the teachers do. There’s another blessing we have in Fairfax — we have a nutrition education curriculum K-8, which is wonderful and important. And I think what’s so enjoyable is with our materials, we make them quite colorful — and sometimes we’re criticized for the expense — but we want them to go home to the parents because I think our big challenge in child nutrition, hunger and reducing the obesity is to get our parents to be better role models.
And so I think this is a challenge that all of us around the table — and I think it’s a blessing here at Hollin Meadows and many of our schools in Fairfax do have — but I think with working parents, they’re rushed, they do need some guidance. So every month I do a nutrition education newsletter that is sent to parents throughout the district. We have a wonderful website for the teachers. And because I think we need to be involved in the classroom, I believe school lunch cannot just be down the hall. We have to be an integral part of the school. We play an important role in children’s readiness to learn.
We have a wonderful wellness program. We have a task force that met all the standards of USDA. But my challenge right now is how do I get all of my school administrators to enter a competition we’ve established, which is the Wellness Score Card. In our first year last year we only had 15 entries. So our goal is to maybe hit 50 this year. And you’ve gone through the same with the Healthier U.S. School Challenge — it takes time to get people to be aware that it’s there, you have to market it, but you have to get them to buy in.
And our Score Card reflects all of the things that the Healthier School Challenge does, you know, the involvement, physical education, health fairs. In fact, I said to Jon, you need to enter that this year. And it’s just how we’re so large in Fairfax County — we’re so large, 411 square miles and 230-some schools and centers — not that I’m making an excuse, but it takes all of us in this partnership. And that’s why Hollin Meadows has a wonderful situation here — you see the partnership with everyone, with the faculty, with the support personnel, with the parents. And so I think that’s something that’s very, very important, that we become strong partners, all of us together.
SECRETARY VILSACK: Just to comment on your comment about the cost. You know, we do recognize that when we’re asking schools in tough economic times to dig deep and to do this, we in the federal government want to be a partner. The President in his budget has proposed a billion dollars more for the child nutrition reauthorization effort a year. And that is designed to provide greater, tighter partnerships so that you can afford to have those vegetables and fruits in the diets of youngsters.
So we want to be a good partner with you, but we’re going to need your help to convince our friends in Congress that this is a priority. With the First Lady’s leadership we elevate this issue significantly, but we’re going to need your voices as well.
MS. McCONNELL: Yes, and it’s very important and I do commend you on spotlighting it, as I said earlier. And I think nationally the child nutrition professionals want to work closely to achieve this. And I think the secret is to have a nice partnership within every school in this country — which is achievable. It won’t be overnight. I know my colleague are wanting to meet the guidelines to make our meals healthier, and some have more challenges than others. But I think we’re dedicated to that and I think the School Nutrition Association has shown that and I know some of my colleagues were visiting with you at your program the other day. But it takes all of us.
MRS. OBAMA: Well, a question, Jon, because Hollin Meadows, again, has its share of struggles. You’ve got a pretty diverse population base. You’re dealing with high-needs kids. Yet you’ve managed to find the time with the current resources to add recess — and that’s something that you hear; or at least I’ve heard as a mother, that it’s not done because there’s no time in the curriculum, because of testing and other requirements — but you’ve managed to do it in addition to adding nutrition education into the curriculum.
So I guess one question is how have you managed to do what many others have said is impossible to do under the current structure?
PRINCIPAL GATES: Well, I think that in many ways some of what we’ve done is counterintuitive. You think, well, if we need more time for the academics then we should cut out something like recess. But what we know is that when a child has had a chance to be physically active, when they’ve had a chance to have free choice, that those things then — it pays off when they come back into the classroom and they’re ready to attend, they’re ready to learn.
The same way with nutrition. We know that if you don’t — they learn about, wow, if I have a lot of carbohydrates or a sugary snack I’m going to have this spike of energy and then I’m going to crash — so if we can help them understand how eating is going to help you learn, well, then our achievement scores, as Jean talked about, they’ve gone up. We haven’t lost ground. We have made AYP. We’ve done those things that have been difficult choices to make, but we know that when we think about what’s best for our kids — and also we’re not just preparing kids to pass a test, preparing them to make it to the next grade level — we’ve preparing them for life. And so the skills that they learn about nutrition, healthy eating and physical exercise are things that they’re going to take with them for their entire life.
MRS. OBAMA: So it’s really a difference in philosophy, because you say it’s counterintuitive — but we all really know that it’s really not counterintuitive. (Laughter.) If anyone has kids you know that they need exercise and recess in order to focus. If you own a dog you know that. (Laughter.)
But I guess that’s part of the challenge, is changing the mentality within the system about what priorities make sense and why.
