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Five Years to a Healthier School


How does a school become a three-time honoree for promoting healthy living in just five years? Just ask Jennifer Velez, wellness coordinator at John M. Sexton Elementary School in St. Petersburg, Florida.

When Jennifer was offered the position of wellness coordinator, she knew she had her work cut out for her. To get a solid picture of how well her school was doing, she took the Alliance for a Healthier Generation’s Healthy Schools Program Inventory. “I completed the Inventory and found that we were lacking in most areas, but the biggest changes needed to happen in our cafeteria,” she explains.

It was as good a place to start as any, so the first issue she set her sights on was her school lunchroom’s a la carte items, food that students could purchase in addition to their school lunch. “I’d often walk through the cafeteria during lunch and witness kids eating ice cream while their school lunch went untouched,” she says.

Jennifer knew this needed to change, but there was a catch―sales of a la carte items went to cover part of their cafeteria workers’ pay. Understandably, there was concern from her cafeteria manager that changes would cause a loss of revenue, and possibly lead to some of her employees losing their jobs.

To make sure that the students would still enjoy what was offered, Jennifer and the cafeteria staff did taste tests and created surveys to find out what the students liked and didn’t like. Thanks to their research, after the changes were implemented, they saw no drop in revenue.

Jennifer also understood that lunchrooms aren’t the only place that children get food at school. Her next mission was to cut down on the amount of unhealthy foods kids ate in the classroom. It’s a common occurrence in schools for parents to send snacks for their child’s birthday or on holidays, and that adds up to a lot of snacks fast.

Now, the school has a policy that allows two celebrations with treats per year. “We were confronted with a few parents who were upset that they couldn’t bring their child cupcakes on their birthday, but they quickly came around and most appreciated the reason behind the change,” Jennifer notes.

These simple changes in the first two years of their transition earned the school the Alliance for a Healthier Generation’s Bronze National Recognition Award in 2010. But Jennifer wasn’t done―she set her sights on the next higher prize: the Silver National Recognition Award.

The next logical changes were changes to increase the amount of physical activity the students received each day. “Classroom physical activity was an area where teachers were apprehensive. They had the misconception that stopping and getting kids moving would get them too excited and they would never be able to get them to focus and settle,” she explains.

As they tested that theory though, they found it was not the case. She started simple, introducing her fellow staff members to short physical activity break ideas. Slowly, the teachers started to make use of these ideas in their classroom.

Adding physical activity to their school day helped earn them the Silver National Recognition Award in 2011. Shortly after receiving the award, the school was surprised by a visit from First Lady Michelle Obama, who wanted to congratulate the school in person and see first-hand the changes they were making.

The next year, the school worked hard on encouraging their student wellness council, and implemented a program to encourage walking that Walgreens was offering. The school tested the program for only one month, but at the end found that their classes were averaging 30 extra minutes of walking a day just by taking longer routes to get around the school and walking while reading in classrooms.

The cafeteria manager, Beth Bates, decided to help students be more comfortable with new fruits and vegetables by donning alter-egos like the Green Bean Queen and Purple Sweet Potato Punk Rocker.

In 2013, these changes earned the school their second Silver Award.

Jennifer is still working toward healthy changes, and now has a new benchmark in her sights: The Gold National Recognition Award. Earning the Gold Award would make them the first school in Florida to do so.

To attain that goal, Jennifer is making great strides by working to create a schedule where all students to have recess and working with the school district to make sure their school lunches are up to par.

"We will continue to pursue our goal of achieving a Gold National Recognition Award for Sexton, but we will always have the larger goal of supporting childhood health in mind. One day at a time,” she says.