Teacher wellness center at city school has goal to promote fitness, ease stress

Teachers encouraged to work out to help ease stress at Baltimore city school.

An exhausted Morgen Piper used to roll past her workout studio just down the street from Francis Scott Key Elementary/Middle School at the end of the day, thinking "I just can't do it."

Beginning this year, the special education teacher will have to muster only enough energy to walk down the hall.

The first wellness center for teachers in Baltimore opened Thursday at Francis Scott Key, part of a public-private partnership spearheaded by Scott Plank, founder of the real estate and philanthropy company War Horse.

Officials say the effort is designed to foster health and fitness among teachers, who are relied upon as role models for students.

"A lot of the lion's share of the resources go to the kids, as it should be," said Plank. "But we thought we could deliver the same kinds of resources to teachers."

Plank said he created the 1,574-square-foot wellness center — equipped with treadmills, an Arc exercise machine, bikes, a rowing machine and more — with the goal of bringing a private-sector attraction to public school teachers.

Plank said people sometimes forget that teachers make a choice to go into a classroom instead of into corporations. He quipped that he didn't know much about being a teacher, but he does know about running a business.

"Everything is about retaining and attracting good people," Plank said.

For Piper, the wellness center signals recognition and appreciation for her job.

"It's like we work for this entity, where we're only seen as teachers," Piper said. "This acknowledges that we're people."

Piper doubts she and her colleagues will have many excuses for not getting to the gym.

"People are already working out how to work out," she said.

Loretta Johnson, longtime city teachers union leader and now secretary of the American Federation of Teachers, said she has campaigned for such wellness programs for decades. She said the AFT will work for centers like the one at Francis Scott Key across the country.

Johnson said the need for wellness programs is evident. She cited rampant health care costs and "alarming" results of a recent national survey conducted by the AFT on teachers' quality of life.

She said seven out of 10 educators responding to the survey said they often felt work was stressful, and eight out of 10 said they felt physically and mentally exhausted at the end of the day.

"Centers like these are exactly what the doctor ordered," Johnson said.

The wellness center is part of a three-year investment in the Locust Point school by Plank, the brother of Under Armour's founder and CEO Kevin Plank. War Horse has also provided money to redesign and renovate the school cafeteria and teachers' lounge. Representatives did not say how much the company has spent.

Tisha Edwards, the former chief of staff and interim CEO of the city school system who now works for War Horse, helped Plank plan the wellness center. At Thursday's ceremony, he credited her for urging him to make it exclusively for teachers.

Jamilla Fort, a fifth-grade teacher at Francis Scott Key, said teachers are stressed, and sometimes the idea of finding time to take care of themselves causes more stress.

She said she was looking forward to being able to share workout time with her fellow teachers, many of whom are friends and get together to blow off steam anyway.

"It can be hard when you're stressed out and you feel like no one cares," Fort said. "The less stressed we are, the better teachers we are."

erica.green@baltsun.com

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