October 14, 2016

St. Thomas School on the ‘move’ as national award winner

St. Thomas Aquinas School teacher Kate Krieger welcomes students with a high-five as they come to school on Oct. 5, “National Walk to School Day.”  The Indianapolis North Deanery school is one of only four Catholic schools across the country to earn the 2016 Let’s Move! Active Schools National Award. (Photo by John Shaughnessy)

St. Thomas Aquinas School teacher Kate Krieger welcomes students with a high-five as they come to school on Oct. 5, “National Walk to School Day.” The Indianapolis North Deanery school is one of only four Catholic schools across the country to earn the 2016 Let’s Move! Active Schools National Award. (Photo by John Shaughnessy)

By John Shaughnessy

On a day when St. Thomas Aquinas School in Indianapolis would celebrate being one of only four Catholic schools in the country to receive a special honor, third-grade teacher Kate Krieger began the morning welcoming students with a glowing smile, high-fives and a sign that noted, “Walking to school is cool.”

The school’s encouragement to have its 204 students walk to school as much as possible is part of an emphasis on physical activity that has earned St. Thomas the 2016 Let’s Move! Active Schools National Award.

The award is “the nation’s top physical education and physical activity distinction for schools, and celebrates a school’s commitment to providing students with at least 60 minutes a day of before, during and after school physical activity,” according to a press release from the Let’s Move! program, an initiative of First Lady Michelle Obama.

For St. Thomas principal Cara Swinefurth, the national award is a welcomed recognition of an approach “that is central to our mission.”

“We’re really focused on the whole child, and that includes emphasizing their physical health, getting them outside so they can mentally relax, and remembering that they’re still children and they need to play,” Swinefurth says. “Our school continues to be an excellent academic school, but our overall mission isn’t just academics. It’s the whole child.”

The emphasis on physical activity at St. Thomas includes at least 30 minutes of recess for all students in the kindergarten-through eighth-grade school, with kindergarten and first-grade students getting 60 minutes of recess daily.

The school also provides students with physical education classes at least twice a week while also stressing some non-traditional approaches to keeping students moving throughout the day.

“Our teachers do a lot of what we call ‘brain breaks,’ ” the principal says. “They’re opportunities for students to get up and move. The teachers will put on music and the students will dance. And our teachers take the kids outside a lot for walks in the neighborhood. They do observation walks for science, and they get a sense that they’re part of the community and the neighborhood.”

Studies show that regular physical activity can lead to higher tests scores, improved attendance, increased focus, better behavior in class and enhanced leadership skills, according to Swinefurth.

Third-grade teacher Krieger knows the impact that the emphasis on physical activity has had on students.

“Getting outside makes a huge difference,” Krieger says. “They’re much more focused when they sit down to do work in the classroom. And their attitude is positive.”

The school celebrated its national honor on Oct. 5, which is designated as “National Walk to School Day.”

The executive director of Let’s Move!, Charlene Burgeson, noted, “St. Thomas is leading the way in this generation-changing movement that is transforming our nation’s schools into active and healthy hubs.”

Swinefurth views the approach more simply.

“We want the kids to feel good, to be happy to be here. The kids are happier and more relaxed. We feel that’s the best way they will learn.” †

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