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Miller Avenue School

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We believe kids need to be strong. They need to have the skills to make their own choices in a difficult community. We want them to say ‘no’ to drugs and to gangs, and to all the other negative options out there. If we can’t get them to say ‘no’ to a pie, then how can we expect them to say ‘no’ when faced with all those other choices?

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Principal

The school ethos and organisation

When the principal of Miller Avenue School was appointed six years ago, she soon became aware that staff morale needed to be raised and that many teachers were working in isolation. She realisedthat her vision for high academic achievement could not be achieved without first addressing other issues and creating a positive learning environment in the school. The food and nutrition changes at Miller Avenue School have been part of an overall culture change that has transformed this school.

Now there is a strong school spirit, and a warm and supportive atmosphere. The students are fully consulted over what happens, and as a result they feel a sense of ownership of school activities and of the school grounds and equipment. A philosophy of personal choice and responsibility underpins everything that happens in the school.

The first whole school project that Miller Avenue undertook under Kaye Ferguson’s guidance was an "eliminating violence" module. The ethical and philosophical underpinnings of that programme – respect for self and others, taking responsibility for one’s choices and the consequences of those choices, using free will for good – are the same that underlie the school’s approach to food and nutrition.

The principal recently drafted food and nutrition guidelines, which are being discussed with staff and the Board of Trustees. The principal wants the guidelines to reinforce the positive changes that have occurred, and ensure that staff and trustees are "all on the same page". When new staff come to the school, having a written policy will help them understand the school’s norms.

Along with six guiding principles, the guidelines include 50 actions, such as:

  • When on duty, teachers shall comment favourably on healthy food choices students have made, especially for those students who are often not making as many healthy choices as others.
  • Teachers will present information about healthy nutrition, and resulting health benefits, on a regular basis.
  • At social events such as discos, healthy options will be provided.
  • Food given as a reward shall be minimal and it should be known to students that it is a "treat". Other incentives shall be explored first.
  • School assemblies shall regularly discuss the topic of nutrition.

Curriculum programmes

Even though teachers recognise it can be a challenge to give health promotion the time and prominence it deserves, food and nutrition are integrated within the curriculum. Each term, there is a school-wide topic – a theme through which the curriculum is taught and food and nutrition can often be incorporated. One example is "traditions", where one class looked at the traditions of the Middle Ages and, according to a teacher, “The kids were already thinking ‘What about the food? What about the family life?'" There are plans to explore food of the Middle Ages through a banquet. The teachers feel that tying the school nutrition policy into classroom activities like this makes it fun and relevant for the students, and the principal has seen rich dividends by freeing the teachers up to follow their passions through these "rich topics".

Food is also incorporated into studying foreign countries, and on a couple of occasions parents from other parts of the world have shared with the children cooking and food from their home countries, such as Korea and Holland.

Co-curricular health promotion opportunities

Cutting.

School lunches are now healthier, the school participates in healthy eating initiatives such as the Fruit in Schools scheme and Project Energise, and healthy eating is integrated into the curriculum and school events and activities – it has become the norm.

A new canteen manager has turned around an "unhealthy" canteen and is seen as key in promoting good nutrition in the school. When she started three years ago, the food was very limited and mostly "occasional" items like pies and fizzy drinks. Now the children are enthusiastic about the healthy choices on offer, making comments such as “It’s healthier and the food is nice” and “Dianne makes really yummy sandwiches”. Most of them choose sandwiches or filled rolls rather than pies or sausage rolls. Sugary drinks are no longer sold and the children say they don’t mind – they are happy to drink water! They now see healthy eating as "cool" and sometimes tell off parents or teachers for not eating or providing the foods they consider healthy.

To help students make informed food choices, a "traffic light" menu has been introduced into the canteen. This reinforces the idea that some foods, such as pies, should only be eaten occasionally. Teachers and the canteen manager provide positive reinforcement by congratulating children who have healthy lunches. If children are making poor choices (such as several "treat" items without including any healthy items), a teacher or the canteen manager might make a positive suggestion to them. For example, the canteen manager suggested that a boy who had a pie every day try a chicken salad sandwich. He did, and now has a chicken salad sandwich every day.

