Global Leadership Academy Charter School in West Philadelphia Tackles Childhood Obesity Crisis
About 50 percent of children 6-12 years old in Philadelphia are obese or overweight, but GLA scholars and staff are working to reverse that trend.
Inside Global Leadership Academy Charter School’s cafeteria, teachers and staff can be seen comparing results from their FitBit bracelets while students share a family-style meal featuring vegetables they helped grow in a garden outside of their West Philadelphia school.
Since its founding in 2006, GLA has focused on a holistic approach to teaching and learning through global and expeditionary studies and leadership development.
Chief Executive Officer Dr. Naomi Johnson-Booker’s vision when she helped found the school was to incorporate nutrition, fitness and wellness in the holistic educational model in recognition of alarming statistics that found nearly 50 percent of children 6-12 years old in Philadelphia were overweight or obese.
After Dr. Johnson-Booker suffered a life-threatening aneurysm in 2009, she returned to school after a lengthy recuperation even more committed to the health of Global Leadership Academy’s approximately 670 scholars in grades kindergarten through eighth grade.
Global Leadership Academy’s concerted effort to introduce nutrition, fitness and wellness programs to the student body over the last several years has become ingrained in the school’s culture, which has extended to the teachers, staff and the families of the children, according to Dr. Johnson-Booker.
“We have seen a tremendous change in the last few years in the attitudes and actions of our scholars and our staff when it comes to their personal health,” Dr. Johnson-Booker said. “I am extremely proud of them for taking ownership and for their progress.”
The “Get Healthy GLA” campaign launched in 2012 created a more comprehensive program, which included hiring Jiana Murdic as a part-time health, wellness and fitness consultant. The school also added student-grown vegetable gardens, organized field trips to farms, established student and staff wellness councils, adopted Meatless Mondays and Fitness Fridays and integrated healthy activities for parents during the annual Back to School event.
“Three years ago, I was making all the recommendations,” Murdic said. “Now the project is intrinsic to school’s culture. It is to the point where the entire staff is actively participating and taking their health in their own hands and doing it in a way that is engaging.”
The schools’ efforts have resulted in several grant awards and partnerships, most notably the Healthy Futures Program sponsored by Independence Blue Cross Foundation in conjunction with Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP) and Marc Vetri Children’s Foundation Eatiquette Program.
Other support and funding has been received from Villanova University College of Nursing’s MacDonald Center for Obesity Prevention and Education, the U.S. Department of Agriculture Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program and Penn State Cooperative Extension’s Team Nutrition Program.
Fitness partners have included the National Football League (NFL) and National Dairy Council’s Fuel Up to Play 60 Program and the Philadelphia Union Major League Soccer team.
IBX Healthy Futures
Independence Blue Cross (IBX) Foundation launched the more than $3 million Healthy Futures program in Philadelphia in 2013 because the city has one of the highest childhood obesity rates in the country. Nationally, the percentage of children aged 6–11 who are obese increased from 7 percent in 1980 to nearly 18 percent in 2012. Similarly, the percentage of adolescents aged 12–19 who were obese increased from 5 percent to nearly 21 percent during the same period. In Philadelphia, an estimated 50 percent of children between 6-12 years old are overweight or obese.
Global Leadership Academy was one of the first schools selected to participate in the program, which aims to teach children to eat right, get fit and say well. The program, which is in about 25 schools in Southeastern Pennsylvania, encourages children to eat healthier by educating them about the importance of having more fruits and vegetables in their diets. The program also introduces students to different types of fruits and vegetables and teaches them about how and where food grows.
The program was designed to specifically address childhood obesity with a goal of decreasing student diabetes, lowering blood pressure and Body Mass Index, increasing student nutritional awareness and improving compliance with mandatory screenings.
IBX Foundation is utilizing the software, Health eTools for Schools, to capture health data from the schools in the program and has a dedicated evaluator to collect the health data and measure outcomes. The three-year program was designed to follow a study group of fourth-grade students in each of the 25 schools through sixth grade.
Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia
Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, the oldest and largest top-ranked children’s hospital in the world, partnered with Independence Blue Cross to enhance the school’s existing services with a health care team to require health screenings and physicals and focus on preventative care and management of chronic condition. By staying well, children miss fewer school days due to diabetes, asthma and chronic illnesses.
A health care team from CHOP began monitoring fourth-grade scholars at GLA during the 2013-14 school year, and it and will continue monitoring the same scholars through sixth grade. One of the key data sets being collected is Body Mass Index or BMI.
A CHOP nurse also visits the school weekly to teach GLA scholars in the study group about healthy habits, such as washing their hands and the importance of regular dental checkups.
In October 2014, Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and the Independence Blue Cross Foundation co-hosted a conference, “Healthy Futures: A Recipe for Childhood Wellness.” Early results from the Healthy Futures Program were released during the conference.
The College of Nursing’s MacDonald Center for Obesity Prevention and Education provides educational support for healthier lifestyle choices while measuring the eating habits of students in the Healthy Futures study group while they are outside of the school environment.
Marc Vetri, the winner of the James Beard award for best Mid-Atlantic chef and owner of Vetri Italian restaurant in Philadelphia, has transformed the school lunch through the Vetri Children’s Foundation Eatiquette Program. The grant-based program provided in partnership with the Healthy Futures Program creates an environment in the cafeteria where children gather for lunch at round tables, pass plates of food to one another and experience social interaction and communication while enjoying meals made from scratch.
