Doing More with Less: Rural Schools and Student Health

Students in rural, sparsely populated areas struggle with the same health problems that their urban and suburban peers face, such as obesity and substance abuse. Yet without the same access to resources, rural schools are forced to get creative.

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Understanding the Problem

Students in isolated schools in rural areas have a variety of perks. For example, they may know their classmates well; in some small towns, they might even be related to more than a few of their classmates and teachers. But these students have their fair share of problems, too. Childhood obesity, teen pregnancy, substance abuse and absenteeism can be more prevalent in these communities when the population is disproportionately poor and the schools lack adequate funds.

The peculiar geography of Colorado offers a good opportunity to study these issues. Colorado has a cluster of urban and suburban schools along its Front Range, with Denver at the center. The rest of the state is largely rural, including isolated farming towns and towns sequestered in valleys. As recently profiled by the Colorado Legacy Foundation, several districts have found unusual ways to address their unique problems.

Getting Kids Moving

To combat childhood obesity, schools are getting creative. The East Grand School District, located near Rocky Mountain National Park, opens its gym to students before and after school. They're taking advantage of dead time by getting kids exercising instead of hanging out. Teachers even periodically lead activities, such as tennis or running. Students can also earn rewards such as free passes to the community recreation centers and access to the school's Wii fitness games.

The district is getting kids moving outside of school, too. Students in sixth grade can complete a 'jog your mind' marathon that includes 26 physical and mental activity tasks around the community. For example, students must walk 30 minutes with their family or check out a book from the local library. For younger students, there is a Candy Land fitness challenge; this involves students coloring in game board squares after meeting fitness goals, including drinking water and playing outside.

Multitasking Health Education

At the Center School District, located in the San Luis Valley, about half of the students' parents don't speak English and most piece together work across several low-income jobs. This leaves students with too much unsupervised time, leading to rampant teen pregnancy, marijuana abuse and more. When middle and high school principal George Welsh first came on the job in 1996, he requested a list of the students with at least five unexcused absences; every single student appeared on the list.

With few resources to spare, the Center School District had to get creative with teaching students about health. Standalone health classes were a good start, but they weren't enough. So the district began incorporating health lessons into other subjects. For example, elementary school students learn about the effects of drugs and alcohol on the brain when they're learning about the skeletal and muscular systems. Through widespread efforts that begin in kindergarten and extend through high school, the district has pushed its graduation rate from 33% in 1996 to 90% last year, while attendance and grade point averages have similarly climbed.

Benefiting the Entire Community

When a small school district focuses on student health, the effect go beyond the school doors. The Campo School District, near the border of Oklahoma, exemplifies this fact. This is a tiny district with just 54 students. The entire town only has 125 residents.

The school transformed student eating habits by eliminating soda and bringing in a salad bar. Administrators are also exposing students to new healthy foods with 'Thursday Tasties.' This program offers a snack tied to a different letter of the alphabet each week, such as mangoes for M and zucchini for Z. In such a small town, it's easier to notice the ripple effect the changes have had. There are reports that community gatherings, such as potluck dinners and baby showers, are more likely to feature fresh fruit and vegetables over junk food.

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