PRINCIPAL GATES: Well, I would also point out that some of that we’ve done — we’ve also looked closely at our curriculum around what we grow in our gardens — and Jason and Shawn can talk to this — that, you know, our science, our social studies curriculum are rich in opportunities to say, let’s integrate this curriculum into what the students have to know and be able to do to achieve academically. And certainly growing something in the garden and looking at the different parts of a plant and talking about that versus looking at it in a textbook or seeing it on a visual somewhere is much more powerful to our students.
So we’ve looked at those as saying that is really learning that’s going on. It’s not just, went out in the garden and doing those things.
MS. AKARD: Yes, every opportunity out in the garden is an opportunity to learn. And not only do Jason and I do that, but our teachers take it one step further — and you can see some of the proof of that around you. We’ll be out with classes and then a teacher will take it into a writing exercise, into a mathematics lesson. And they take it and extend it and extend it. And I think that is part of our key to success, is that everybody is so connected to what we’re doing that it becomes — it’s just a natural process for us here at Hollin Meadows. So I’m very grateful.
MR. PITTMAN: Dedicating time to those things are not mutually exclusive. We don’t have to give up one in order to do the other. We can do measurement and math exactly like Shawn said — and when we do, like Jon said, have to spend the extra expensive time it pays such dividends that it’s absolutely worth it.
MRS. OBAMA: One question — we also have other administrators here and I’m — for people who are trying to figure this out, I’d love to hear about what are the challenges that you see? I mean, when you listen to what’s gone on here, what do you think? How is it tougher, how do you think about it? Because, again, this is one — but not the only — opportunity to discuss it. But I’m interested in hearing from schools as well who find that there will be challenges in reaching these goals and what can be done to make it easier.
MS. LITCHKO: Well, I’m a primary school, so we look at it a little differently because of all the little ones. And it’s really — at my school it’s about building relationships both with the children and the parents, because for so many it’s their first time in a school situation.
And so we’ve been so lucky to get support. We have the Maryland Meals for Achievement program, which is a breakfast program. And the children come in 20 minutes early and the teachers give up their planning time so that they can be in the classrooms with them — having breakfast, creating a nurturing environment. They call it “soft landing,” which comes from the Responsive Classroom. And it also makes them an advocate for having healthier breakfasts, because they’re right there seeing what’s happening.
We also have the After School Snacks program for our all Head Starts and for our after school clubs, so that the children get some food during the day. We’ve had nutrition classes for the parents because we realize they’re coming with not the skills to know what are healthy diets here in the United States. And we also have a backpack program on Fridays, where we send home food, so they get food.
So one of the challenges for us is to make sure children aren’t hungry. And for that we are so thankful for all you’re doing and Secretary Vilsack is doing to help us.
MS. FOSTER: Well, at River Terrace Elementary School this is my second year as the administrator. We’re very small. We have 150 students. And I’m the only administrator. And it’s really tough to — knowing the importance of healthier lifestyles for children. When I was a child I was an obese child. And so I understand, you know, the benefits of having healthier food choices, of being physically fit, involved in activities.
And so we joined, partnered with the Alliance for Healthier Generation and that requires you to establish a school wellness council. And I find that establishment of the school wellness council is how we’ve been able to start small, but think big. The school wellness council has the principal, the school nurse, the cafeteria manager, the PE teacher, parents and other staff members who are interested. And last year we met to talk about how can we start small, but think big.
And so one of the pieces of it we did is we established a Jammin’ Minute. It’s midway the literacy block — the 120-minute literacy block. And every day at 10:00 a.m. the nurse comes on the PA system and says, “It’s time for Jammin’ Minute,” and we literally stop instruction for just a minute and we do a physical activity that’s connected to social studies or science standard. Yesterday we traveled to the solar system just for a minute, and we reached and we stretched and we did different things.
And the principal has to get to a classroom, because I have to participate. Any adult who’s in the building, they have to stop and participate. The teachers participate. The children look forward to it. It just takes a minute and it’s free and it reenergizes them and gets them ready for the second half of the literacy block.
We also decided to establish a Stepping Tigers Walking Club. The nurse targeted children in my building who are obese, also other children who want to participate, and parents and staff members who want to participate. And so after school, during the after-care program they walk the building. When it’s cold outside, they walk outside. We connect it, of course, to math standards and to science standards. But again, it’s something that’s free, something that’s easy to do. The students and staff and parents are already there. And so those are two examples of starting small.
During our morning announcements, our children lead the morning announcements and they read the daily menu — what are we having for lunch. And so the children decided that they want to give a healthy tip — they don’t just want to read what the lunch menu is, but they notice everyone isn’t eating their peas and everyone isn’t eating their carrots — (laughter) — and everyone isn’t drinking all of their milk. So each day they mention a healthy tip, you know, “You have to drink all of your milk because it helps to make your teeth and bones strong. I’m going to drink all of my milk — are you?”
