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A Running Start: New Elementary Fitness Program Aims To Get Struggling School Back On Track

Tracy Crowell

In recent years, Holiday Hill Elementary has had its share of rough patches, from principal shakeups to highly publicized pushback over a district-imposed extra hour of instruction

But this year, a new program aims to get the struggling school back on track - both figuratively and literally.

For about 45 minutes a day before school starts, students and their parents have the chance to walk, jog or sprint laps around the school’s track to the musical stylings of Disney's Frozen.

It's known as the Morning Mile. For each lap students run, they get a straw. Five laps around the track equals a mile, and enough straws can earn students a brightly-colored charm of achievement.

Several of those charms now adorn the neck of third-grader Rebecca Leathers. So far, she has run the equivalent of about  three marathons, or 80 miles, as she was quick to note on a recent morning.
"I come everyday...usually with my mom, but today, because of the [Jacksonville] fair she was tired so my dad came," she said.

Her daily goal is two miles - or ten straws - each day, she said. It's a goal that she won't make if she continues to talk to the reporter, her father David Leathers pointed out.

"We're going too slow...She’s been standing around talking to people instead of walking," he said.

The Morning Mile is the first of its kind in Northeast Florida, according to organizers. Holiday Hill parent Amy Mitchell came up with the idea last year after seeing a similar program at an elementary school in Gainesville.
"It sounded like such a great idea because it lets those kids get that extra energy out of their system before they go to class," she said.

And with physical education classes now down to once a week in many elementary schools, the need for release is greater, Mitchell said. 
"My daughter has excess energy and I thought ‘Oh this will be just the thing for her,’" she said.

She wrote a letter to local healthcare agency AvMed, which agreed to provide the supplies needed for the initiative, and with the help of several other parents and the principal, the school piloted at the end of last year.
By the beginning of this school year, the whole elementary school was on board, she said.

"It has been a total hit," she said. "We’ve had half the school out here."

And for a school that’s been weighed down in recent years by near-annual principal changes and steadily declining grades, it’s a way to showcase what works, School Advisory Chair Gregg Keefer.
"This is parents being involved and doing something positive, and that kind of thing happens in our school everyday," he said.

With the mile run initiative still in its infancy, it's too soon to know what kind of large-scale impact it will have on the D school. However, on a broader scale, the research seems to support a positive shift.
A 2010 study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, found several links between physical activity and improved academic performance and behavior in students.

Principal Tammy Haberman said the school is tracking the data.

"It's too soon to tell...There [are] so many other initiatives it’s hard to pinpoint one way or the other, but the one thing that I have heard from the teachers is that [students] come in calmer," she said. "They come in more focused."

Holiday Hill grandmother Tracy Crowell, said she already sees the difference in grandson first-grader Gabriel Crowell.

"[It's] a big change from last year to this year. A big behavioral change...He’s not as fidgety," she said. "He’s just more focused because he’s had a chance to let his energy out."

You can follow Rhema Thompson on Twitter @RhemaThompson.

Rhema Thompson began her post at WJCT on a very cold day in January 2014 and left WJCT to join the team at The Florida Times Union in December 2014.