“My broccoli numbers have gone up,” says Minshew Elementary Cafeteria Manager Sonya Williams.
This announcement flies in the face of convention regarding the relationship between kids and foods grown naturally, but the fact remains – vegetables are on the rise at Minshew. In addition, so is exercise. And self-esteem. And even fun.
Principal Susie Towber, Sonya Williams and P.E. coach Shannon Kirk returned last week from Washington, D.C. where they represented their campus at a special White House reception hosted by First Lady Michelle Obama. Minshew Elementary School and two other schools from across the country were honored for making a difference in the health of their students. The trip took two days, but the award was a culmination of two years of work at the campus.
It started in 2009 when first-grade teacher Karen Hartford and school counselor Traci Test suggested that Minshew accept USDA’s HealthierUS Challenge, a voluntary program under which schools agree to adopt USDA nutrition standards, provide nutrition instruction and promote physical activity among their students. Their colleagues concurred, and under the leadership of Principal Susie Towber, a transformation began to take place. A year later, in December 2010, USDA representatives arrived on campus to present Minshew Elementary with the HealthierUS Challenge Gold Award.
The transformation wasn’t easy. The USDA standards are stringent, and in the cafeteria, Sonya Williams had her work cut out for her. More vegetables and fruits, and more whole grains. White bread was out – whole wheat was in. Desserts were still offered, but in moderation and with healthier ingredients, none of which was good news to the average 3rd grader. Over time, lunch offerings became more vibrant, colorful and appealing. And healthier. “We get hummus plates! They are so good!” Principal Towber responds enthusiastically. But, as any parent knows, it’s one thing to put healthy food in front of a child – it’s another thing to get them to eat it. Especially something called hummus.
So, Towber and company began utilizing daily video announcement times to teach their students about making healthy choices and to foster a new, healthy identity for their school. They enlisted students to help produce the segments, and the faculty were always fair game to let the kids laugh with them. Principal Towber reveals the secret to their success, “They do it in such a fun way. They really engage the kids. The kids buy into it!” They have taught their students to identify foods as “Whoa!” “Slow!” or “Go!” foods and have made it fun to eat right. They have challenged kids to drop one bad habit each week. In short, Minshew Elementary School has created a community of learners who identify themselves as smart, healthy students. Now, 3rd grader Daniel White, whose lunch tray is noticeably rich in fruits and vegetables says of his school meal, “It’s fresh and very good. And the lunch ladies are very nice.” Fellow 3rd grader Avery McNeil agrees, “It’s delicious!”
Along with promoting nutrition, they keep the kids active. Students at Minshew participate in physical education classes at least three times a week for 50 minutes, and P.E. coach Shannon Kirk makes sure that it is fun, with games designed to “keep everyone moving.” One of the games, Kingpin, somehow incorporates seemingly disparate elements of Capture the Flag, bowling and basketball with rules so complicated only a grade-schooler can fully comprehend them.
Principal Towber hosts a before-school Walking Club with more than 100 student participants attending three times a week. Their goal? To walk the length of a marathon over the course of a school year. That’s 270 laps through the halls. Last year, 5th grader Evan Burnam was the first to receive a medal for conquering the challenge. And many more continue to follow. With music playing over the intercom system, energetic kids circling the building and Towber’s infectious enthusiasm, it is a shining example of an engaging learning opportunity.
The success of their efforts led to Minshew Elementary’s Gold Award recognition and the recent invitation to the White House where amidst a large crowd, band fanfare and gourmet food, Susie Towber, Sonya Williams and Shannon Kirk found themselves receiving well-deserved recognition on behalf of the hard work of Minshew staff, students, and parents. In her remarks to the honorees, Mrs. Obama said, “And I’ve been out there visiting you, and it is real. You all are willing to do whatever it takes to help our kids. We love our kids — all of them, every single one of them. And we want nothing but the very best. And this is the way we do it. And you all are doing it like nothing else. So today, I just want to urge you to keep being the leaders that you are — because you are truly leaders. That is why you are here.”
After the White House reception and a whirlwind tour of Washington, D.C. landmarks, which included the dedication of the new Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial, it was back home and back to campus for the three Minshew educators. For Principal Towber, it was an honor to represent her campus and McKinney. “We were so proud. We are so grateful to the district for sending us.”
At Walking Club, Towber sports a t-shirt with Minshew’s theme for the year emblazoned across it. The message sums up their journey – Missions are Possible.
Engaged, enthusiastic students? Possible.
Exercise, self-esteem, fun? All possible.
Healthy eating at school? Absolutely possible.
Just ask the kid over there munching on a stalk of broccoli.