L.A. School Is Having Fun... and Getting Healthy

08/31/2015 01:30pm ET | Updated December 6, 2017
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In February, PE teacher Hicxell Wester went to a meeting about a new program to help her middle-schoolers get healthier bracing for the usual drill.

As with most well-meaning seminars and workshops, she expected to return to her school -- Young Oak Kim Academy in Los Angeles -- with a few handouts about new activities. If the gathering with the Healthy School Program representatives was really good, she might get an entire packet of fun ways to teach students the importance of eating fruits and vegetables, and maybe a crisp new poster of the food pyramid.

The meeting itself exceeded her expectations. So did a second get-together.

What came next blew her away.

Ben Melendrez, who ran the meetings, followed up by email and phone. Then he visited her on campus. They looked over the program's menu of options seeking the best fits for the school. Then they brainstormed how to make them fit.

"He'd say, 'Have you heard of this organization? This website? This brand? No? Let's look into it!'" Wester said. "That's what got me motivated and doing things."

Teachers, administrators and coaches joined Wester in building a "school wellness team." They came up with a game plan together, and she's overseen the implementation.

2015-08-31-1441036936-8533070-PotatoSack2.jpgSoon, teachers were pausing during class to spend 5 minutes leading the kids in stretches or walking in place. Kids competed in the school's first potato-sack race. Several dozen took an "adventure sports" field trip that included surfing. In the after-school program, teachers who weren't on-duty began playing with kids.

The first major event -- and, thus, the first real test of the campus-wide effort -- was a Bike/Skate/Walk To School Day. About 500 of the school's roughly 800 students participated, an amazing rate for a school that didn't even have a bike rack before that event.

As summer approached, health and wellness clearly had become part of the school's culture. And that led to so much more.

"Suddenly," Wester said, "we started winning all these prizes and grants."

Even folks in Washington, D.C., noticed.

Hicxell Wester registering students for a before-school activity


Let's spool things back a bit, all the way to September 2004, when former President Bill Clinton underwent a quadruple bypass operation.

Soon after recovering, he asked my organization, the American Heart Association, how he could help improve the nation's heart health. Childhood obesity rates were in desperate need of attention, so the American Heart Association and the Clinton Foundation partnered to create the Alliance for a Healthier Generation. The Healthy Schools Program became the Alliance's flagship program.

Launched in 2006 with 231 schools in 13 states, through support from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, it now serves more than 29,000 schools in every state plus the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico. It impacts more than 17 million students, making it the nation's most extensive effort to prevent childhood obesity in the place where kids spend so much of their time: school. The Healthy Schools Program is now also partly funded in some U.S. cities, including Los Angeles, by Kaiser Permanente.

Such expansion is a strong sign that this program is special. Further proof came this summer from researchers at Cal-Berkeley's School of Public Health.

They found that students whose schools are in the Healthy Schools Program are healthier than those who are not. Further, they found that among schools in the program, those that dove deeper had better results. The findings were published May 21 in "Preventing Chronic Disease," a journal of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The Cal-Berkeley study focused on California schools, generating headlines across the state. But it just so happens that Young Oak Kim Academy principal Edward Colacion already was in the know.

Colacion is the first and only principal of Young Oak Kim Academy, which opened for the 2009-10 school year serving the Koreatown and Pico Union communities. The school became the first in the Los Angeles Unified School District to use single-gender environments for core subjects, with a focus on science, technology, engineering and math.

Edward Colacion

Last year, Colacion took his first step toward improving the health of everyone connected with the school by banning sodas and junk food. The school store stocked only healthy options, and teachers were encouraged to not only confiscate the banned items, but to call the child's parents to make sure they knew about it.

"I thought the parent would be mad at me for throwing away something they bought," Wester said. "But they were usually grateful. They knew their kids shouldn't be eating a giant bag of chips for breakfast."

Colacion's second step was seeking out the Healthy Schools Program.


The Healthy Schools Program is rooted in seven modules (areas of emphasis), with an action plan for each.

Melendrez recommended the school start with three targets. They settled on encouraging staff to model healthy behaviors, adding physical activity throughout the day and planning the Bike/Skate/Walk To School event.

It's interesting that their approach does not aggressively target students. They chose to start with adults in hopes that they'd create an environment where health and wellness will flourish. Think of it as improving the soil before planting seeds for a garden.

This soil, Wester discovered, proved to be quite fertile.

Colacion had Wester introduce ideas during staff meetings. The group was receptive enough that she quickly built on the momentum.

2015-08-31-1441037977-1973788-Staffchallenge2.jpgOne morning, teachers arrived to find an orange pedometer with each teacher's name on one. They were invited to wear them that day to see if they could win a prize. Every single person participated, and the vibrantly colored devices were definitely noticed by students.

At a staff meeting that afternoon, Wester said: "Whoever did more than 500 steps, stand up. Keep standing if you went over 1,000 steps." And so forth until they found their winner, a teacher who'd gone over 5,000 steps by walking to a coffee shop on his lunch break and seeking every opportunity to take the long way around campus.

"It was so fun and everyone enjoyed it so much that we're going to do it on the first meeting of every month, with prizes for the person with the most steps in each department," Wester said. "We're also combining physical activity things with team building for our staff. It's mainly if they do it, they'll do it with their kids."

On the Monday before school started, Wester took a group of teachers to a dance room and did non-stop activities that the teachers could do in class. This included silly things like, "Jump over the rope if you'd rather eat chocolate than vanilla ... now jump if you'd rather be a banana than an apple." Another activity involved four people holding hands trying to keep three balloons in the air.

"As they were laughing and doing this stuff, they were asking for copies of the would-you-rather questions, and if they could borrow 20 balls for some other activity," Wester said.

Young Oak Kim Academy teachers enjoying an activity

Wester rattled off more great -- and relatively simple -- events from the program's launch in the spring to plans for the just-started school year.

She also listed the accolades they've received:

  • $5,000 from the Fire Up Your Feet Challenge. The money is going to tools that can continue the wellness vibe, starting with replacing 10 chairs with balance balls.
  • Good Sports is providing free equipment for the next three years. They've already received 20 basketballs, 10 volleyballs, 10 soccer balls, several pop-up soccer nets, and more than 20 stopwatches.
  • The NFL PLAY 60 Challenge (a collaboration between the league and the American Heart Association) will soon be providing a flag football package.
  • Any day now, they're expecting a banner of recognition from Let's Move! Active Schools, part of the initiative launched by First Lady Michelle Obama to combat childhood obesity.

Remember, this is all started with a meeting in late February, and didn't really get rolling until March. Now it's thriving, which means adults and children are becoming healthier.

"It's been an incredibly transformative experience for the entire school," Wester said. "This is middle school, so it's hard to get kids fired up for anything they don't see as being cool. But when you can turn physical activity into a contest or game format -- make it fun -- they'll buy in.

"Seeing teachers playing softball with them after school, or walking around with pedometers, makes exercise becomes a normal thing. That's important because they don't necessarily see that at home or wherever they hang out with friends.

"We know we're changing the culture, and that's really gratifying."