When Your Principal Is Driving the Bus, You Can Arrive at a Very Healthy School.

“As a principal, I’m driving the bus. Health is very important to the success of my students, so it is very important to me. It all starts with getting the bus pointed in the right direction, and right now, I am the bus driver and we’re headed toward a healthier school.”

Katherine Acosta-Verprauskus is the principal of Montalvin Elementary School in San Pablo, California. Montalvin is 25 miles outside of downtown San Francisco and is one of 1,200 public schools within the Bay Area. Out of these 1,200 schools, almost half serve a significant proportion of underserved students. Katherine and her school fall into this group of educators serving students of high need.

“High need” is not a reflection of a student but rather a reflection of a student’s circumstances. Although it does not indicate one’s performance, ability or potential, it can directly impact it. “Students who are from low-income and/or racial or ethnic minorities experience academic achievement gaps like school readiness, test performance and attainment.”

That is why Katherine started steering her bus toward health, and why she got on the bus in the first place. There is a need to level the playing field for high need students. Katherine, and principals, like her in our Healthy Schools Program, know that and use their power to lead the charge from the front.

It’s not an easy charge but it is achievable.

For instance, not only is Montalvin 1 of 1,200 schools in the Bay Area, it is also 1 of only 54 schools in the area that “achieved better results on…state tests for their underserved students than the state’s overall average for all students.”

During a school visit to Montalvin, we got to see how our Healthy Schools Program was being utilized to maximize resources to help students who received below average resources perform above average in academics.

Morning at Montalvin

Students in low-income neighborhoods lack access to healthy food, which means healthy food is more expensive, of poorer quality and not as readily available. So at Montalvin, the day starts with a healthy breakfast — for all students — if they want it.

What is important to note, is that the goal at Montalvin is not to offer breakfast, but to make sure students get a healthy meal in the morning. The consumption of the healthy meal, not the offering of it, is the goal. That is why Katherine and her staff also offer a second-chance breakfast program.

“Everyone gets a chance to eat breakfast first thing in the morning, but we know sometimes all students aren’t able to get here that early and they miss breakfast. So we offer a second-chance breakfast at recess. Kids can go eat breakfast for the first 10 minutes if they want to and then go play. We want to make sure their growing minds are fed and fed right.”

Between the first and second breakfast opportunities there is, of course, class time, but there is also a regular physical activity session. Students in low-income schools spend less time being active during physical education classes and are less likely to have recess. Montalvin is making sure that is not the case for its students.

During the morning we visited, we got to see physical activity take the shape of a classroom brain break.

Morning physical activity is part health and wellness effort as well as part academic strategy. Kids are getting a chance to work toward their recommended 60 minutes of daily physical activity while teachers get a tool that improves classroom behavior and restarts attentions spans.

“To help our teachers provide the best physical activity, we offer “pullout” planning sessions. A substitute teacher comes in to release them, and teachers get a full day to plan their subjects, including physical activity time. In the world of elementary, teachers have around seven subjects to plan for and in many worlds, physical activity falls to the bottom of the barrel. So we prioritize the time to plan for it.”

Lunch

Students who qualify as high need, receive free or reduced priced lunch, which makes the cafeteria at Montalvin a main stage when it comes to supporting nutrition and creating healthy eating habits.

Montalvin’s healthy lunchroom is crafted out of a mixture of efforts that combine healthy options, music and exploratory seating arrangements that encourage students to think outside of their social circles and associate healthy eating with quality time with peers.

“Right now we are sitting by colleges. So if you want to sit at UC Berkeley, you can sit there with that group of kids. It gets kids thinking about college, and it also makes eating more fun and more social.”

The environment in which we eat plays a dramatic role in the foods we consume, but so do the role models that are present when we are in those environments. That is why it is important to Katherine as a principal to be in the cafeteria during the entire lunch period. Her school policy supports the healthy options made available to students while her presence supports the desirability of those options to students.

“Although I am in the cafeteria from 10:30–12:30, I try to eat with the upper grades, especially with girls in particular. I have been noticing a growing trend among girls not wanting to eat. So I try set the tone as someone my girls look up to. I make a point to frequent our salad bar, and now I can see it’s becoming the cool thing to have a salad for lunch.”

Celebrations

Schools are where many traditions are first introduced to us in our childhoods. Some of these traditions instill the healthy habits we’ll keep with us for the rest of our lives, and others undermine those habits. Celebrations, aka the school party, is one of the traditions that is often not complete without a central focus on a sweet treat — the cupcake or goody bag for every student on each student’s birthday. When you have hundreds of kids in your school, what sounds like moderation is in practice an extreme.

But there is still a need for celebrations and there is a need for making those celebrations a true party, but associating fun with eating has never been an essential part of the equation. Montalvin made a shift to focus on the fun rather than the food by sharing a handbook with parents that outlined the “why” and “how” for the slight change in tradition. And then it was party time.

“This year for our big mid-year goal celebration, we had a dance instead of a feast. I was the DJ of course and the staff and I had a blast with the kids while also reinforcing the healthy messages we talk about during all the rest of the school year.”

After School and Beyond

The holistic way Katherine and Montalvin approach nurturing and educating students during the school day, is the same way they engage their larger school community to ensure kids are getting a consistent, reliable message. A lot of this is focused on educating and empowering parents.

Research shows that when parents increase their physical activity, children increase theirs as well. Similarly with healthy eating, parental fruit and vegetable intake may be the strongest predictor of fruit and vegetable consumption among young children. So a healthy relationship between school and home is necessary for this all to work.

“I really focus on getting our parents back on campus. One of the things we do is hold cooking classes for our parents to learn how to prepare healthier dishes at home. It’s all about seeing your gaps. That’s why we work with the Alliance for a Healthier Generation to assess what we are doing and identify our strengths and where we can grow.”

Our principals are already the established leaders in the school space. They can also be some of the most effective leaders when it comes to creating the healthiest school environments for our kids to grow up. No matter what student population it serves, every school needs someone driving the bus toward their healthiest lives.


The Alliance for a Healthier Generation works to empower kids to develop lifelong healthy habits by ensuring the environments that surround them provide and promote good health. More than 80 percent of schools actively engaged with our Healthy Schools Program have made measurable progress towards creating a healthier school environment. More than 75 percent dedicated at least 20 percent of their afterschool program time to physical activity. And more than 85 percent of the elementary schools offered at least 20 minutes of recess per day.
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