Sixth graders advocate for physical activity upgrades at school

Feb 22, 2024

Sixth graders advocate for physical activity upgrades at school

Feb 22, 2024

Tehama County students empowered by CalFresh Healthy Living, UCCE educator and teachers

It's not uncommon for high school or college students to speak up and seek to improve their school environment. But at Evergreen Middle School in Tehama County, more than 100 sixth graders led the way to create healthy changes at their school.

As part of their health classes during the 2022-23 school year, the students researched the availability of spaces for physical activity, developed a survey gauging their peers' health awareness and needs, analyzed the results and data, and made recommendations for improvements.

“We learned that there's not a lot of places – except for Evergreen Middle School and some other parks around [our community of] Cottonwood – that have many physical activity places that you can easily get to or have access to,” said Bailey, one of the students.

They were guided by Mario Monroy-Olivas, a nutrition educator with CalFresh Healthy Living, University of California Cooperative Extension in Tehama, Shasta and Trinity counties. Locally administered by UC Agriculture and Natural Resources, CFHL, UCCE is one of the agencies in California that teaches nutrition to people eligible for SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) – referred to as CalFresh Food in California.

Working alongside Evergreen teachers Roxanne Akers and Albert Estrada, Monroy-Olivas challenged the sixth graders to tackle a “Youth Participatory Action Research” project – a yearlong, multi-step undertaking typically designed for older teens.

“The fact that we're doing it with these younger kids, starting a lot sooner, I think it's super impactful for them to know that, together, collectively they can make huge changes that will create positive outcomes – not just for themselves but for an entire community,” Monroy-Olivas said.

Middle school students speak up at school board meeting

In February 2023, eight class representatives presented their findings to the Evergreen Union School District Board of Education. Speaking before the five-member board for 20 minutes, the young people were naturally a bit nervous.

“It was a little nerve-wracking at first, but it wasn't that bad, once we got up there and got it over with,” said Lilah, one of the presenters. “Me and a couple of my friends were doing pep talks and practicing what we were going to say.”

The students showed a composite map that they drew from their classes' investigation of spaces for physical activity in the area, and shared a brochure that outlined their research and survey results. In a survey of more than 80 of their peers, 92% of respondents said they needed more access to physical activity equipment during class breaks, recess and lunch.

“The board members were super impressed with the students, coming to the school board and doing this,” Monroy-Olivas said. “They said they haven't had students doing this kind of advocacy work; for them, it was a really big deal.”

In the end, the young people made a strong case for more water-bottle refilling stations, badminton equipment and balls for other sports, and stencils for schoolyard activities like hopscotch, four square and snail (a type of hopscotch game).

“We got almost everything we asked for, and the project we're working on now is to help put in the things we asked for,” said Lilah, adding that, during this current school year, the students (now in seventh grade) are working on acquiring the stencils and paint.

More than just equipment, students gain skills and confidence

While the promise of new gear is exciting for the youth, they are acquiring something even more valuable and enduring – a sense that they are empowered to make a difference in their community, according to Janessa Hartmann, UC Cooperative Extension community nutrition and health advisor for Tehama, Shasta and Trinity counties.

“Yes, it's important to want to do stencils and hydration stations and have more equipment,” Hartmann said, “but the bigger impact for the students is that they think: ‘Now I know that my health is important, now I know how to advocate for myself, and now I know that I can do that.'”

Monroy-Olivas said he observed tremendous growth in all the students, and especially in the self-confidence of the class representatives.

“I grew as a leader because I used to be really shy and hated talking in front of people, but through this project we're doing, this has really helped me be able to talk in front of crowds – and listen to others,” Lilah explained.

In a survey at the end of the sixth-grade project, the percentage of youth who answered “Yes, most definitely” to the statement “I want to make a difference in making my school/community healthier” jumped from 19% before the project to 44% after. And that percentage of “Yes, most definitely” replies jumped from 6% to 31% for the statement “I can use research results to come up with solutions or recommendations for making my school/community a healthier place.”

“We learned to promote what we want and try to get it as much as we can, so we can get more physical activities and more people can be included,” said Brian, another student working on the project.

“It's important so when we get older, we know how to voice our opinions and let people know what we're thinking,” added classmate Brooklynn.

Wishing that he had such an opportunity when he was growing up, Monroy-Olivas said he feels the students now know the power of their voice.

 “I wholeheartedly believe that's the biggest win out of this whole project, that they're learning how to advocate for their own voice and change,” he said.