By John P. Heard III Superintendent, Perry County School District. Download a PDF of this story, which includes graphics: TFAH2013FasInFatHeard
The Perry County School District in Marion, Alabama, has a simple philosophy: we strive to prepare lifelong learners who will shape the future. However, in order for them to shape the future, our children need a healthy start.
Since 2002, I have served as superintendent of the Perry County Schools. I am proud to call this area my home, but the statistics in my state and county are dire. Alabama has the 11th highest rate of childhood obesity in the country. This problem doesn’t end with childhood, it extends into adulthood: according to the 2013 County Health Rankings, more than 40 ercent of adults here in Perry County are obese, with more than one-third reporting that they do not engage in physical activity. As superintendent, I consider the 1,700 students in our district to be my own, and I am determined to provide each one of them with a better, healthier future. Getting our children moving during the school day has been critical to our success. In our school system, we place a high priority on physical education. We require a minimum of 30 minutes of physical education every day for all of our elementary school students, while our high school students are required to take one year of physical education to meet graduation requirements.
Our next goal is to make physical education a yearly requirement for our high school students. Being active during the school day extends beyond the gymnasium.
Therefore, we’ve built new playgrounds for recess. Students take part in a “Jammin’ Minute” to get some quick physical activity breaks during class time—our teachers report that getting some excess energy out makes students more attentive and on-task once instruction resumes. We host walks for students, complete with music and marching bands, in which parents and the community participate. These events raise the entire community’s awareness of the importance of our children and adults being physically active. All of this helps make the school day more enjoyable and helps our children be better learners.
In my view, the school day extends beyond the opening and final bells. We have a responsibility to make sure that students get to school safely each morning and return home
safely each afternoon. We’ve received two Safe Routes to School grants to fix sidewalks, install new bike racks and replace old signage around our buildings. These improvements will
encourage students to walk and bike to school, allowing them to start and end their day school day in a healthier way.
I believe that schools can also play a big role in helping communities be active all year round. That is why we’ve signed joint-use agreements with the Perry County government to keep our facilities open after hours and on the weekends for all to enjoy. And it’s not just during the school year—we keep our gymnasiums open for several weeks during the summer months as well. In all of these instances, we’ve made certain to communicate openly and directly with students, parents, faculty and staff. We’ve established school health committees that meet regularly to provide feedback on current initiatives and propose new ones.
We’ve made significant changes to the nutrition content of the food we serve to complement our physical activities. We’ve also received full commitment and buy-in from our local board of education members.
I have been an educator for more than three decades. It is mindboggling to me when I read reports that—in large part due to the obesity epidemic—the current generation of young people may be the first in American history to live sicker and die younger than their parents’ generation. So I refuse to sit idly by and watch this happen. We may not be the most well-known school district out there, but I firmly believe we can be a model for others to follow.
“Every child has the potential to change the world. We can help them get there, one healthier step at a time.”