Principal Chris Lineberry was just 36 when he was taken away from his rural North Carolina elementary school campus on a stretcher.
Lineberry had suffered a minor heart attack. While he went on to make a full recovery, the health scare shook him enough to make changes not only in his own life, but in the life of his school.
“It was extremely effective… I don’t recommend it,” Lineberry jokes of his heart attack. “I was one of the youngest people on the staff. So the staff became very engaged at that point.”
Lineberry and his team first made changes to help improve staff wellness, and those changes led to discussions about what to do for students. There certainly was a need — data showed 56 students in kindergarten through fifth grade had a body mass index (BMI) in the 85th percentile or above, Lineberry says.
Work began in the school cafeteria, where unhealthy salty and sugary items were replaced with healthier options. The school incorporated 60 minutes of physical activity into the daily schedule, which included 30 minutes of free play, 15 minutes of walking and 15 minutes of calisthenics. Teachers also integrated activity into their academic lessons.
The results were impressive, as only 47 kids measured in the 85 BMI percentile or above at the end of the school year. For their part, the school staff also showed health improvements, including a big decrease in their cholesterol levels, Lineberry recalls.
But what struck Lineberry was how students’ academic performance also had improved. He continued his health efforts the next year, and “in two years time, my students made three years of academic growth.”
In 2007, his school ranked in the top 10 percent of schools in the state and received the North Carolina Prevention Partners School of Excellence award.
Lineberry moved to Arizona that same year, where he became principal of an elementary school of about 800 students, larger than the school he led in North Carolina. Lineberry implemented similar health-focused initiatives there — although he joked ““I didn’t have a heart attack at school” — including incorporating 45 minutes of physical activity into the daily schedule.
Again, the school saw academic improvement, such as the highest standardized test scores in its history.
In both schools, Lineberry says he saw an improvement not only in student performance and health, but also in the performance and health of teachers. For many educators, the initiatives provided a motivational boost, helping them connect with “why they got into teaching in the first place,” Lineberry says.
“What teachers connect with is, ‘This is going to help kids live better lives,’” he adds.
Lineberry now works for Arizona’s Florence Unified School District, where he serves as principal of an online-based school and is charged with implementing health and wellness improvements at schools district-wide. He also serves as chairman of the educational advisory board for NPLAY, a nonprofit that is working to improve opportunities for daily play for children everywhere.
Since he took the role with the district, all elementary schools now serve only healthy items in vending machines (courtesy of HUMAN Healthy Vending, which The Inside Track previously profiled). Lineberry adds that some schools are more willing to introduce healthy initiatives than others, noting that principal buy-in really plays a big role in determining whether a program will be successful.
But he’s optimistic that additional positive changes will come, pointing to his own experience convincing staff and teachers that incorporating wellness into their schools’ overall mission was vital to their success.
“It came back to, ‘Is this the right thing to do for the kids?’ And there never was any question that it was,” Lineberry says.