Heroes for Healthy Schools Spotlight On: Teacher John Neal

March 30, 2011

by Lana Buseman

Healthy Schools Campaign is pleased to announce Heroes for Healthy Schools: Coming together for student wellness and achievement, a weeklong series of events to celebrate Minority Health Month and
focus attention on programs and policies in Chicago that support student wellness and achievement.
This exciting series is presented as a partnership of Healthy Schools Campaign, Chicago Public
Schools Nutrition Support Services and the Office of Minority Health, U.S. Department of Health
and Human Services.

We are thrilled to take this opportunity to spotlight a few of the many individuals who are making a difference for kids' health at school and in our community.

The Office of Minority Health has decided to highlight the efforts in Chicago as excellent examples of school-community partnerships supporting low-income minority students, particularly with regard to healthy school food and fitness. Today's “hero for healthy schools,” P.E. teacher John Neal, is helping connect his school with community partners and making physical activity a regular part of the school day.

To read more profiles and nominate your own hero for healthy schools, visit www.healthyschoolscampaign.org/healthheroes

Chicago-Run 
Students from Walsh participate in Chicago Run.

John Neal is the physical education teacher at Walsh Elementary School, located in the Pilsen neighborhood in Chicago. During his time at Walsh, he has helped increase the amount of exercise the students get each week.  By forming partnerships with different city organizations, Neal helped create more health and wellness opportunities for the students at Walsh on a daily basis.

Neal knows that teaching about life-long health and wellness is important for every student.

“My experience has been very positive. It’s been challenging because we’re trying to break out of old habits but still very positive. I use a fitness model for teaching PE. I definitely teach sports and the fundamentals but I want students to understand the benefits of life-long exercise. The administrative staff is very supportive with my style of teaching. I have worked with many different groups of students and all want to be healthy.”

Like other educators who are introducing health and wellness programs into their schools, Neal has faced some obstacles.

“There are definitely challenges. One is the lack of resources, specifically having an outside green space that is safe. The current space has tons of rocks, glass and a lack of grass. Certainly another challenge is healthy food choices at home at a reasonable cost to families. As a father of three, I know it can be expensive to eat healthy. We have recently partnered with a couple groups that will be coming into the school to provide a hands-on workshop for parents to teach them about healthy cooking at an affordable cost. We have a principal, Mr. Mohip, who takes the lead in finding groups to support wellness and that encourages all staff to go after non-profit groups to help fill voids in the school,” said Neal.

The partnerships Walsh has formed have been vital to the success of their wellness programs.

“We have numerous partnerships. Most have been developed in the last three to four years.  Non-profit groups are a huge part of our success. We all know that CPS struggles with providing extras. Groups like Community in Schools, Pilsen Junior Tennis Camp, Urban Initiatives, Healthy Schools Campaign, INTRSCT and Chicago Run really contribute to helping a student become the 'whole student.' We are constantly looking for organizations to help make our school stronger,” said Neal. “Currently, we just completed a grant to provide fruits and vegetables to students. We are also in the process with working with Common Threads to provide nutritional education. Both are for the 2011-12 school year.”

As an educator, Neal is surrounded by learning experiences every day.

“Last year two students from Walsh started playing tennis with an organization we work with. These were two girls that had never played tennis with any instruction. They both are now getting ready to play in Junior United States Tennis Association (USTA) Tournaments this coming summer. This all started because we pursued a relationship with an organization that we knew kids would like. The point is, like the old adage says… small stones make only a ripple at first, but eventually they become a wave.” 
 
Every Hero for Healthy Schools needs a personal health hero to look up to. Neal shares his.

“My dad,” he said. “He's 83 and doesn't let age interrupt life.”

Plus! Read more about Walsh in our Go for the Gold newsletter spotlight here!