A recent Zumba class at Rogers Elementary School. Photo by Iris Dimmick.
A recent Zumba class at Rogers Elementary School. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

Childhood obesity is a significant problem in San Antonio and the United States. It’s a problem that starts at home, but the effects are felt in schools, where the complications that stem from obesity and poor nutrition first become evident.

It’s tricky, though. How do we convince children that eating healthy and exercising is essential? Especially when they are not usually the ones doing the grocery shopping or preparing their own meals.

The answer: reach the parents.  Unless the parents buy into the importance of health, attendance, and academic effort, the student will be fighting an uphill battle every day of their educational career.

It’s obvious, yes, but it is also one of the biggest challenges facing public school administrators. That’s why SAISD placed Parent and Family Liaisons (PFLs) on every campus.

The PFLs have the unique opportunity to focus on the non-classroom environment that shapes a student’s learning experience. They are the friendly faces who help parents envision school as a place of nurturing and success, since this was not the case for many inner city parents when they were in school. PFLs have the freedom to design outreach events tailored to the particular issues most pressing on their unique campus, including health and wellness.

Katanna Sanchez-Larralde leads "Take Control" a parent class at Arnold Elementary School.
Katanna Sanchez-Larralde leads “Take Control” a parent class at Arnold Elementary School.

Katanna Sanchez-Larralde has been the PFL at Arnold Elementary School since 2003. She’s had ample success engaging parents and increasing their comfort level participating in school activities. Now, she’s focusing in on how to help parents incorporate physical activity and healthy habits into their family culture, for the benefit of their kids.

One way that Sanchez-Larralde has done this is through “Come and Play” days. Once every month, Arnold ES opens up its gymnasium to parents to come in and play with their kids in a series of games and activities designed by the PE teachers. While children delight in watching their parents play with the huge parachute, the teachers also incorporate games that can be played at home. For children, active playtime is effective exercise, and likely to lead to sustained fitness.

For parents, the activity is good, but the time spent with their kids doing something fun is even better.

But Sanchez-Larralde didn’t stop there.

She’s added a program called “Take Control.” It is a series of classes aimed at helping parents steer their families toward health and wellness.

On the morning I visited, ten women showed up at 8 am to participate in the first class. Six were mothers, and four were grandmothers of Arnold ES students. Several spoke primarily Spanish (the school population is 50% bilingual), so Sanchez-Larralde spoke a comfortable blend of English and Spanish as she guided them through the program.

It started with “Coffee and Conversation” where the women were encouraged to express any concerns they had about their children’s education. Creating this avenue for parents to be heard is essential, according to Sanchez-Larralde, and this might be their best chance to hear what is on the minds of those who would not speak up otherwise.

Coffee and Conversation also included a clever math game that the parents could take home to help their students prepare for the STAAR test.

Maria Palma give a cooking demonstration at Arnold Elementary School
Maria Palma give a cooking demonstration at Arnold Elementary School

Next, Maria Palma, Nutrition Education Coordinator with the SA Food Bank, brought a cooking demonstration that included familiar ingredients and equipment. She used them to prepare a meal that was both healthy and affordable. The flavor profiles would be kid-friendly. Most helpfully though, she brought valuable information to help the women evaluate their own cooking in light of a balanced and lean diet.

From there, the group progressed to the Granados Adult and Senior Center, highlighting yet another community resource for health and wellness. There, Veronica Ramirez, Health Program Specialist for the City of San Antonio Metropolitan Health District, gave a diabetes awareness presentation.

In the future Sanchez-Larralde wants to bring more fitness activities onto campus from yoga and tai chi to a walking group. The more parents incorporate healthy into their daily routines, the more the kids will benefit.  She knows that each event is only a piece of the puzzle.

“You take little bites and it all adds up,” said Sanchez-Larralde.

In addition to engaging the parents of enrolled students, SAISD is taking a community-wide approach, opening their facilities to provide free, public activities that promote fitness.  Most notably, evening Zumba classes across the district.

It all started three years ago, when San Antonio Sports brought the Fit Family Challenge to the district. In addition to other efforts, Edison High School was host to free evening Zumba classes once a week for parents. It was an instant hit.

“They were dedicated, and they enjoyed it,” said Roger Rodriguez, Senior Coordinator for Health and Physical Education in SAISD’s curriculum department.

Zumba enthusiast Laura Salazar stands with SAISD Board member Olga Hernandez before a recent session at Rogers Elementary School. Photo by Iris Dimmick.
Zumba enthusiast Laura Salazar stands with SAISD Board member Olga Hernandez before a recent session at Rogers Elementary School. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

SAISD Board member Olga Hernandez wanted to keep up the momentum. Through a grant, all of the PE teachers in SAISD were able to become certified Zumba instructors. During school, they teach modified Zumba for the kids, and in the evening SAISD PE teachers along with certified instructors provided by the Bexar County Health Collaborative, provide free Zumba classes on two different SAISD campuses four nights per week. 

For some, this means that Zumba comes to their neighborhood at least once a week. For others, it means that with a little strategy and planning, they have access to fun cardio activity four nights a week.

The program is a wild success. At the Rogers ES site on Wednesday nights at 5:20 p.m. there are an average of 40 participants. While it’s mostly moms and grandmothers shaking it in the gym, the kids, dads, and grandfathers often take advantage of the track for some walking and jogging.

And there are results. Laura Salazar lost 50 lbs just doing Zumba, and eating healthier.

“I like to dance, so this is just great for me!” said Salazar.

A recent Zumba class at Rogers Elementary School. Photo by Iris Dimmick.
A recent Zumba class at Rogers Elementary School. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

The group that has formed in the Rogers gym is particularly successful, because it’s become a community event. Carpools and positive peer pressure are evidence that fitness culture is developing around the activity. Hernandez is a regular at the Rogers location, and continues to delight in the program’s success.

“People are eating better, and exercising in other ways too,” said Rodriguez.

While we are just beginning in earnest to create a culture of health and wellness in San Antonio, it’s a journey that will benefit our kids on every level.

Thanks to the efforts of the Mayor’s Fitness Council, health and wellness campaigns have popped up across the city. But to really change the habits that have led to epidemic obesity and diabetes, the campaign has to go broader. It has to include education and contextualization. Mostly, it has to be accessible.

What institution could be more equipped to provide open access to health education in a neighborhood by neighborhood context than public schools?

*Featured/top image: A recent Zumba class at Rogers Elementary School. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

Related Stories:

P16Plus Council Connects Education Data to Results

Let’s Be Friends: How to Have an Impact on Your Inner City School

Faith Convening: Connecting Church, Community to Schools

Pass it On: Top 10 SAISD High Points

Bekah McNeel

Bekah McNeel is a native San Antonian. You can also find her at her blog, FreeBekah.com, on Twitter @BekahMcneel, and on Instagram @wanderbekah.