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West Side IDEA school leads charter district’s dramatic health turnaround for students



By Alia Malik, Staff Writer

Physical education teacher David Alfaro demonstrates broad jump technique during physical education class at IDEA Monterrey Park on Friday, March 3, 2017. The "Healthy Kids Here" initiative aims to encourage ... more

Rebekah Rosas, a fourth-grader, joined the intramural basketball team a few weeks ago at the IDEA Monterrey Park charter school on the West Side. Her older sister, an eighth-grader, joined the school’s soccer team.

With that, the entire family’s routine has changed.

“We mostly go to the park now instead of just sitting at home on the couch doing nothing,” said a smiling Rebekah, 10.

That’s the goal of the IDEA charter network’s Healthy Kids Here initiative, which aims to create the nation’s healthiest school district in one of the nation’s most obese regions.

IDEA started in the Rio Grande Valley, which has one of highest obesity rates in the country. The charter network later spread to San Antonio, where the obesity rate is among the top 15 percent of American cities, according to a poll conducted by Gallup and Healthways.

More than 40 percent of IDEA students are overweight or obese. In the network’s 14 San Antonio schools, that rate remains the same, said Irma Muñoz, IDEA’s chief operating officer.

IDEA began tracking body mass index two years ago, calculating school-wide estimates by sampling large proportions of each school’s students. More than half of the students at the Monterrey Park campus were measured. The estimated body mass index at IDEA’s Monterrey Park Academy — the campus’ lower-grade school enrolling kindergarten through fourth grade — dropped this year almost 11 percent. That’s the biggest plunge in the entire IDEA district, from the Valley up to Austin.

The district aims to reduce body mass index by 3 percent annually, but that is not the only metric used to track success, Muñoz said. Every school is also working toward a gold certification in the HealthierUS School Challenge, a nationwide initiative established by former First Lady Michelle Obama. The challenge involves adopting federal standards for school food and providing nutrition education as well as physical activity.

IDEA serves a largely low-income population with the goal of a college education for all students. The health initiative is part of the network’s college preparation strategy, Muñoz said. Physical activity can enhance student concentration and improve classroom behavior, according to a study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Students’ physical health can also impact self-esteem and confidence in the classroom, Muñoz said.

“Anything that prevents kids from college graduation is something we’re going to tackle,” Muñoz said.

Implementation of the Healthy Kids Here initiative varies from school to school, but it has three components: Ensuring students have access to nutritious food through cafeterias and IDEA’s farm program; teaching students to live healthy, active lifestyles; and providing similar education to families and staff.

At IDEA Monterrey Park, cafeteria meals are served with organic fruits and vegetables from a farm in the Valley. IDEA is starting its own San Antonio farm across the street from Monterrey Park, where there is already an organic garden that teachers incorporate into lessons.

The physical education curriculum at Monterrey Park Academy also contributed to the school’s drastic drop in body mass index. David Alfaro, the physical education teacher and an avid Crossfitter, teaches CrossFit Kids. It involves “functional fitness,” or movements people need to perform in their daily lives, Alfaro said.

As a cool wind blew Friday morning, third- and fourth-graders stood in the grass outside the school, lifting long, thin weights while other classmates did squats. Between repetitions, they ran laps around their fenced-in area.

Alfaro is in his first year with IDEA after working for the Judson Independent School District. When he was applying for the position at IDEA Monterrey Park, he had to teach a demonstration lesson to second- and third-graders.

“Probably about two-thirds of the class was overweight,” Alfaro said.

About 88 percent of IDEA Monterrey Park Academy students last year were considered “economically disadvantaged” under federal income thresholds. Low-income students have fewer opportunities for athletic extracurricular activities, Alfaro said, and parents who work long hours or overnight shifts can’t often take their children outside.

The food available on the West Side is a factor, too.

“If you just drive down Commerce, you’ll see the fast food restaurants,” Alfaro said. “You’ll see the Mexican restaurants which aren’t the healthiest of choices, so I think it’s the culture that we have in this neighborhood as well.”

Alfaro decided to incorporate CrossFit Kids into the physical education curriculum because the exercises feel more like games, he said. After six months, he can tell just by looking at his students that many are in better shape. Some have body mass indices that have dropped out of obesity range since the beginning of the year.

“Their stamina and endurance has increased drastically,” Alfaro said. “Running six laps in the gym at the beginning of the year, they were exhausted and winded, and now they’re able to do a full workout and run these laps in between and still want to continue doing more exercises.”

On family nights, Alfaro explains to parents the reasoning behind the physical education curriculum. When Alfaro introduced abdominal exercises, he had to talk to concerned parents whose children were waking up sore. He also stressed to parents the importance of drinking water instead of soda or Red Bull.

And Alfaro started free after-school soccer and basketball leagues, mixing grade levels on teams so students can meet new people and build their social skills.

Because his students have shown such progress, Alfaro has eased the curriculum’s intensity. He said he sets goals for students in terms of how much activity they can handle.

“I don’t talk to them about their weight at all,” Alfaro said.

Hillary Lopez, a third-grader, said she feels healthier since the beginning of the school year because both she and her mother have lost weight.

“Coach just makes it so easy,” said Hillary, 9. “It’s as if we were playing tag.”

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