Fitness plans & life-threatening food allergies led Principal Sue Walton and staff at Cooley Elementary to make positive changes!
School: Cooley Elementary School
District: Waterford MI
Principal: Sue Walton
Can you share a little about the exciting things your school is doing to positively impact your students and their families when it comes to healthy eating?
Waterford’s physical education program has engaged student in systematic improvements since 2001. We participated in the Michigan Governor’s Council on Physical Fitness, Health and Sport Exemplary Physical Education Awards Program, and have achieved all levels, including the prestigious Level VIII Award in 2007. This program has documented improvements in motor skills, fitness capacities, activity-related knowledge, and personal and social character traits across all grades. I am very proud of the fact that Cooley Elementary has also won the district Elementary Fitness Award for the last three years in a row.
Our physical education teacher, Mr. Jim Petersen, was named the Elementary Physical Education Teacher of the Year (2010) by the Michigan Association for Health, Physical Education, Recreation, and Dance. The article “One School District’s Strategy to Improve Fitness Levels: A Fitness Challenge”, written by Jim Peterson, Ray Allen, and Brian Tass was published in the Journal of Physical Education, Recreation & Dance, Volume 81 No. 3, March 2010. It describes the strategic plan by our district’s physical education teachers to improve fitness levels of our students. The Michigan Department of Education also recognized Mr. Petersen as a Rising Star in its 2010 Michigan Team Nutrition Star Award program. This grant program looked at how positive health behaviors are role modeled by the nominee. I wonder if there is any connection between the success of our physical education program and our “snack policy” that has been in place at Cooley over the last eight years. At that time, a student with an air borne life threatening food allergy caused me to rewrite our snack policy, with advice from his physician and our district nurse. Since that time, snacks and celebrations (birthday, holidays, etc) may include only “approved” items. The approved items are: fresh fruit and vegetable snacks, packaged fruit, applesauce, raisins, and string cheese. Non-food treats such as stickers, pencils, erasers, stars, a classroom book donation, etc. may be brought in for celebrations. We have also removed all soda products from our machines and replaced them with water and iced tea products.
How have students, parents and staff responded to the changes?
Students are very excited to see where they are placing on the fitness rubrics and asking how they can advance to the next level! Initially, no one was looking forward to the changes that were coming with the food policy! In fact, a few families actually left our school. They were disappointed they could not send in cupcakes for birthday parties, etc. Staff was very anxious about how to make sure we could keep the allergic students safe. I would say everyone was nervous and apprehensive. Information was the key to accepting the change.
Health care professionals were called in to meet with students in classrooms or assemblies to explain allergic reaction, proper hand washing, and helping everyone to feel less uncomfortable. Staff training on epi-pens made staff less anxious. Information provided at PTO meetings and at curriculum night helped parents have a better understanding of the stresses faced by families with allergic children. At a district level, we talked across departments about how to keep these children safe. The most important part of our plan was that as a staff we were uniform in enforcing our policy! Now, years later, we have many more children with many more types of food allergies enrolling. Parents are relieved to know we are familiar with this type of situation, and trust that we will do what we can to contribute to the well being of their child, and keep them safe from harm. Parties are still very fun, and have lots of fruit and vegetable trays. Our parents are very creative in making animals and different things out of pineapples and apples! Parents who thought their children “didn’t like” or “wouldn’t eat” fruits and vegetables are finding their kids are willing to try lots of different things, and their friends are often introducing them to new fruits and vegetables.
Why did you decide to put forth the effort and resources towards making these changes?
As a public school, we didn’t have any choice. Students with food allergies are covered under the American with Disabilities Act. They are entitled to come to school to get an education and my job is to keep them safe. The school district was very supportive in providing resources, which included developing Plans of Care for these students. The POC’s were put in place after parents collected information from their physicians. This was then shared with health care professionals hired by the district. The school administrator, parents, social worker and school district nurse met to put together the plan of care. The plan clearly spelled out what was needed, depending on the child’s condition. (ie: “peanut free table in the lunch room”). This was shared with all staff that had contact with the students. Care for the safety of these children also spilled over into after school activities. Our PTO was extremely helpful in making sure that children were not exposed to risk during events. The “Cooley Cares” slogan was in place, and all of us assumed responsibility for keeping children healthy and safe. Ultimately, because a few students caused us to change our food policy, the whole school is now eating much healthier! (And achieving higher on fitness awards!!)
What practical advice and inspiration can you offer other educators and administrators who are interested in making similar positive changes?
Change is uncomfortable! It also takes time. After learning about how to “live with” a peanut allergic student in the classroom, two of our teachers found out their young children have life threatening food allergies. They felt more knowledgeable about how to approach this with their physicians and took some of our idea’s to their children’s school. You never know when something like this could happen to you! It has taught all of us to be more empathetic and understanding. “Seek to understand” is a good place to start when trying to figure out what to do. The University of Michigan allergy clinic was very helpful in sending staff to speak to our school community. Knowledge is power.