Nearly half of the fifth- and sixth-graders at Fairhill Elementary School in Fairfax County arrive at school an hour early on Wednesdays to participate in a new voluntary fitness program that includes running, soccer, basketball and team games. The 53 students and four teachers call themselves the "Fairhill Fitness Fanatics," and their numbers are growing.
Andy Mitchell, Fairhill's guidance counselor, runs the program, which he and fifth-grade teacher Chris Wills established as a hopeful antidote to the alarming national problem of childhood obesity. More than 17 percent of Virginia's children are overweight, according to a sample of fourth-graders.
"A lot of kids weren't as active as we'd like them to be. Our hope was that if we help them see how much fun this can be, it would carry over into their neighborhood activities or encourage them to join a sport," Mitchell said.
The program has activities for what Mitchell called "all shapes, sizes and exercise backgrounds" and so far involves only fifth- and sixth-grade students, ranging in age from 10 to 12. He and Wills said they were pleased by the number of children who signed up for the 8 a.m. program.
"It's not just 53 kids," Mitchell said, "it's 53 parents who are giving up the school bus and making the time to bring their children to school."
Mary Marks, health and physical education coordinator for Fairfax County public schools, said she was thrilled to learn about Fairhill's program. "Teachers and schools are so busy these days, that it's hard sometimes to stop and see what we need in the community. It's nice to see teachers who are going the extra mile," she said.
Sixth-grader David Ririani, who plays soccer and basketball after school, said, "Mr. Mitchell got this idea, and everybody wanted to join. I'm doing it because it seems fun." He said it was his idea, not his parents', to join the group.
"I'm doing it because I want to stay fit," said fifth-grader David Gupta. "So when I do important sports like wrestling, I'll be ready."
"I wanted to get better endurance and get involved with school activities," said Christine Nguyen, a sixth-grader.
In fact, building endurance is a goal.
"We want to teach them how to run," Mitchell said. "We talk about the importance of warming up. Try to get them to set a pace and keep it. Some of the kids start off by sprinting, then after 100 yards they're walking."
Two Fairhill teachers lace up their running shoes and do 10 minutes of laps around the athletic field alongside their students, while the other teachers track their weekly progress.
Mitchell said the majority of children participate in the program because it's yet another opportunity to do something they already enjoy. He hopes to interest those who are more likely to pick up a television remote control than a basketball after school.
One attraction is the chance to spend more time with friends, said Amy Monday, assistant librarian at Fairhill, whose daughter Sidney, a fifth-grader, is a Fanatic. "The nice thing is I didn't have to convince her to do it," Monday said. "It's also good for her to appreciate the value of fitness."
"I'm here to stay in shape and exercise," Sidney said.
"We seem to be picking up more kids as the weeks go by," Mitchell said as a child slipped him a permission slip. "On Tuesdays, a lot of the kids will tell me how excited they are about coming on Wednesday morning."
Tom Svercl, a fourth-grade teacher who ran laps with the students and then played a team game, said, "I taught a lot of these kids last year, so it's good for them to see me out here supporting them. It's good, too, for them to see us as role models, and that's why we're doing it."
Fifth-grade teacher Chris Wills also ran laps with the kids.
"We call Mr. Wills 'the Motivator,' " said Christine Nguyen. "He's really tall, really big. He goes, 'Why are you so slow?' So everyone tries to beat him."
"The teachers are really nice, really concerned about the students. They want to have fun with us," said newcomer Matt Payne, a fifth-grader who moved to Fairfax from San Diego last August.
Kelly Payne, Matt's mother, said she wished the Fitness Fanatics met more than once a week. "I admire the teachers who take the time to do this," she said.
"We do this because the kids don't get enough PE," said Jerry Doane, a Fairhill physical education teacher. "Our kids get two sessions a week for 40 minutes. The county mandates a minimum of 90 minutes, so the rest is made up in recess."
It is clearly Mitchell's energy and enthusiasm that encourages the Fanatics to show up each week in increasing numbers. "Andy's good because a lot of us have ideas, but Andy actually follows through," said sixth-grade teacher Julie Kindelen.
Kindelen generally works with the children who prefer indoor, noncompetitive activities, while Mitchell, Wills and Svercl work up a sweat outside, weather permitting. On a recent day, Kindelen's group shot baskets in the gym while the others played capture the flag on the athletic field.
"I played a lot of sports when I was growing up," Mitchell said. "I think it's an important part of forming social groups, and it's good for keeping kids out of trouble."
When their hour was up, the teachers and children removed their tennis shoes and banged them on the pavement so they wouldn't track mud in the building. "All safety patrols need to be at your stations or Mr. K. will come storming," Mitchell said.
Wills said he would "towel off, then it's math 10 minutes later." The children scattered to recover book bags and prepare for classes.
"We're working awfully hard to help schools understand the problem of childhood obesity," Marks said. "To see a school like Fairhill provide such an activity for our youngest kids in such a fun way is exactly the kind of thing we need to do."