Carla Bittner, Principal of National Park School, knows that healthy bodies create healthy minds. Over the years, National Park School has become the poster child for making sure students are safe, physically active and fed well so that they can focus on their education. The tiny town of National Park, NJ is approximately one square mile and is surrounded by West Deptford, NJ. The school has 275 students ranging from pre-K to sixth grade.
The Road to School Wellness
For the past three years, National Park School has received a New Jersey Healthy Communities Network (NJHCN) grant totaling $10,000 per year to implement various school wellness initiatives. “Carla and her team have been very innovative and among the best in implementing healthy sustainable strategies, said Valeria Galarza, senior project manager, Coopers Ferry Partnership and NJHCN Coach.
However, their quest to create a healthy school environment started a few years before the first NJHCN grant was secured. “Initially, the school started a gardening program and breakfast in the classroom to make sure all of the kids are fed at the start of each day,” said Bittner. “We then worked with Luanne Hughes from the Rutgers Cooperative Extension to bring about small changes in the school and to incorporate FoodCorps, a national program that places services members in schools to teach them about agriculture and nutrition education.
For example, Rutgers Cooperative Extension brought all the ingredients to make healthy pizzas. The school also hosted a wellness day which included a variety of vendors setting up stations around the school so students could learn about a variety of health and wellness activities. The wellness day included water safety, basic first aid, sun safety, and yoga outside on the lawn.
Around the same time, one of the borough’s former board members, who happened to be a master gardener, approached the school district about starting a garden right across the street from the school. “We knew we needed funding to take on this project and Luanne encouraged us to apply for our first New Jersey Healthy Communities Network grant,” stated Bittner. “Once we received the grant, we were able to develop a full-blown school garden.”
They also used some of the grant money to fund alternative seating equipment including exercise balls, chairs that look like accordions, stools that rotate, under the desk ellipticals and standing desks so students can stay active in the classroom. Also, they purchased materials that teachers could use in the classroom. And, Rutgers introduced the school to SPARK ABCs (Activity Break Choices), a program that helped teachers use physical activity to improve academic achievement and foster healthy behaviors.
In addition to a School Health & Wellness team that plans all activities, National Park School launched several new efforts, including a student walking club. “Our walking club targets our older students that would not normally be physically active during recess,” said Bittner. “Now during recess, these students can walk laps around the school instead of just standing around talking.”
Another exciting initiative is “Walk to School Wednesdays,” where students are encouraged to walk or bike to school. It’s a school-wide competition where each home room competes for a trophy based on the classroom with the highest number of students who bike or walk that day.
Our JAB (Just A Bite) program has also been successful. Students are presented with various types of vegetables and vote on whether they would like to have them in the cafeteria. Edamame, Swiss Chard, and Arugula are just a few of the vegetables that have been introduced to students through JAB. More importantly, parents have said their kids have been willing to try more vegetables at home because of the JAB program.
Where Can Other Schools Begin
Bittner has two recommendations for school districts that want to build a culture of health:
As the school moves into its last year of its grant support, the goal is to be sustainable and incorporate healthy behaviors into National Park School’s curriculum. We want to continue figuring out ways to increase physical activity during the school day and around the town. “We’ve been working with the borough and the Mayor to paint the crosswalks around the town to increase safety and make it easier for students who want to walk or bike to school,” said Bittner.
“Our number one job is to make sure our kids are loved and cared for physically and emotionally, then the rest falls into place,” said Bittner. When asked are the kids smarter because of their healthier environment, Bittner enthusiastically responds, “Of course they are.”