An Important First Step

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

What do you do to prepare for the school day? Brush your teeth? Eat breakfast? Dance around?

Wait -- dance around? Yup. That's how students at Jackson Road Elementary School get set for their day.

"It gets your brain pumped up to learn more, so you're ready for the day," said fifth-grader Ebony Wolf.

For 20 minutes before school starts, Ebony and other kids at the Silver Spring school gather in the cafeteria to move to the beat of singers such as Hannah Montana and Corbin Bleu. The exercise program, called "Fit to Learn, Fit for Life," was started last year by Lisa Gutman, the school's art teacher.

Gutman was worried that many of her students were eating one breakfast at home and another, not-so-healthy one when they got to school. She decided to use the time before school to change their habits.

On a recent morning, music boomed out of the cafeteria and down the hall as sleepy students arrived at school. They made their way to the cafeteria and in no time were moving -- first right, then left, then kicking and finally spinning around and clapping. They were doing the Cupid Shuffle.

Fifth-grader Marcia Robinson was onstage up front, leading the way. "I like dancing, and when I'm not in a good mood it always cheers me up," she said.

Special guests such as yoga or hip-hop instructors are invited some mornings.

Along the hallway outside the cafeteria are "Fit to Learn, Fit for Life" stars, on which students have written what they like about the morning workouts.

Gutman has put together a cookbook filled with healthy recipes and has given every teacher one-minute workout DVDs for the kids, called "Energy Blasts." She also got T-shirts (shown at left) for students in the program, which is featured on the "Random Acts of Fitness for Kids" Web site of Subway restaurants.

As part of "Fit to Learn, Fit for Life" (sometimes shortened to "F2L F4L"), Jackson Road Elementary hosted a Family Fitness Night in March. A hip-hop instructor taught some moves and then everyone ate fruit and played games.

The kids have become so excited about fitness that some fifth-grade girls began a recess running club. They run a quarter-mile course at school and keep track of how far they have run.

Gutman's goal is for the kids to "establish routines that will last a lifetime." Already she has seen a change in their eating habits.

One morning she found Marcia eating Cheetos for breakfast. Gutman took the bag and gave the girl a pear instead. A few days later, a hungry Marcia asked Gutman: "Do you have any more of those juicy pears?"

Gutman might have long-term goals for her "Fit to Learn, Fit for Life" students, but the kids are more into the here and now.

"It's fun," fourth-grader Sally Koroma said about dancing before school. "It gets me energized and ready for the day."

-- Moira E. McLaughlin

© 2008 The Washington Post Company