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White Sulphur students moving those muscles
After-school program develops wellness, leadership skills
White Sulphur Elementary's Ernesto Ruiz, 11, dances with his classmates Wednesday in the school's gymnasium.

What started as an after-school fitness club at White Sulphur Elementary School has flourished into a schoolwide undertaking.

And it's getting noticed. The school was recognized for its wellness initiatives in the November issue of "Success Stories" by the Alliance for a Healthier Generation, which was founded in 2005 by the American Heart Association and the William J. Clinton Foundation

"White Sulphur created this after-school program and I really wanted to highlight the success and showcase what they've done in Georgia," said Adrienne Gil, Georgia relationship manager for the alliance. "To have a larger number participating just really caught my attention. ... And the way they have their physical education leaders of the month I thought was really creative."

The after-school program meets every Thursday and focuses on teaching students exercises they can do at school and at home, Principal Ann Murphey said.

More than 70 students showed up the first day in October; now the fitness group has about 100 attendees every week.

The fitness class is just one of the after-school classes White Sulphur now offers as part of an emphasis on leadership. Others include chorus, public speaking and mannerisms and social skills, Murphey said.

"This year we've been focusing on student leadership," Murphey said. "We wanted to recognize that different people are different kinds of leaders."

The P.E. Leader of the Month project is one way the school highlights leaders in fitness.

"Each month we pick out a leader. It started out with someone that's doing well in the class as far as following directions, picking up on the things that have been taught," P.E. teacher Phil Brooks said. "Now that we've started the wellness program, I've started looking for people who are using the techniques and the skills at school and going home and using them. You can tell which kids are going home and practicing some of the skills and exercises we do."

There are also large group activities, where entire grade levels get together for line dancing and games in the gym, said Brooks, who was one of the teachers who started the initiative. Another program, Adventure to Fitness, has students using exercise to re-enact historical lessons.

There's also a channel with constantly streaming exercise videos teachers can tune into throughout the day.

"Some of the classes do them in the morning right after announcements, like a five-minute stretch warm-up type thing," Brooks said. "We have it running throughout the day if the teacher feels they need a break or want to do an exercise to break up the day a little bit."

The daily calisthenics include a "panther powerjack," which Brooks described as a jumping jack that involves more muscle and joint movement than a normal jumping jack.

"We work on pushups, we work on planks for your abs, we also do a sit-and-reach," he said. "We try to do the same thing over, repeatedly, so they can gain confidence and feel good about themselves and also see the increase in strength, flexibility and coordination."

"I'm getting a lot of good feedback from parents," Murphey said.

She said parents call to tell her their children are doing more chores at home, using more advanced vocabulary - including "synergy" and "proactive" - and doing homework first thing when they get home because they want to "put first things first."

Murphey said White Sulphur is not planning to become a wellness school, though, as Friendship Elementary did this year. She said the school's emphasis is on leadership, with fitness and wellness a form of developing good leaders.

White Sulphur was recognized alongside several other schools and districts across the country for initiatives supporting the fight against childhood obesity.

Gil works with other schools in Hall County as well, and said many of them support the alliance's mission with their programs.

"They are truly doing an amazing job of looking at the school meals, which comes from the district, and working on their district wellness policy," she said. "At this point, it's really a marathon and not a sprint looking to create sustainable programs like this."