The Namaste Way: Health and Wellness to the Core

March 12, 2015

Namaste Charter School embodies so many of the issues that are important to creating a thriving and healthy school environment.

Each morning at Namaste Charter School on Chicago’s southwest side starts with a 10-minute movement routine, usually incorporating yoga, that calms down younger students and energizes older students. The physical activity follows the school’s 485 students through the school day where they have frequent movement breaks during curriculum blocks, 60 minutes of physical education and 20 minutes of recess.

And that’s every single day.

While many schools across the country struggle to incorporate physical education and physical activity into the school day, Namaste is showing that giving students daily physical activity is not only possible, it’s optimal. “It’s about priorities,” founder and executive director Allison Slade says. “You need to decide what you want to do and do it.”

For Namaste, that means prioritizing health and wellness. Located in Chicago’s McKinley Park neighborhood — where a 2012 survey found 44.7% of Chicago Public School (CPS) students are obese or overweight — Namaste has already managed to curb the trend of overweight elementary students becoming more overweight as they continue in school, and Slade hopes the school can work to reverse that trend.

Slade serves on the advisory board of Healthy Schools Campaign’s Fit to Learn professional development program for teachers and principals and regularly participates in training sessions throughout the school year. In that role, she helps other educators incorporate physical activity into their schools

But Namaste doesn’t stop at physical activity. In addition to PE and recess, Namaste also supports student health by providing high-quality healthy food for its students, wellness-related professional development for its educators, and more. This all highlights that creating a culture of health for students, even in some of the most under-resourced communities, is not just possible, but it can thrive.

The focus on health and wellness is rooted in Slade’s own experiences as a teacher in Houston, Texas. Slade knew her students were eating unhealthy snack food for breakfast; their greasy, orange fingerprints gave them away. She also knew they were crashing by 10 a.m., unable to focus and be their best learners.

So in 2004, after completing her time as a Teach for America’s corps member, getting her master’s and teaching in a suburban Chicago school district, Slade and a couple other Teach for America alums started Namaste Charter School. The charter has clear — if unconventional — core principles. Namaste refers to these principles as their six pillars: peaceful school culture; nutrition, health and wellness; language and culture; movement; balanced learning; and collaborative practice.

Slade founded Namaste with the goal of providing an environment in which health and wellness principles were a part of the school’s mission, as well as a personal mission for individual school staff.

And the staff makes it a personal mission to embody the Namaste way. During a short break in between classes on a frigid day in January, several teachers gathered in a classroom to get in a quick seven-minute workout using a phone app. The teachers — and Slade — cycled through planks, squats and lunges, and it’s something they do every day.

Namaste Charter School embodies so many of the issues that are important to creating a thriving and healthy school environment: healthy food, physical activity and parent engagement. A visit to the school is a visit to a world where students get the nutrition, activity and support they need to succeed — in class and in life — and it works!

But don’t take it from us. The proof of Namaste’s model is really in the numbers: 86.9% of Namaste students met or exceeded state standards on the 2012 Illinois Standards Achievement Test. For CPS as a whole, that percentage was 74.2%.

During the next several weeks, we’ll be taking a deeper dive into some of Namaste’s successes with getting students to eat unflavored yogurt, improving students’ access to water, professional development and parent engagement.