Special Reports

Bibb schools launching health initiative

A fourth-grader at King-Danforth Elementary School stretched on the floor in the school office while the principal slipped into a bathroom to change out of her peach-colored suit and into a pair of jeans.

Then, Bibb County school system’s acting Superintendent Sylvia McGee popped in the doorway dressed in her black warm-ups and Nike tennis shoes.

“Do you know why we’re here this morning?” McGee said to five students standing in the hallway and looking curious.

“Your teachers are going to start teaching you about eating healthy, instead of drinking a Coke or Pepsi — to drink water and to start walking,” she said. “As African Americans, we have a tendency to have high blood pressure and diabetes and we have to make sure we are healthy. When we feel better, we do better.”

Then they were on their way to walk laps for 25 minutes.

King-Danforth, Jones, Bernd and Burdell-Hunt elementary schools in Macon are part of a new three-year health project the school system is launching. Students from those schools walked with the superintendent at various times Tuesday.

The system hopes to teach students at these high-poverty schools about nutrition and fitness, train their parents to live healthier and allow teachers there to start wellness programs together.

Starting next month, all students in the school system will be given fitness tests to measure strength, endurance and flexibility. They’ll also have their height and weight measured.

A new Georgia law kicks in next school year that requires students to get fitness assessments, and Bibb is one of five school systems in the state serving as a pilot for the testing this year.

HealthMPowers of Norcross is overseeing the training at the four schools, as well as administering the fitness testing in Bibb.

Pfizer Pharmaceuticals is funding the initiatives at the four schools, while the Middle Georgia Medical Society is providing doctors as resources.

“These organizations came together because kids aren’t getting what they need in terms of health and wellness education. ... Schools are challenged,” said Christi Kay, executive director of HealthMPowers, a nonprofit that goes into elementary schools to improve health outcomes for kids.

Georgia has the second-highest childhood obesity rate in the nation, Kay said.

And by middle school, a third of students are considered overweight — all part of a generation of video games and fast food. Research shows students do better academically if they are healthier, and healthier teachers can be more productive in their classrooms, she said.

McGee, who nearly suffered a stroke two years ago from poor eating habits and high blood pressure, has vowed to walk monthly with students and staff at the four schools.

Teachers there may soon use resistance bands while they sit at their desks, and students routinely will meet in school assemblies to learn about healthy eating and exercise, Kay said.

“We’re definitely excited about this movement,” said King-Danforth math teacher Willie Pitts, who plans to incorporate measuring fat into a class lesson this year. “The kids definitely need it.”

Last year, the state Legislature approved House Bill 229, which does not require body mass index testing of students, but does require physical education teachers starting in the 2011-12 school year to test students in first- through 12th grades in the areas of endurance, strength and flexibility, as well as take students’ weight and height measurements for awareness.

HealthMPowers was selected by the state to develop those assessments and train teachers on how to administer them.

A grant from Blue Cross and Blue Shield is paying for Bibb elementary schools to get equipment, such as exercise balls and jump ropes, to use in physical education classes to improve students’ fitness test scores.

Kay said the cost for their work in the four elementary schools, which will have a larger health focus, is $30 per student, which Pfizer is covering.