The typical heat-and-serve, over-processed school lunch is replaced with a balanced meal made from scratch and loaded with fruits vegetables. Children learn to serve each other, respect those who prepared their food and to appreciate how healthy food makes them feel. They leave the lunchroom fueled up both physically and psychologically, ready to tackle the afternoon’s learning challenges. The long-term goal is to improve the eating habits and nutritional awareness of the children, who may then influence the eating habits of their families and the community with their knowledge.
USDA Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program
The government-funded program for low-income elementary schools helps increase student consumption of fresh fruits and vegetables to help combat childhood obesity by helping children improve their overall diet and develop healthier eating habits. Global Leadership Academy receives $50,000 a year to provide scholars with fresh fruit and vegetable snacks three days a week. At GLA, students not only are served fruits and vegetables, they also are introduced to fruits and vegetables that may not be familiar to them to increase their culinary vernacular. For example, students may be given a choice between pink lady apples and honey crisp apples, but they also learn about the differences between them.
Penn State University Cooperative Extension supports the school’s cafeteria program by providing an annual $1,500 Team Nutrition mini-grant to support the school garden, which was built in coordination with the Philadelphia Horticultural Society in 2012. The grant supports the GLA scholars to plant and harvest the school vegetable garden and the cafeteria employees to prepare healthy, nutritious meals. Team Nutrition is one of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food and Nutrition Services to provide schools with nutrition education materials as well as technical assistance to support healthy eating and physical activity. Team Nutrition activities support two pillars of the Presidential HealthierUS Initiative to help Americans live longer and healthier lives.
Pennsylvania Horticultural Society
GLA has been the host site for Pennsylvania Horticultural Society’s Garden Tenders and Green City Teachers workshops. GLA has five, raised garden beds built with assistance from the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society. The society recognized GLA with an award in 2013 for having one of the best school gardens in the city.
Greener Partners brings a hands-on mobile farm called FARM EXPLORER™ to GLA at the beginning of the school year and the end of the school year as part of the Healthy Futures program. GLA scholars in the study group also receive monthly nutritional educational classes to learn about growing healthy snacks from seeds. FARM EXPLORER™ is 24-foot-long custom-built trailer equipped with garden beds and a mobile kitchen and addresses the increasing disconnection between people and the source of their food. Greener Partners believes local food is the best kind of food because those who eat it feel a connection to the soil in which it is gown and the people who cultivate it.
GLA has established a Staff Wellness Council and a Youth Wellness Council to ensure the wellness policies of the school are enforced and sustainable. All schools that participate in the free and reduced lunch program through the U.S. Department of Agriculture are required to adopt a wellness policy. At GLA, the policy is put front and center and every parent and guardian must review it and sign it. The policy is explicit in prohibiting unhealthy foods at school parties and celebrations and using candy for rewards. All GLA scholars also are entitled to participate in recess because the policy prohibits against it being used as a reward or punishment.
Members of the Youth Wellness Council, which is known as HYPE for Healthy You Positive Energy, serve as health ambassadors of the school and work with the Staff Wellness Council. HYPE members oversee the school garden and participate in healthy cooking field trips. They also sponsor healthy snacks for scholars during annual state testing.
Fuel Up to Play 60 Program
Sponsored by the NFL and the National Dairy Council, the Fuel Up to Play 60 Program encourages children to spend at least an hour each day engaged in a physical activity and choose good-for-you foods. The aim of the national movement is to fight childhood obesity by empowering children to take control of their own health by making small, everyday changes at school. GLA receives $4,000 annually from the program to support Youth Wellness Council activities.
The Major League Soccer team utilizes a giant, pop-up soccer field to hold community fitness events and provide schools with tools to promote exercise and soccer. Philadelphia Union was instrumental in helping GLA start its soccer program, and it brings the pop-soccer field to the school once a year as part of the Healthy Futures Program.
The Philadelphia 76ers National Basketball League team, the Philadelphia Freedoms Mylan World TeamTennis team and Fitness Essentials also have presented fitness programs to scholars in Healthy Futures study group.
Since the launch of “Get Healthy GLA” during the 2012-13 school year, the teachers and staff have dedicated one of their professional development days to learn more about healthy practices for themselves and to share in class.
The most recent professional development day was titled, “Relax, Renew and Rejuvenate.” Teachers received an introduction to yoga, anti-stress activities and drank green smoothies.
“Children learn by example,” Dr. Johnson-Booker said. “That is why it is important for the entire staff to be committed to their own wellness and health.”
Murdic said in three years she has seen how Dr. Johnson-Booker has grown the program and credits her and the other administrators with the success of the program.
“She and all of her administrators are such champions of this. They have really bought into the importance of health and wellness — not only for the students but for themselves and the entire staff,” Murdic said. “The next level is parents, and I have no doubt they will succeed.”
GLA is always interested in developing new partnerships to provide additional nutrition, fitness and wellness opportunities to its staff and scholars. Any individuals or organizations interested in supporting or contributing to the “Get Healthy GLA” campaign are encouraged to contact Jiana Murdic through Global Leadership Academy Charter School at 267-295-5700 or by email at http://www.glacharter.org/apps/contact/.