Empire editorial: Fitness grant offers chance to catch up

Posted: Sunday, March 13, 2005

Three yearly $347,000 grants from the U.S. Department of Education for school and community fitness programs are a welcome gift and should help focus the Juneau School District on educating healthier children.

The federal grants come at a time when the district has learned that it shares the nation's growing waistline - reporting that four in 10 Juneau schoolchildren are overweight or nearly so.

While some parents complain that schools practice social engineering and have taken over the parenting role on various topics, there is no room for such debate with physical fitness. Schools always have played a crucial role in shaping children's habits of exercise, and in recent years they have too often dropped the ball.

In a nation of overweight children, Alaska has done too little to balance the scales. We are a state of winter darkness and extreme conditions, yet we do too little to compensate for these barriers to children's activity. It's a fact that is now attracting unflattering attention.

The April issue of Child Magazine lists Alaska as worst among the 50 states for its efforts to promote healthy habits for children. The magazine reports that its staff studied mandated school fitness and nutrition policies plus factors outside the schools such as the availability of safe playgrounds, participation in youth sports and access to fast food.

Like other states that rated around the bottom of the list, Alaska got there by not requiring what the magazine's staff considered adequate participation in physical education. The magazine criticized the state for requiring PE only of high schoolers, and for using regular classroom teachers instead of certified PE teachers for most of the courses at elementary schools that offer PE.

Alaska also was knocked for poor safety ratings on playgrounds.

By contrast, Connecticut rated first because of an aggressive plan to fight childhood obesity. Recent legislation there requires physical activity in the grade schools, and forces schools to offer low-fat dairy products, water and fruit when children are allowed to buy food. Connecticut also got credit for a pilot project at some elementary schools scrapping cafeteria junk food and soda altogether.

Vermont's No. 3 rating was helped by innovative programs such as "Run Girl Run!," building self-esteem and fitness in middle school girls with an eight-week summer training session for a five-kilometer race, and by getting children involved in hiking and snowshoeing during the school year. With Alaska's natural wonders and abundant outdoor playgrounds, these are the kinds of programs we should see statewide. State lawmakers should take note and change both the ways that they support physical fitness and the ways that they fund PE in the schools. These should be a higher priority with tougher participation rules, and the state should consider targeted grants to encourage outdoor programs like Vermont's.

Juneau's use of the federal grant appears to be a start in that direction. The district is using some of the money to offer grade schoolers free skating, swimming and bowling - activities that combine fitness with fun. The district also is surveying schools' needs for exercise equipment and will sponsor cooking seminars and summer programs run by the Boys and Girls Clubs.

These are good ideas, and the city's children will benefit over the course of the three years. The district also has an opportunity through these grants to develop lasting programs and prove them worthy of the state's continuing support. Like the children they teach, the district and the state must learn healthy habits that stick in perpetuity.

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