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This Fort Worth School Is Making Health A Priority -- And It's Starting To Pay Off

Christopher Connelly/KERA
Felicia Duran's first grade students play a game called Word Hockey to practice vocabulary. It's a team relay game where students race from cone to cone, stopping to say and spell each word before shooting a goal and tagging in the next teammate.

Childhood obesity rates may be improving in some cities, but the stats are still staggering. According to one recent survey, a third of American children are overweight. One elementary school in Fort Worth has made wellness a priority, and it’s a strategy that’s starting to pay off.

Just after 10 in the morning at MH Moore elementary, and Kristie Bui’s kindergarten class has just finished a round of standardized testing. So, it’s time for a dance party.

Five and six year olds dance shimmy and shake along to a 90’s club hit, loosely following a video produced by dance-fitness company Zumba.

All students at this school in the Diamond Hill neighborhood are getting more exercise these days. There’s the usual physical education and recess, plus activities before and after school. Then there are these quick bursts of activity throughout the day. Principal Ronald Schultze encourages teachers to make movement part of instruction.

“We want them moving 60 to 80 percent of the time,” he says. “This is just a way to get them up, get them re-energized and ready for learning. If we’re preparing them for learning, they can’t learn.”

MH Moore students are also getting free breakfasts and better lunches and spending time in the school’s garden. It’s all part of a massive shift that’s happened over the last six years.

This North Fort Worth public school has a lot of challenges: 97 percent of students here come from low income families. Two-thirds are English-language learners. When Schultze arrived in 2010, students had high rates of diabetes. The school was struggling, he says.

Credit Christopher Connelly/KERA
Ronald Schultze is the principal of MH Moore Elementary School in Fort Worth's Diamond Hill neighborhood.

“Academic scores were down, morale of the staff was down. The morale of the kids was down,” he says. “The community was not involved in the school, they felt isolated and not allowed to be a part of it.”

Schultze worked with the school’s PE teacher and nurse to start changing kids diets and talking to parents about nutrition. The school stopped selling candy for fundraisers. And, to make sure kids can eat well at home, parents can pick up free, donated groceries at school.

“You can’t have student success unless basic needs are met,” he says. “And not just met while they’re at school, but met at home.”

Parents are also invited into the school for health and fitness days that include basic screenings. PTA president Lisa Gonzalez says one of those days changed her life.

A nurse checked her blood pressure, then checked it again to be sure her results were correct. She told her that she had better go lay down.

“She says it’s really high, I think I should call the ambulance,”  Gonzales recalls.

It was a wakeup call, Gonzalez says. After that, she started cooking healthier at home with her kids, quit buying frozen dinners, and picked up running. Now, she and her kids start the day making smoothies with fresh fruit. They’ll still eat menudo and tortillas – her favorites – but in moderation.

“The way that I was raised eating is the way that I was carrying on and raising my children to eat,” she says. “And I realized there’s something wrong here.”

Gonzalez says this is just one way the school’s efforts are rippling out into the community.

Credit Christopher Connelly/KERA
Coach Jose Ramirez leads a drumming exercise in physical education class.

Inside the school’s cafeteria, the lunchline was re-worked to help kids make healthy choices. White milk is put in front of the chocolate milk. Brightly colored pictures show off the day’s fruit and vegetable options. There are plans to build a salad bar.

“I see a lot of kids eating more vegetables, more fruits and not hamburgers no nachos, nothing like that. It’s great,” said parent Arlene Donates, who was visiting with her kindergartener during lunchtime.

Students can still buy packaged junk food, but they have to make a second trip for that bag of chips or candy bar. It’s not allowed on their first trip through the lunch line.

“All of my friends are good vegetable eaters, but you know the kids want some Takis, Hot Cheetos, chips,” says second grader Adan Medina.

“Bad stuff,” he adds earnestly.

Last month, MH Moore became the first Blue Zones-approved school in the district. The project works with business, restaurants, employers and the city to make it easier to make healthy choices in Fort Worth. The Blue Zones Project is working with other schools in Fort Worth ISD to boost health, too.

MH Moore principal Ronald Schultze says having healthier kids has improved attendance and academics.

“Test scores have skyrocketed. We’ve received six distinctions from the state of Texas in the last two years. We expect to receive a few more this year. I’ll have my kids compete against anybody in the city.”

Christopher Connelly is a reporter covering issues related to financial instability and poverty for KERA’s One Crisis Away series. In 2015, he joined KERA to report on Fort Worth and Tarrant County. From Fort Worth, he also focused on politics and criminal justice stories.