Fouke Elementary School in Southwest Arkansas has been getting national attention recently for reducing the obesity rates of its students by nine percent at a time when childhood obesity rates are increasing in most of the nation. And guess what? As weight has gone down, attendance and test scores have gone up. SPARK’s Executive Director, Paul Rosengard, recently caught up with Ken Endris, Principal at Fouke Elementary School in Arkansas and SPARK advocate, to learn more.
Paul: Have you always believed “healthy kids are better learners” or was there a particular conference presentation, book, or other event that changed your thinking?
Ken: I have always believed that every child should have a hook or reason to be excited about school. Fortunately, all kids find enjoyment in some kind of movement. If a school or program offers a wide variety of games, sports related activities or just organized free play the school will witness an increase in academic performance in various ways, including: burning off pent-up energy and allowing kids to pay attention better and focus on their work; boosting self-esteem and mood; and increasing blood flow to the brain which helps with memory and concentration. There have been studies on comparing fit students to less fit students on standardized tests and the students who performed better on the fitness tests performed better academically as well.
Paul: Not all elementary principals have prioritized physical activity and healthy eating at their schools, in fact it’s fair to say some nearly ignore it. What do you say to your colleagues to encourage them to allocate some time and attention to building a healthy environment?
Ken: My suggestion to other principals at any level is to survey your stakeholders. If your students in high school would like an organized intramural program than one would be very smart to find a way to implement this simple way to engage all students, especially the non-athlete. If they were engaged in athletics they could still participate in any intramural sport, except the athletic sport they were involved in. For over thirty years all of my students have had an opportunity to participate in before school, at lunchtime or after school in free physical activities such as: juggling clubs, gymnastics, running/walking club, dance, etc. Yet, our school really witnessed a huge drop in obesity once we integrated nutrition classes in 2008. These nutrition classes were the missing link to change the behavior of our students and staff to fully understand how vital physical activity and nutrition go hand in hand in creating a healthy school model.
Paul: What role have parents played in developing your vision for their kids? How did you first solicit their support?
Ken: Volunteerism is very important since our after school physical fitness activities are free to students. Myself or a staff member has to be the facilitator, yet the parents are always eager to assist students at a fitness station, exercise with the students such as walking or jogging with them, or work with small groups as they choreograph movements to a song. Our school is very rural. Over 60% of the students are economically disadvantaged and we are the only elementary within the 271 square miles of the Fouke Arkansas School District. So basically, our school is the community and we must include all our stakeholders: parents, students, staff and community patrons on any decision making that improves student achievement and an excitement for every child to be present every day. Some schools have taken our model and structured it to fit their needs. For example, one principal who had a large majority of Hispanic students organized intramural soccer teams and games during recess. This school witnessed significant gains academically, less discipline referrals and a higher involvement of parent volunteers. I guess my main advice would be if you are not satisfied with the results you observe within your school community, then maybe you might want to rethink how you are engaging every student every day.
Paul: Thanks Ken!