By Julie Poppen of Education News Colorado
Politicians descended on Denver’s Lowry Elementary Monday to eat fresh veggies grown at school as part of a healthy lunch, tour the school’s impressive gardens and even dance “to the left” with people half their size.
It was all part of the U.S. Department of Education’s third annual back-to-school bus tour, which featured the nation’s schools chief Arne Duncan joining forces with Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius and other politicians to tout the importance of healthy school lunches and increased exercise during the school day.
“If kids are healthy, they can be better students. They can focus on learning because they’re not suffering from hunger pangs,” said Sebelius, adding “Kids who are obese often have health problems that keep them out of school.”
The Colorado stops are part of a series of events being held coast-to-coast by Duncan and his leadership team through Sept. 21.
At Lowry, Duncan checked out the school’s Garden to Cafeteria program, which supplies its cafeteria with produce grown at the school. At his side were Gov. John Hickenlooper, Democratic U.S. Sens. Mark Udall and Michael Bennet, Colorado Commissioner of Education Robert Hammond and Denver Public Schools Superintendent Tom Boasberg.
After sampling lunch, the group went outside to shoot a few hoops and then lined up with students for a little “Cupid Shuffle,” the popular line dance used as a warm-up in Lowry gym classes.
The school of 480 students – 38 percent of whom qualify for federal lunch assistance – has a well-established and parent-led health and wellness committee, a serenity garden and a vegetable garden that is tied to the school curriculum. Food is cooked from scratch for lunch. Each class has the opportunity to start seeds in the classroom.
“These are kids I don’t worry about,” Duncan said after the tour. “These are kids who are going to exercise, they’re going to eat well and they’re going to do it for the next 60, 70 or 80 years.”
A curriculum in a garden
Second-graders learn to plan potatoes in a pot. Students care for the potato pots indoors until the end of May, then the pots are dumped out so the students can see how many potatoes grew. Curriculum includes botany and history of potatoes.
School families maintain the garden and harvest produce. The school also offers a summer garden club that meets every Friday. From August to October, the school hosts weekly youth farmers’ markets run by fourth- and fifth-graders. Students sold 460 pounds of produce at its first market this year. Third-graders learn how to compost with worms.
Tanahcey Montgomery, a fourth-grader, rehearsed for her role as the garden guide for Secretary Sebelius. First, she had to prove she knew her stuff as far as the school garden is concerned. Holding a carrot just ripped from the ground, Tanahcey explained how sugar in the stalk moves into the root when it gets cold.
“I like to garden and the teacher picked me,” she said of how she landed the guide job.
Parent Lisa Emerson helped create the school’s first garden in 2006. The landscape architect and mom of two said she puts in about five hours a week on the school gardens.
“I get really fired up seeing how excited the kids are in the garden,” she said.
Emerson said she hopes the publicity surrounding Monday’s high-profile visitors will result in more schools everywhere deciding to make their schools healthier.
“We’re teaching kids lifelong lessons,” she said. “It’s important to get them when they’re young. By the time they reach middle school, they’re too cool for it. At the elementary level, they’re still excited by bugs or seeing a tomato start to form.”
The school is especially proud of its “healthy cupcake program” and its backpack program for homeless families.
The Lowry cafeteria bakes and decorates sweet potato muffins on request from parents for classroom parties. The so-called “Soar Cupcakes” cost under $10 to serve an average classroom.
Hunger addressed through backpack program
In 2010, the school embraced the Food for Kids Backpack Program, inspired by a fourth-grader who was collecting food from his buddies in exchange for losing at tetherball.
Some 32 Lowry families are now served each week through the program. Each Friday, volunteers and students create six meals and two snacks from food available in the school’s pantry. Then the backpacks are packed and delivered to the students in their classrooms to take home. The empty backpacks are returned Monday mornings. The program is supported by several organizations.
At the end of the tour and hand-shaking, Duncan’s entourage, which included staffers and Secret Service agents, took off in an army green U.S. Department of Education bus with the slogan “Education drives America” painted on it. School children waved and yelled as the bus began the trip to Limon on Colorado’s eastern plains.
Before he left, Duncan got in some praise for Colorado and Denver’s school reform efforts.
“As Denver moves, as Colorado moves, so moves the country. The national spotlight has been here and will continue to be here,” he said. “The courage, tenacity and spirit of reform here has been remarkable.”
In Limon, Duncan was expected to address 400 K-12 students, parents, teachers and community members at the school’s Constitution Day celebration.
In addition to these engagements, Acting Assistant Secretary for Postsecondary Education David Bergeron planned Monday afternoon to host a roundtable discussion on Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics – STEM – education at the University of Colorado Boulder.
For up-to-the-minute updates from the road, follow the Education Drives America tour on Twitter using the hashtag #edtour12.