It takes a long time to change unhealthy behaviors, but a team at Columbia High School is in its third year of pioneering ways to make a difference.
CHS is one of six schools across the state of Washington involved in a pilot program sponsored by the state-based Comprehensive Health Education Foundation. The program is geared to "develop a coordinated system that improves and maintains a culture of physical, intellectual, emotional, social, and spiritual well being of the school community."
As the description suggests, the endeavor is a complex one.
According to JoAnn Hamilton, coordinator of the Healthy Schools Action Team at CHS and a family and consumer science teacher, there is a push from the federal government to make the nation's schools, and citizens overall, more focused on health and fitness by 2010. Schools are expected to employ programs similar to the Healthy Schools campaign at CHS by that time.
Hamilton said she believes that is a wise move.
"You can't educate kids if they're not fed and not fit," Hamilton noted.
However, Hamilton added that the task of teaching healthful behaviors in young people is made more complex because other schools in the local school district are not necessarily following the high school's lead.
"Our original intent was to make a difference district-wide," explained Hamilton. "But we've been frustrated at times about the lack of support from the other schools. They still use sugary donuts as rewards at Whitson."
"There is more awareness out there," said Kevin Liddiard, a math teacher and a Healthy Schools team member. "The problems with obesity and sugary snacks are well known, and we think everybody is on that wavelength, but perhaps not. Bad habits are ingrained, and it's hard for the other schools to hear, `the high school says.'"
CHS Principal Tim McGlothlin said he strongly supports the Healthy Schools program, but believes it needs to be expanded into the other schools.
""It certainly has been positive," McGlothlin said. "I see it as needing to branch out and develop. Awareness has been raised, but there needs to be additional work between the schools to provide healthy choices."
"We're not going to change behaviors overnight," agreed Shirlee Jellum, a team member who teaches Spanish and English.
Progress is sometimes hard to measure in the student population, but Hamilton said there has already been a noticeable change in the staff's approach to healthy behaviors.
"Everyone is reporting more awareness personally of health and fitness," Hamilton explained. "Teachers are doing things in class to support health behaviors."
Liddiard said that is essential if the program is to be successful.
"Our goal is to get the kids motivated. If they see us doing things, we're not saying one thing and doing another," Liddiard explained.
One avenue to set a good example is the school's "SOLE" award, which is given every month to a CHS teacher or employee who has made a lifestyle change such as stopping smoking, losing weight, or adopting a dedicated exercise program.
SOLE stands for "Staff Outstanding Lifestyle Efforts," and is a way to offer positive reinforcement for those working to improve their own health. It also helps to highlight the importance of healthy behaviors for the students.
There have been other successes. Over the last two years, for example, the pop and snack food machines at Columbia High School have been modified so it's not all junk food.
"We've made some inroads," Hamilton said. "There is more water and more pure juice in the machines. Other vending machines are selling milk, yogurt, cereal, apples. We do have those offerings now, and they're being very well received."
"We have not eliminated the sugary items, but at least we have increased the options," Liddiard added.
However, that doesn't necessarily solve the problem.
"If there is candy beside an apple, kids usually choose the sweet thing, so part of the process is providing the education to make healthy choices," McGlothlin said.
Hamilton pointed out that schools in the Seattle area have completely banned the pop and candy machines. There are economic factors at play, however, that particularly affect smaller school districts. For that reason, trying to ban the machines could cost the school district revenue in an era when school district budgets are in trouble across the nation.
Rick George, principal of Henkle Middle School, said the middle school has only two vending machines. One dispenses Lime-Aid products, while the other has Powerade, a product similar to Gatorade.
"The products are relatively healthy -- compared to what it could be," George said.
Last year, Henkle made a profit of $1,550 through sales at those machines. George said the money goes to the Associated Student Body to help fund student activities, including athletics.
George added that students often ask for vending machines that would have candy bars and similar items, but the school has declined those requests.
"It's pretty easy to say no to that," George said.
The equation is much more difficult at CHS, however. According to Superintendent Dale Palmer, the high school took in approximately $10,000 from its vending machines last year. The funds help pay for everything from student body activities to athletics to curriculum development.
"That's the reason why we haven't worked hard to get rid of the machines," Jellum said. "It's political and economic. But we've worked hard to present more healthy choices for kids."
Jellum said she takes a hard-line about junk food as a way to educate students in her classes.
"If they bring it into the classroom, I'll throw it away if it's nasty. They learn real quick," Jellum said. "That's one way I can support the Healthy Schools program."
Liddiard said teachers are finding many creative ways to encourage their students to be more aware of how to take care of their health.
"I teach algebra, but I can plug in numbers for the Body Mass Index, for example, or teach them some stress reduction tips before a test," Liddiard said. "The idea is to complement what we do, as opposed to supplant it."