Roland Park public school wins national health honor

Roland Park Elementary/Middle School has won a National Recognition Award as a Healthy Campus from the Alliance for a Healthier Generation, founded by the American Heart Association and the Clinton Foundation.

Roland Park is the first public school in Baltimore City to win the award, part of the alliance's Healthy Schools program that provides professional development to more than 18,000 schools nationwide in an effort to reverse what it calls a childhood obesity epidemic.

Students and staff will celebrate the award with a fruit-tasting event at the school Oct. 11

Physical education teacher Luke Hollis, co-chair of the school's wellness committee of parents, educators, nurses and assistant principals, flew to Little Rock, Ark., on a three-day, all-expenses-paid trip to accept a bronze-level award at the Clinton Foundation on Sept. 30. Schools can compete for gold, silver or bronze medals based on their level of participation and achievement in nutrition and physical activity programs.

The award, one of 267 nationwide and 27 in Maryland, came with a large banner to hang in the school. It is validation of efforts by the school's wellness committee of parents and teachers to raise awareness of "the importance of living a healthy lifestyle," said Roland Park Principal Nicholas D'Ambrosio.

The committee was formed in 2011 by parents Maiju Lehmijoki-Gardner and Peter Beilenson, former Baltimore City health commissioner.

"Schools have a role not only academically but also in the well-being of children," said Lehmijoki-Gardner.

She said she wants to see the school lead the way locally in addressing early childhood obesity, an issue that she said is being felt not just at Roland Park but around the nation and world.

"We foresee this (committee) being a model around the city," she said.

The committee has started Fitness Fridays, in which students exercise during morning announcements, and created a salad bar in the school cafeteria at lunchtime.

The committee, in partnership with the group BMore Fit, also has printed promotional cards that feature various students exercising in front of their lockers. The back of each card contains fitness tips.

And the committee has sponsored Zumba exercise classes for staff members and has solicited 30-day pledges by students and staff not to drink sodas. The school went so far as to remove a soda machine.

In another sign of the school's commitment to healthy living, more than 160 people, including alumni, have signed up to participate in the Baltimore Running Festival on Oct. 12, and will have a tent at M&T Bank Stadium. D'Ambrosio signed up to run in a half marathon at the running festival, and is trying to get $10,000 in pledges on the fundraising web site He said he had reached $3,000 as of last week.

"As a (school) community, we're trying to reach a minimum of $20,000," said D'Ambrosio, who wants to use the money raised for training and replacement and repair of fitness equipment.

Hollis, 29, of Canton, a sixth-year physical education teacher, said he was honored to accept the award "in the presence of a former president."

But he also said the award was "a little daunting," because having won a bronze award, the pressure is on the school to now increase its physical fitness programming enough to compete for a silver award next year.

That would require the school to fund fitness more, perhaps at the expense of academic programs on a tight budget. The school had already increased physical education classes from 45 to 60 minutes to win bronze.

"Sure we can offer more physical education time," D'Ambrosio said. "But then we will have to make cuts" elsewhere.

Hollis takes hope from the single gold award, given to Wilkerson Elementary School in El Monte, Calif., which won bronze in 2011 and silver in 2012.

"That's incentive," Hollis said.

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