No cupcakes here! Gold-medal school fights obesity

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DANVILLE, ILL. (AP) - Five-year-olds dance hip-hop to the alphabet. Third-graders learn math by twisting into geometric shapes, fifth-graders by calculating calories. And everyone goes to the gym _ every day.

In the middle of America’s heartland, a small public school, Northeast Elementary Magnet School, has taken on a hefty task _ reversing obesity.

And it’s won a gold medal for it, becoming the first elementary school in the country to receive that award from the Alliance for a Healthier Generation. The Alliance was founded by the American Heart Association and the William J. Clinton Foundation to reduce childhood obesity. Only two other schools have taken the gold.

The cafeteria here serves fresh fruit and veggies, low-fat or no-fat milk, no sodas or fried foods and no gooey desserts. There are no sweets on kids’ birthdays and food is never used as a reward. Teachers wear pedometers and parents have to sign a contract committing to the school’s healthy approach.

Northeast Elementary is not in some posh, progressive suburb. It’s in Danville, Ill., an economically struggling city of 30,000 in farm country some 150 miles south of Chicago. But teachers, parents and students have embraced the rigorous curriculum and kids even call it “fun.”

From the outside, it’s a drab 50’s-era yellow brick building in a blue-collar neighborhood of modest frame homes, a few blocks from a homeless shelter and a Salvation Army donation center. Inside, it’s a cheerful oasis for almost 300 kids and has caught the attention of some of the nation’s biggest obesity-fighting advocates.

Former President Bill Clinton says the steps Northeast has taken are an exemplary way to tackle “a terrible public health problem.”

“We will never change it by telling people how bad it is. We’ve got to show people how good it can be,” Clinton said, paraphrasing a colleague at the Alliance’s June awards ceremony in Little Rock, Ark.

Northeast’s strict, no-goodies program might sound extreme, but students seem to have bought it.

During a recent nutrition lesson, first-graders sat raptly on the hallway floor as a teacher read “The Very Hungry Caterpillar,” a classic kids’ story about a caterpillar that can’t seem to stop eating _ all kinds of fruit at first. But when the bug moved on to chocolate cake and ice cream, the youngsters gasped and said in hushed tones, “junk food,” as if it were poison.

“We’re a healthy school,” says 10-year-old Naomi Woods, a shy, slim fifth-grader. “We’re not allowed to eat junk food or stuff like that.”

Sandy-haired Timothy Mills, a fourth-grader, says the focus “just keeps us more fit, plus we have a lot more fun.”

Like Mills, an earnest, heavy-set 9-year-old, Northeast kids aren’t all skinny. Even some kindergartners are clearly overweight. But they still jump enthusiastically to the alphabet song, and though chubbier kids struggle to run around the football field during gym class, there doesn’t seem to be much grumbling.

Physical education teacher Becky Burgoyne said it’s sometimes tough to get kids of “all different shapes and sizes” to be physically active.

“I just ask that students do their best and improve on what they can already do,” Burgoyne said.

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