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"Last-Chance" School Gets an A+ in Health


In New York City, where do students go when they can’t find a school that fits their needs? They’re called “transfer schools,” and they are dedicated to meeting the needs of students that haven’t found success elsewhere. Edward A. Reynolds West Side High School is one such school, serving more than 550 kids each year.

When you think of “last-chance” schools like West Side, you probably wouldn’t assume they have the capacity to also be a shining example of how to promote healthy eating and physical activity choices to their students.

But West Side has made health and wellness a top priority. “It’s important for us to make our school the best and the healthiest―we want people to know that it is possible to create a healthy environment in your school,” says Indra Echeverri, a physical education and health teacher at West Side.

Inner-city schools come with their own unique set of issues on top of those that most schools face. According to Principal Jean McTavish, there is a high prevalence of students suffering from ADHD and post-traumatic stress at West Side.

“Teaching kids to use physical activity to manage those things is very powerful,” McTavish says. Part of the realization of this goal includes offering daily morning spin classes for students, staff, parents and community members. “I spin in the morning with the students so I can send the message to every member of our community that physical fitness and wellness is a priority.”

Physical education teacher Nicole Riley adds, “With our population, a lot of them are also at risk for diabetes or heart disease. Especially city kids, sometimes they don’t really get to get out, there are safety issues; parents don’t want them outside. I strongly believe if we could get all the kids moving, eating healthy and meditating, then a lot of other things would fall into place for them.”

West Side has also made great strides in their school food and nutrition programs. For example, the students built their own school garden. McTavish notes that, “Our thought was that if we could grow vegetables with the kids they would be more likely to eat them.”

Principal McTavish also went to bat for the school to receive healthier foods such as skinless chicken. In a city that serves 1.1 million students a day, it would seem understandable that such a special request might be overlooked. But her persistence paid off, and West Side’s school lunches are now healthier because of her hard work.

When vending machine companies wouldn’t stock their machines with healthier snacks, McTavish had them removed completely. She now gives out fresh fruit in the front office for students who get hungry during the day.

The changes are a work in progress—as McTavish likes to say, it’s a marathon, not a sprint. Echeverri agrees: “You can’t just throw this at the kids and students one day and say ‘this is the way you’re going to eat from now on.’ You just teach them and then they’ll try it little by little and that’s what you want.”

The combination of their efforts in physical fitness and nutrition earned the school the National Healthy Schools Gold Award for the 2013-2014 school year from the Alliance for a Healthier Generation. To celebrate their successes, McTavish threw the school a healthy party: volleyball and basketball in the gym, with whole wheat, veggie-filled pizza to munch on.

“We’re used to being put down a lot, this is the school you go to when it’s not working so well for you. And so the pride in having done the hard work, to do something significant, has really made a huge difference in their attitude toward school and in my teachers’ attitudes toward their own wellness, and I think that you can’t put a price tag on that,” McTavish says.