Students say the lunches they bring from home are healthier, too, with fewer biscuits and chippies. One student council member commented: “Now that we’ve been introduced to healthy choices, we’re a lot happier to bring fruit and stuff.”

Teachers do not tend to see health promotion work as an "extra" on top of what they are already doing. Health promotion activities are seen as learning opportunities and as part of teaching children how to look after themselves and others. “Some other schools see Fruit in Schools as "cutting in" to school time, but I don’t see it like that – it’s part of what we do and it’s easy.”

Outdoor education is another area in which nutritional learning opportunities are incorporated into school activities. Describing a recent camping trip, one teacher said: “What really impressed me is that the students were just superb at planning the food we required and the snacks we had – they were very clear about what sort of food we needed. They did their own budgeting, and prepared menus and worked out what foods they needed to take, how the cooking groups would operate. So when we got to the campsite, the adults supervised, but basically the kids did everything. And that was a really empowering trip for them as far as food went, because they really loved it – they found the choices they had made were really good and they were nutritionally sound. It’s a really good example of where the kids have to put their knowledge into practice, and it’s gratifying to see that the messages get through.”

The school and community environment

Staff are also making healthier choices, and as a result the school had to buy a bigger fridge to accommodate all their home-made lunches. This has happened spontaneously, as there has never been a conscious attempt to change teachers’ eating habits.

The focus has been on regularly providing healthy eating information, rather than telling parents what to do. The weekly newsletter, "The Mascot", is sent home every week and includes items such as menu ideas, lunchbox tips and "nutrition nuggets". The students felt that these had influenced their parents to provide healthier foods at home and in school lunches. Positive encouragement via the newsletter, a display at the parent–teacher evening, and the messages children have taken home from school have led to a major improvement in what parents provide for their children. “I don’t think anything is as effective as the child going to the supermarket and saying, ‘Hey Mum, how about instead of having that, we get this instead?’” commented one teacher. There has never been any opposition from parents to the changes in the school. “It was never that parents were opposed to healthy eating; they probably just hadn’t thought about it.”

School and community partnerships

Teachers also like the way Fruit in Schools promotes the social aspect of eating. Everyone has clear roles – the caretaker oversees the delivery, storage and distribution of the fruit, with teachers free to incorporate the fruit break into the day at a time and in a way that works best for the class. Students take pride in their role as fruit monitors.

Project Energise promotes healthy eating and physical activity in schools. As part of the programme, a Team Energise staff member has visited Miller Avenue School each week for the past couple of years, providing learning activities involving physical activity and nutrition, and working with staff to support changes in the school. These sessions are popular with students and teachers, and have made a major impact on attitudes and behaviour. For example, when they did a "sugary drinks" session, graphically showing the amount of sugar in some popular drinks, both the teachers and the students were shocked and sales of sugary drinks at the canteen fell dramatically.

One teacher commented on how the project had subtly influenced staff at the school in a positive way, and initial fears that a few staff had about the "health police" coming in and telling them what to do had been unfounded. “It’s never been a heavy thing, it’s been basically from within – people have made changes because they want to make changes, instead of someone saying, ‘You have to do this, you have to do that’, we’ve just evolved as a staff and become more health conscious.”

School events are seen as another way to get students involved, along with the wider school community. One such event is the annual Big Breakfast, which promotes the importance of breakfast and gives students the opportunity to make and try breakfast foods that they might not otherwise experience. A community-building event, it promotes the social aspect of eating and is well attended by parents and other special guests. The students decide which foods each class will provide and ask families to make donations, and they are closely involved with other aspects of organisation, including inviting guests, making decorations, and setting up the room.

Linking with the wider community is also seen as important. The Rotary Club provided all the children with a seed potato and soil to tend over the summer holiday. It gave the students a chance to see how simple it is to grow vegetables. The success of this project has prompted the idea of starting a school garden.

Miller Avenue is a Health Promoting School and participates in Project Energise and Fruit in Schools, which are all funded by the local District Health Board. To minimise the number of staff the school interfaces with, one person from the DHB covers all three programmes at the school.


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