So we have this — again, it’s free, it’s something simple to do, we’re already doing the morning announcements. But that’s children encouraging other children with healthy habits. And thinking big? We want to establish a garden at our school. And so that’s why this is an amazing opportunity not only to be here with you and with the Secretary, but to be at a school who already has this functioning. And I can come over and I can visit and my school can come visit and say, hey, this is how we did it and this is how we can bring this to my school.
And I’ll wrap up by saying that the big vision is to have this organic garden at my school and to have an instructional kitchen in my school. And children and parents can plant together and teachers as well, but we can go outside and we can take some of the things that we’ve planted and we can go into the building into our instructional kitchen and we can educate our parents on what to do with these vegetables and what to do with these fruits and how to prepare healthier meals.
I have a juicer. If you juice a carrot and an apple, that will taste so much better than the soda and some of what I call the sugar-water, you know, that my students are used to drinking. So again, we’re starting small, we’re thinking big, and we’re partnering with schools in D.C., Maryland and Virginia to see what you’re doing and how that can help us to grow at our school.
DR. GRANT: (Off mic) — we’re focusing on the whole family. We’re partnering with George Washington University and we started the parent academy. So first I’m trying to change the culture, the mind set. I have a lot of things that I need to offset, and I’m willing to have those tough conversations with parents, children, staff.
I have to you these children that it’s not okay to smoke, what you’re doing to your bodies. And I have to break it down to what’s in cigarettes. I know I’m not ingratiating myself to the tobacco industry, but right now I’m trying to save lives. Also I have to tell them when you put certain foods in your body — fried foods — how it can clog your arteries.
I have these conversations, I’ve gone to classrooms. I had it in the Personal Instructional Minute every morning. I go through my checklist: Did you bathe? Did you brush your teeth? Do you have on clean clothes? And the kids are expecting these things from me. And I love it.
And I also make sure that we have partnerships in place that are going to focus on the child’s physical activity, as we were saying earlier. We have to make sure in after-school programs that we are just not putting — well, with D.C. public schools you have athletic programs which starts at the 4th grade level. But parents kept asking me in a pre-school to three atmosphere, what’s there for my children? So I went out and found a partnership with Create Tennis. So my children at that age are learning how to play tennis at an early age. So I built in an athletic program. And those are not athletically inclined, we have a dance program, we have a glee club, we have a music program — all in the extended day activities. We made sure that this was in place so that they have opportunities for physical exertion beyond the academic day, because I also have to make sure that they get the academics.
And as we said with the structure at recess — we have soccer, kickball, basketball, jumping rope. And I’m outside very day, that’s my duty, every day — I’m playing basketball, I’m racing children, I’m playing kickball, I’m jumping rope. I’m doing everything to model for the children —
MRS. OBAMA: Have you hula-hooped yet? (Laughter.)
DR. GRANT: Oh, they made me hula hoop. They made me hula hoop. (Laughter.) And I thank you for that, because they said, Dr. Grant, can you hula hoop? I said, I certainly can. So I did hula hoop with the children.
All that to say that we have to focus on what’s in our community, the resources that are available, that wanted to come in, and finding them and I’m focusing on a full community that we have a lot of carry-outs. And I have to tell them what it’s doing to your bodies — liquor stores, you know, what alcohol does to your liver. These are things where I want my children to live beyond the age of 40 and 50. I have to take care of their bodies and then we, the Department of Mental Health, and take care of their minds. And we are there for them and I want to be there for them every day.
MRS. OBAMA: Great. Thank you. All right, Katie is losing her mind. (Laughter.) Her head is about to pop off — uh-oh, it’s gone. (Laughter.)
PRINCIPAL GATES: Well, thank you very much, all of you, for your comments, for your thoughts this morning. It’s been a great discussion, we really appreciate that.
MRS. OBAMA: Thank you. Thanks so much.
First Lady Michelle Obama
The Honorable Tom Vilsack, Secretary of the U.S. Department of Agriculture
Jon Gates, Principal, Hollin Meadows
Jean Consolla, Assistant Principal, Hollin Meadows
Donna Beaver-Young, Assistant Principal, Hollin Meadows
Penny McConnell, Director of Food and Nutrition Services, Hollin Meadows
Shawn Akard, Outdoor Education Coordinator, Hollin Meadows
Debra Lane, Parent Volunteer and Running Club Coordinator, Hollin Meadows
Jason Pittman, Science Focus Teacher, Hollin Meadows
Louise Griffin, Parent Volunteer and former PTA President, Hollin Meadows
Shannon Foster, Principal, River Terrace Elementary School, Washington, DC
Jeffrey Grant, Walker Jones Education Campus, Washington, DC
Jane Litchko, New Hampshire Estates Elementary School, Silver Spring, MD