As a demonstration school, the University of Texas Elementary School shares best practices far and wide. On August 9 a group of administrators from the three school districts in the Rio Grande Valley along with visitors from the University of Texas School of Public Health came to learn about UT Elementary’s Healthy Families Initiative and tour the new school building.
The educators and public health professionals are part of a new initiative called Transforming Texas in Cameron County.
The initiative is a collaborative effort to encourage and equip Cameron County cities, towns and schools to improve policies, systems and environments to address tobacco-free living, healthy eating, active living and access to quality preventative health care. The University of Texas School of Public Health, Cameron County Health Department, the City of Brownsville and a nonprofit, Proyecto Juan Diego received a grant from The Center for Disease Control through the Texas Department of State Health Services for the initiative.
UT Elementary School was just one of the stops a team of 36 from the valley made in Travis, Williamson and Caldwell counties over a three-day period. Team members visited a number of nonprofits and government agencies working on similar issues, such as the Sustainable Food Center, Austin Independent School District and Caldwell County offices, to name a few.
According to Dr. Belinda Reininger, an associate professor in The University of Texas School of Public Health on the Brownsville Regional Campus, the individuals making the trip were looking at transforming Cameron County health through different lenses. Explaining the importance of having high-level school administrators on the trip, she said, “Cameron County is one of the poorest counties in the state and the schools serve as the primary way to serve children and their families.”
Melissa Chavez, executive director of UT Elementary School and Bob Knipe, physical education teacher and coordinator of the Healthy Families Initiative, discussed the school’s philosophy and journey creating a system to support and foster healthy lifestyles as well as academic achievement. Chavez explained to the group that UT Elementary School was founded at a time when the state’s reading scores were extremely low. “We quickly realized that we had to teach more than reading; we had to teach kids how to live a well-rounded, healthy lifestyle. We want to take care of mind, body and spirit.”
“Data show the program works. Children learn better when they are healthy, when they eat right and exercise,” she said. Chavez also emphasized that the program could be created with very little money and without the new facilities that were completed in May.
When asked if the trip had been worthwhile, Reininger said, “A resounding yes—the trip was worth our time. There were a lot of ideas and sharing as well as collaboration across entities. And we shared some of the good things we have been doing in Cameron County—there is a lot happening there.”
“Everyone was very, very impressed with UT Elementary School,” said Reninger. “They are a model school and it is a unique opportunity that we were able to see it together. We came away with a lot of good ideas.”