Chicago charter school receives top honors for health innovations

Sixth-grader Jamar Gayles climbs six flights of stairs to reach Namaste Charter School’s gym each morning. Like all students at Namaste, he participates in an hour of physical education, not including his daily recess.

And he tells Michelle Obama all about it in a letter to be hand-delivered to the first lady, who has made combatting childhood obesity her top White House priority.

On Thursday, Namaste became the second school in both Chicago and the Midwest to be awarded the Gold Distinction Award as part of the HealthierUS School Challenge, the United States Department of Agriculture’s highest honor. The school also celebrated the one-year anniversary of Obama’s Let’s Move! campaign.

“It means that they are serving the most nutritious food, they’ve got a great exercise program, and a lot in the area of nutrition education,” said Julie Paradis, administrator of the USDA Food and Nutrition Service, who will be delivering the letters to the first lady. “It’s thrilling because we don’t have many gold distinction schools around the country.”

Founded seven years ago on principles of peace, health and wellness, Namaste is a lottery charter school on Chicago’s Southwest Side that educates children “from the inside out,” as its motto says.

[Read our feature story on Namaste]

The school’s mission is to use health, physical fitness and nutrition as an avenue for student success, according to Allison Slade, founder and principal. Some unique foods Namaste serves include tilapia and butternut squash.

“I’ve learned how to be a healthier person not only physically, but mentally,” says 12-year-old Victor Rodriguez.

“Namaste has taught me a lifetime. At my old school, they weren’t challenging me enough. But here, it meets my needs not only inside, but outside the class.”

Namaste’s strides in health and wellness serve as an example to other Chicago schools. Students who have learned the skills at Namaste become ambassadors to their families and neighborhoods, community leaders say.

“The idea is we want to have an educational arm where we’re educating children about physical activity and proper nutritional choices, but also taking it home,” said Dr. Ian Smith of the President’s Council on Fitness, Sports and Nutrition.

Smith said he would like more schools in the city to take the initiative. “I think that if we can get this trend going within Chicago and the rest of Illinois, we’ll see more improvement not just in our kids, but in our families overall.”

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