Focusing on Wellness Connects Students to Their Communities

Last Updated: March 24, 2014

This article appeared in the March 2014 Rural Policy Matters.

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Lucky students at North Mitchell Elementary get to work in the school’s garden. And at “the North” all students are lucky.

The rural southwest Georgia school serves students preK through fifth grade. It began the gardening program two years ago as part of an increased emphasis on health and wellness.

Students add plot identification signs in the garden at North Mitchell Elementary.
Students tend plants in the garden at North Mitchell Elementary.
Students add plot identification signs and tend plants in the garden at North Mitchell Elementary.

“The students are so excited by the garden,” says principal Jacquelyn White, adding that the garden presents many opportunities for teaching subjects across the curriculum. The garden has also been one way the school connects its students to their own communities.

Local residents work with the school, helping to prepare the soil and talking with students about gardening. Each class has a plot for which they are responsible. This fall the school grew lettuce, radishes, collard greens, turnip greens, broccoli, and cauliflower. Soon students will begin planting tomatoes, okra, beans, peppers, squash, sunflowers, and even corn. Adults will help tend the garden over the early summer. Some of the vegetables will be coming in when students return to class in late July.

North Mitchell students are excited to receive plants for their garden plot.
North Mitchell students are excited to receive plants for their garden plot.

Several years before North Mitchell started its garden, the school began providing students with a fresh fruit or vegetable snack every day. Selena Montgomery, who teaches fifth grade, says the school’s emphasis on healthy food has been a way to connect kids to their own cultures and to each other. “We are a rural place and a lot of our families work at one of the local dairies or food processing plants, but there’s been such a lifestyle change. Most families don’t garden anymore. Kids aren’t eating the healthier foods everyone here ate a couple of generations back. And they aren’t learning how to grow and cook their own food either. Everyone needs to know how to do those things. ”

Some of the snack vegetables are local. White says that kids love eating raw squash—a traditional southern vegetable usually cooked stewed or fried. “Who knew kids would eat that,” she laughs.

Other snacks, like pomegranates, are new to everyone; some are more familiar to the school’s Latino students. It’s been a learning experience for everyone, Montgomery says. “I’ve even had parents call me and ask what our snack was that day because their child is asking them to buy it at the grocery store.”

The garden and healthy snacks program are just two ways that North Mitchell Elementary supports academic growth by helping students get and stay healthy. The school used a grant to install an exercise room. “Physical fitness had been put on the back burner,” mostly because of funding, White explains. “Now we have equipment, mats, jump ropes, fun exercise videos, and stationary bikes in all sizes,” she continues.

Kindergarten students enjoy physical activity in North Mitchell’s new exercise room.
Kindergarten students enjoy physical activity in North Mitchell’s new exercise room.

Everyone working out on stationary bikes at North Mitchell Elementary School.
Everyone working out on stationary bikes at North Mitchell Elementary School.

All students work out twice a week as part of their health and p.e. classes. Parents sometimes come to school and exercise with their child’s class, and classroom teachers are encouraged to use the equipment with their students through the week. “The kids love to see their teachers using the adult bikes with them,” White adds.

The building itself is also healthy. Just four years old, North Mitchell Elementary was designed as a “daylighting school.”

Mitchell County Superintendent of Schools Victor Hill explains that a daylighting building is one that harnesses natural light to best effect throughout the day. “There’s better visibility and less strain and fatigue when you can see well. The research suggests that’s good for your brain and your long-term health,” he says. Daylighted buildings with natural views are also linked to better behavior and mood, increased productivity, and positive outlook. “And, the school is more sustainable and saves money on energy,” Hill adds.

North Mitchell Elementary, a healthy school flooded with natural light.
North Mitchell Elementary, a healthy school flooded with natural light.

As an expression of its commitment to connectivity in all senses of the word, Mitchell County launched a systematic effort, beginning about ten years ago, to build its technology infrastructure. Five years ago it began beefing up classroom technology. Now the school system’s high speed internet is one of the fastest in the state and schools are rich with computers and other technology. North Mitchell’s building is part and parcel of this commitment. “It’s unbelievable all the things the building can do,” observes White.

At its core, the attention of “the North” to the physical and social health of its students and its efforts to connect them to the community and the world is about relationship. “It’s an everyday practice to see staff pulling students aside, taking them under their wing, talking them through a situation, sprucing them up in some way,” says White. “Our mission is to educate every child to the best of our ability, to connect them to everything we can, not just for the moment, but so they can be citizens in their community, here in Mitchell County and in the global society.”

Superintendent Hill says that teachers at North Mitchell sit down together every three weeks and with an administrator review how each child they teach is doing. “They are identifying every child, if there’s a need, if the child is struggling with something or really excelling, they are going to talk about it and what they can do in response,” he says. And they are not just focusing on problems. “They are also looking for strengths, leadership qualities, talents or interests the child is expressing. Then they do something about it.”

All these efforts have paid off academically as well. In 2012, North Mitchell Elementary was recognized by the state as a Reward School for high progress.

“A lot of schools have as their mission statement that they are preparing lifelong learners and global citizens,” says Hill. “At the North they’re working extremely hard to do just that—and to make students part of their own community. It’s a wonderful staff, truly committed to students.”

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Read more from the March 2014 Rural Policy Matters.