FEATURE — Winter 2006
   

 
Allison Slade, A.B. '98

Where Fitness Comes First

Principal Allison Slade, A.B. '98, and coworkers at Namaste Charter School in Chicago are raising academic achievement by first raising children's physical activity.

By Betsy Rogers

In two teaching jobs, Allison Slade experienced both the rags and the riches of American public school education, and she found both wanting. So Slade and a group of similarly frustrated friends invented a new model. In the process, they reversed the old "sound-mind, sound-body" principle, building an innovative program on the conviction that healthy, fit children learn much better and achieve much more.

So far, the results have borne them out—dramatically. The very first year, their students increased their vigorous physical activity by a staggering 47.6 percent, and test scores have shown that on average their students achieve 1.3 years' academic advancement each school year.

Slade, A.B. '98, is not surprised. "All the research shows that kids who are healthy and active do better in the classroom," she says.

Slade's first classroom experience was with Teach For America in Houston, where her Spanish major at Washington University stood her in good stead. Her students were Hispanics, many of them recent immigrants. Her bilingual classroom included 38 kindergarten, first-, and second-grade children. Teaching most of them for two years, she became deeply attached to them. (One attended her wedding this past summer.)

In Namaste's first year of operation, students increased their vigorous physical activity by a staggering 47.6 percent. Test scores have shown that on average their students achieve 1.3 years' academic advancement each school year.

But she was struck by how disadvantaged they were academically. "Their opportunities were so limited," she recalls. Their language skills lagged, sometimes simply because their parents didn't understand the importance of talking with them. Even changing seasons were a mystery, so Slade's parents in Chicago sent them wintry photos to introduce them to snow.

"So many barriers existed to hamper their achievement," Slade continues. "It was then that I decided I wanted to work on a broader level and to think about policy related to school achievement."

Slade enrolled at the University of Chicago, where she earned a master's in public policy with an education focus. While at Chicago, she also worked full time for the nonprofit Center for Urban School Improvement, gaining experience in curriculum development, professional development for teachers, and literacy.

With her master's done, she returned to the classroom in Chicago's northern suburbs. Half her second-grade students were native Spanish speakers, half from affluent North Shore families. Though the school had ample resources, Slade still found children unable to reach their full potential. "Many obstacles kept them from achieving at the highest level—both groups, not just the low-income kids." Children were restless in the classroom, would "crash" by 10 a.m. due to their sugary breakfasts, and spent too much time watching TV rather than playing and getting exercise.

"The real focus of our school," Slade says, "became using fitness and nutrition as an avenue to higher student achievement. We thought about the school day ... about the food we give our kids and what they eat at home, about physical education and activity, about parent education."

A group of Teach For America alums had coalesced in Chicago and gathered frequently for social occasions. Their conversations inevitably turned to education, and to dreaming about "the perfect school." In the summer of 2003, they stopped talking and started writing. "We filled the walls with Post-It® notes of what we wanted," Slade recalls.

As they distilled all their ideas, a principle emerged. "The real focus of our school," she says, "became using fitness and nutrition as an avenue to higher student achievement. We thought about the school day and the school year, about the food we give our kids and what they eat at home, about physical education and activity, about parent education."

Thus was born Namaste Charter School. They wrote a charter, applied to the state, and were one of just two applications out of 30 approved for Chicago.

Namaste—pronounced na-ma-STAY, a Hindi word connoting interpersonal harmony—opened in fall 2004 with two sections each of kindergarten and first grade. Last year it added second grade, this year third. The school plans to add a grade each year through eighth grade. Enrollment now totals 194.

The school also works tirelessly with children and parents on nutrition. Slade is not surprised by the students' progress. She says, "All the research shows that kids who are healthy and active do better in the classroom."

Those 194 youngsters live a very active life. Namaste students are on the move from early morning, when a "walking school bus" rounds them up and walks them to school, through "Morning Movement's" 15-minute exercise routine, through an hour of PE daily, and even in the classroom, where they use physical activity to help master lessons.

"We have a variety of ways to incorporate physical activity into the classroom," explains Slade, Namaste principal. "Teachers integrate yoga into read-aloud and all different kinds of literacy activities. A program called Reading in Motion teaches the kids to make all the letters of the alphabet with their bodies, so when the kids are doing their spelling, instead of just visually and auditorially doing it, they're using their kinesthetic sense as well, which obviously helps them remember, but also helps them burn calories.

"We do similar things in math. If you do two jumping jacks and then five jumping jacks, how many do you have altogether?"

Nor does the focus end with the school day. Namaste pupils keep a log of their home activities. The school, for example, encourages them to do exercises during television commercials, which they enter on the log. Their parents sign off, confirming the kids' activity.

The school also works tirelessly with parents on nutrition and fitness at home. One of its 25-member staff is a full-time parent coordinator. A lending library offers parents materials about nutrition, cooking, and exercise, along with fitness equipment parents can borrow and use at home. A "Friday Family Breakfast" every week brings out virtually every family for a nutritious meal and a workshop on a health or wellness topic. The school also hosts a farmers' market every Friday.

The school measures its performance in various ways. Academically, it uses standardized elementary education assessments. To evaluate fitness improvements, it partners with Children's Memorial Hospital in Chicago, whose staff visit the school, collecting height and weight data and using accelerometry to tally physical activity. In this era of deep concern about childhood obesity, Slade is particularly thrilled with one finding—that her students' Body Mass Index did not increase. "That's huge," she says.

Slade shows the food pyramid. A lending library at Namaste offers parents materials about nutrition, cooking, and exercise, along with fitness equipment parents can borrow and use at home.

"BMI always increases when kids begin school, because they have more time sitting in a chair."

Namaste's accomplishments in student health and academic performance have drawn intense interest from parents, educators, and the media. In Chicago, where school performance lags and the public schools offer only 40 minutes of physical education per week, there is a waiting list of families eager to join the Namaste community. Beyond the city, teachers from as far away as Israel, London, and the Netherlands have queried Slade about the Namaste approach. CNN, National Public Radio, and the Today show have featured the school, and People magazine, Life, the Chicago Tribune, and the Chicago Sun-Times have all run articles.

Slade admits to challenges. For charter schools, finances and facilities are always vexing issues. Only 60 percent of Namaste's $1.7 million budget comes from the Chicago Public Schools. The other 40 percent is raised through corporate, foundation, and individual support. Namaste must provide and manage all its insurance and pensions. By next fall, it will move to a larger building, which will cost almost $1 million and will in turn be inadequate in just three more years. And as long as there's a waiting list, Slade frets about the children she's not serving.

Still, the rewards are great. "Everyone works together to make this place what it is," she says. "We don't have all the answers, but we try to navigate through and help our families remove the barriers to their kids' success in school. It's really inspiring to know that this is possible, to see the incredible growth in these kids."

Betsy Rogers is a free-lance writer based in Belleville, Illinois.