- Associated Press - Monday, October 17, 2011

DANVILLE, Ill. — 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 venture was founded by the American Heart Association and the William J. Clinton Foundation to reduce childhood obesity.

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 about 150 miles south of Chicago. The school’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,” said 10-year-old Naomi Woods, a shy, slim fifth-grader. “We’re not allowed to eat junk food or stuff like that.”

The students mostly mirror Danville and surrounding Vermilion County — generally poorer, less healthy than the state average, with many families struggling with obesity and related problems.

The percentage of overweight kids at Northeast increased in 2009, the program’s third year, but dropped slightly last year, to 32 percent; 17 percent are obese. Those are similar to national figures, Principal Cheryl McIntire said. With only three years of data, it’s too soon to call the slight dip in the percentage of overweight children a trend. But she considers it a promising sign, and there’s no question the children are learning healthy habits.

Teachers and parents credit Ms. McIntire for the school’s success. The principal joined Northeast in 2008, a year after the staff moved to adopt the healthy focus, and has made it her mission to instill that mantra.

The principal is closely involved with choosing school menus and secured money from the state and local school district that has paid for fresh produce, including items such as kiwi fruit that many children have never seen before.

A recent lunch menu featured whole-grain, reduced-fat cheese pizza, broccoli and cauliflower buds, sweet corn, chilled pears, low-fat pudding, and 1 percent low-fat milk.

Ms. McIntire has changed her own eating habits, giving up potato chips and shedding 15 pounds since last year.

Since Northeast is a magnet school, students have to apply to attend, although they don’t need to test in. Besides committing to the healthy mindset, parents must volunteer 26 hours at the school each year.

“There certainly are people who are much more invested than others, but we have gotten so much positive feedback from parents,” Ms. McIntire said.

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