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An A for Achievement



The Olympic Games have come to Rio Hondo Elementary School — which is one of the reasons Rio Hondo has gotten the gold.

The K-8 public school in Arcadia, Calif., is a recipient of a Gold Recognition Award from the Alliance for a Healthier Generation, which on Monday recognized 275 schools in more than 30 states for transforming their campuses into healthy places. Rio Hondo and the other schools are part of the Alliance’s Healthy Schools Program, which supports schools in their transformation efforts.

At an event in Little Rock, Ark., former President Bill Clinton, whose foundation co-founded the Alliance with the American Heart Association, saluted the schools and announced that the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation will provide a $23.2 million grant to expand the Healthy Schools Program. (Full disclosure: is a project of RWJF.)

But when The Inside Track caught up via telephone with Rio Hondo Principal Lance Lawson, he was busy preparing for his school’s eighth-grade graduation ceremony. Instead of traveling to Little Rock himself, Lawson sent teacher Erin Brown to accept the award, which he says is fitting considering teachers like her are the driving force behind the school’s healthy transformation.

Brown organized a program to pair younger students with older kids during P.E. class, for example. First grade teacher Diana Elliott put together a walk-a-thon for the primary grades, while fourth grade teacher Donna Gannon organized the school’s junior Olympics, complete with an opening ceremony, a variety of events and medals for the winning students.

"It’s a blast, it really is a blast," Lawson says of the Rio Hondo Olympiad. "And again, it’s through the efforts of one teacher. Basically, all I did was buy her ribbons and help her coordinate the use of the playground."

Olympic pageantry isn’t the only change the school has implemented. Rio Hondo received grant money to bring a salad bar to the cafeteria, and used another grant to create a fitness center. The campus also is serving healthier food to its students and its community in general. At a recent school carnival, only healthy treats were served and at a pancake breakfast, the school served up healthy sweet potato pancakes.

But while Rio Hondo is a shining example of healthy living, Lawson notes his top motivation for all the hard work is helping improve his students’ academic performance. After all, research — including some conducted by Rio Hondo itself — shows that kids who eat well and get plenty of exercise do better in school.

Healthy kids are better learners, especially readers, and have higher standardized test scores, Lawson says, which only serves to benefit the school.

"We want our kids to go in and have the energy to take the test, and do as well as they can," Lawson says.

Lawson jokes that the application for the Alliance’s Healthy Schools Program award is especially long — "There’s no way we would take the time to fill out that long of an application if we didn’t already have buy-in from all the teachers," he says — but adds that the good thing about filling it out is that it made officials look for additional ways to improve.

The school recently purchased a new curriculum for its health education, for example, that includes updated information about healthy eating and physical activity.

"It’s a unifying effort," Lawson says of the school’s work. "The majority of our kids come to us on a bus, they’re not neighborhood kids. So, we make a big effort to make the school important to them."

Click here to send an e-card congratulating Rio Hondo and the 274 other schools on their award.

Behind the Scenes. When First Lady Michelle Obama last week introduced her new initiative, Let’s Move Child Care, she did so at CentroNia, a bilingual child-care facility in Washington, D.C. Obama toured the center and called it a role model for those seeking to make their own facilities healthier.

Let’s Move! has released five guidelines to make child and day care centers healthy, but The Inside Track also asked CentroNia’s Food and Nutrition Director Beatriz Zuluaga and Nutritionist Sofia Bustos for a few pointers. Here’s what they suggest:

  • Freshen Up. CentroNia makes everything from scratch, ensuring that its students (and staff!) get the freshest food possible. Twice a week the school serves vegetarian lunches, once a week it dishes out tuna, serves plenty of whole grains and avoids juices, which often are loaded with sugar. As Let’s Move! suggests with its own guidelines, students eat meals family style, which helps them learn to appreciate the value of food… and pick up some table manners.
  • Parental Control. The child-care center makes sure parents also receive nutrition and health education. The school offers a parents’ night, where moms and dads can learn to make healthy recipes. There’s also workshops on reading nutrition labels and using the food pyramid (which has been replaced by MyPlate). "The first thing is to educate the adults. I mean, the main work is for the adults," Zuluaga says.
  • Get Physical. Limit screen time and make sure kids move. CentroNia staff often takes students to nearby parks when the weather is nice, for example.
  • Start Small. Don’t think you have to change everything right away to get results, the pair caution. Offering simple, fresh food or making a little more time for play can make a big difference.