If you're hungry, sick, not fully awake or afraid of being bullied, paying attention in class is the least of your worries.

The Student Wellness Leadership Council, a collaboration between local health and wellness organizations and Missoula County Public Schools, is trying to shift school culture around physical fitness, nutrition, personal health and behavior.

“What we know is that healthy kids are better learners,” said Mary McCourt, school wellness coordinator with the Missoula City-County Health Department, and a member of the council.

The effort began five years ago, when Let's Move Missoula partnered with MCPS for a summit on childhood obesity. As the discussion got underway, University of Montana professor Steven Gaskill came forward with a 2007 study he had conducted in MCPS and Frenchtown schools. He found that students with the lowest physical activity had the lowest grade point averages: about 2.7 on a 4.0 scale. Those with more physical activity had higher GPAs, about 3.1. The same was true regarding attendance.

A 2014-2015 MCCHD report found that nearly one-third of Missoula County third-graders were overweight or obese.

Personal health refers to each individual student’s health: allergies, diabetes, chronic health problems, etc. Behavior focuses on mental health and substance abuse. In June, 11 MCPS schools earned recognition at the Montana Behavioral Initiative awards ceremony.

The council doesn’t have funding. Instead, organizations bring what they're already doing to the table to figure out what they can do in schools.

The council includes MCPS, Let’s Move Missoula, MCCHD, American Heart Association, Eat Smart Missoula, UM, United Way of Missoula County, hospitals, nutritionists and more. They report to the Graduation Matters Missoula executive committee.

"When we asked kids who had dropped out of school some of the factors that led to their decision, a lot of that was health-related, including depression, obesity – which can lead to bullying and absenteeism, because who wants to go to school when you're being made fun of and taunted – and substance abuse on the parts of the students and their caregivers that interfered with their ability to get to school," said Susan Hay Patrick, United Way CEO and chair of the GMM executive committee.

"We realized that if we're really looking at the whole student, we have to look at health," Patrick said.

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McCourt said Missoula is considered a physically fit and active community.

That’s true for these people, she said, holding her hands about a foot apart. “But what about these families out here?” she said, expanding the gap. 

The past two years, 600 teachers countywide were instructed on “Brain Break” and “TAKE10,” models for classroom-based physical activity. Let’s Move Missoula coordinator Lisa Beczkiewicz calls them “dosages of physical activity.”

Children need those small breaks, McCourt said. In fact, so do adults.

They encourage active recess. A “perfect physical activity day” for a child, McCourt said, would be walking to school, brain breaks, an active recess in the morning, an active recess before lunch, brain breaks in the afternoon and physical activity after school.

Let's Move Missoula and MCCHD surveyed Missoula County teachers this spring, with 83 percent saying they have more classroom physical activity than they did two years ago.

Of those who offer four or more breaks, 98 percent reported improved student attention, 96 percent reported improved behavior and 97 percent reported improved learning.

“We’re tickled with these results,” McCourt said.

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Nutrition seems to be a more difficult shift.

School meals are healthier now, said Eat Smart coordinator Rebecca Morley, thanks in part to the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Smart Snacks in School rule, which went into effect in 2014-2015. Any food sold at school during the school day has to meet nutrition standards.

It’s the food that competes with school food that’s tricky (snacks, classroom parties, fundraisers, etc.). It’s relatively easy to make elementary schools compliant – they don’t have vending machines or school stores – but middle and high schools are tough.

"I don't want to be the person who says 'I'm here from Graduation Matters and I want to take away your cupcakes,' " Patrick said.

Instead, it's about introducing options. Over time, the hope is that students will more often than not choose the healthier option.

"It's not like with tobacco and getting people to quit smoking," Patrick said. "There's one enemy with tobacco. But with a more sedentary lifestyle, you can point your finger at everything: increased use of electronics, the way food is marketed to kids, a decline in physical activity in the schools."

A “perfect nutrition day” looks like a child getting a healthy breakfast at school, fruits and vegetables as snacks, and recess before a healthy lunch.

“Culture shifts are never easy. Seat belt use, for example,” McCourt said. “Really hard at first and then it got rolling. I think we’re right at the top of the hill, and we're ready to roll down.”

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Council members say this collaboration stems from Graduation Matters.

“When Graduation Matters was created, it opened the district up to the community,” McCourt said. “It’s a really nice marriage of the community and the district. We shouldn’t expect the district to be experts in physical activity and nutrition. This is the only place we can reach these kids.”

The council acts as the “clearinghouse” for MCPS, said Carol Ewen, the district’s student wellness coordinator.

"It's confusing for the community: how do we enter into a school and be efficient in what we're doing," she said. "It's really hard for an outside agency to come in, know where to go and know how to impact a school. They don't know who to talk to or what to do. This helps us be more user-friendly with the community ... and as a district not feel so inundated by all these different agencies wanting to come in."

This coming school year, there will be a new push to get kids moving before school. They’ll encourage students to walk or bike to school (Safe Routes to School maps are on the MCPS website).

That feeds into attendance.

“If kids are excited about coming to school to participate in the activity before they go to learn, they actually might come to school more often," Beczkiewicz said. "That's our hypothesis."

They’ll continue Brain Break trainings, and active recess in the elementary schools. K-2 students don’t typically have a problem in that arena, McCourt said. They’re itching to get to recess. But as they grow up, their activity levels go down. Bringing in balls, jump ropes, hula hoops and other activities gives kids options.

The council is looking for volunteers and business sponsorship, including an option for a business to "adopt" its neighborhood school. Call the Missoula City-County Health Department at 406-258-4770 for more information.

"It's changing the culture, and that's like turning around the aircraft carrier," Patrick said. "You can do it, but you can't do it quickly and you have to bring people along the way."

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Reporter for the Missoulian