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Manitou School District wins top state health and wellness award

February 27, 2017 Updated: February 28, 2017 at 8:43 am
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Yoga instructor Anna Mack, foreground, leads Manitou High School students in a Yoga class at the school Monday, February 27, 2017. Manitou Springs School District 14 has been awarded the $7,500 Platinum Governor’s Award for School Health and Wellness. Photo by Mark Reis, The Gazette

The school district in a town founded in 1872 as an envisioned "scenic health resort" has won top honors in a statewide push to build healthy public schools.

The recognition tastes as sweet as the sugar substitute stevia, but it's no surprise, say students and staff.

"It's Manitou. In some ways it's like, 'Of course we won that," said Manitou School District 14's yoga instructor Anna Mack. "We make a conscientious effort in being healthier."

The district placed first in the 2017 Health School Champions initiative, capturing the Platinum Governor's Award for School Health and Wellness.

The award is given by the Colorado Education Initiative and the Governor's Council for Active and Healthy Lifestyles.

The $7,500 prize will enhance D-14's Partners for Healthy Choices program that emphasizes creating a healthy mind, body and spirit among its 1,488 students and 249 staff members.

"It's a wonderful affirmation of the model we use - a collaborative push to learning and health that we feel strongly about," said Laurie Wood, director of Partners for Healthy Choices in D-14.

The district is being recognized for embedding health as a core component of its mission, vision, policies and instructional model.

District officials will receive the award Friday at the annual Colorado Healthy Schools Summit in Denver.

D-14's health and wellness program is not just about students eating their veggies or setting aside video games.

The district goes beyond the basics of healthy living by offering culinary classes, yoga and dance as P.E. electives, a walking school bus program for elementary students, a food pantry and clothing closet open to anyone, lifeguard certification, restorative justice for bad behavior and low-cost afterschool activities in partnership with organizations in the small town.

The idea is to address the link between academic success and student health.

"This is a prevention model," Wood said. "It's what do you do to ensure bad things don't happen. We're unique in that every school in our district has fully embraced the model."

Sixteen-year-old Olivia Costilla-Webb said the district's program helped her beat drug addiction, after she got expelled as a freshman.

"I was all wallin' out," she said, "but because of the school getting me drug tested, having a counselor and therapy, I got a lot of support. It helped me turn myself around. I'm doing good."

Statistics show the health and wellness program is working overall, said Wood, who also is D-14's director of secondary learning systems. Risk-taking behaviors for teens in D-14 have been trending downward for the past several years, according to Healthy Kids Colorado survey results.

In Mack's yoga class Monday morning, upperclassmen were practicing breathing techniques and movements to soft background music in a darkened studio on campus.

Cell phones are not allowed; students must concentrate on what they're doing.

"They're overstimulated, so they enjoy the break," Mack said. 'It's a mind-freeing class."

Yoga is wildly popular at the high school, said assistant principal Jesse Hull.

"So many kids would sign up that we didn't have space," he said. "It's a good fit for Manitou."

Each of the four schools in D-14 have wellness activities and committees, with students, parents and staff involved. Numerous community organizations - from the library and the Manitou Art Center to the police department and city council - meet and work with district representatives to advance the efforts.

"It's important that everybody has bought into it," Hull said.

Like about half of D-14's students, senior Monique Heiniger lives in the boundaries of another school district but choiced into attending Manitou.

The health and wellness program and all its offerings "was a huge deciding factor for me when we moved here," Heiniger said. "It's definitely another source of pride. People look to that as something we're doing right."

"We're known for being a healthy school," said sophomore Will Pranchak, "and now it's wow, we got recognized for it."

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