How one Oak Cliff school is changing its students’ eating and exercising habits

James Bowie Elementary students participate in Jump Rope for Heart: Photo courtesy of Dallas ISD

James Bowie Elementary students participate in Jump Rope for Heart: Photo courtesy of Dallas ISD

No celebrations featuring sweets took place at James Bowie Elementary this past school year — no Halloween candy, no Valentine’s Day treats, no birthday cupcakes.

It may seem a bit austere, but “we really wanted to do that so parents would understand how serious we were about the changes,” says Sharon Foster.

The hard work paid off. Foster, an 18-year veteran physical education teacher, will travel to Washington, D.C., this fall to personally accept — from President Bill Clinton — the Alliance for a Healthier Generation’s Gold National Recognition Award. Bowie is the only Dallas ISD school to receive this designation, and the only one in Texas to earn it two years in a row.

One-hundred percent of Bowie’s students qualify for free and reduced lunch. Because of this, Foster knows her students may not have access to healthy food or safe places to play in their neighborhoods. So she makes sure to pack all she can into each school day.

Foster implemented a school-wide program that encourages two- to three-minute exercises — leg lifts, arm lifts and the like — that they can do right at their desks “just to keep them energized while they’re doing their lessons,” she says. Bowie also added a 20-minute recess to increase activity, and piloted a program that gave pedometers to students to track their steps throughout the day.

Nutrition lessons are taught in classrooms and reinforced in the cafeteria, where menu items receive input from a team of eight fourth- and fifth-graders. Foster makes sure any after-school snacks meet the district’s new Smart Snacks standards. “No more hot Cheetos,” she says, referring to the perennially popular snack. Students don’t complain much, however, because they are educated to understand the importance of health.

Just as important as educating students is educating their parents, Foster says.

“They go home and they talk to their parents about the foods that they should be eating,” Foster says. “They go shopping with their parents and help them select food for them to eat.”

Bowie made one exception to its celebration rule this past year — the last day of school. The week prior, the school sent home a letter instructing parents to bring nothing but fruit.

On the final day of the year, Foster was overjoyed to find a table spilling over with watermelon, cantaloupe, grapes and strawberries.

“Now our parents understand what we’ve been trying to do,” she says.

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