Thursday, November 26, 2015         

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Teacher turns kids into runners

Students at Keaau gobble up the miles, and test scores rise

By Leila Fujimori


Maile Bellosi, a fifth-grade teacher at a small, rural Hawaii County elementary school, has ignited a wildfire of interest in running, with hundreds of students now logging miles with her.

The results are noticeable — not just physically, but academically and socially.

"They love to run, don't need much equipment, and most of our students now are running barefoot or in socks or rubber slippers," said Bellosi, 35, a teacher at Keaau Elementary School.

This school year, 200 Keaau students ran or walked a combined 12,000 miles.

Of those, 130 were fifth-graders who logged 10,000 miles.

Albert Zuniga, 10, is tops in his class, running 110 miles this year, averaging three to four miles each Wednesday.

"It makes me feel energized," he said. "It makes me feel good inside. I feel fit and not like overweight."

He's gotten faster, he says, and has noticed his "calves are getting more muscles" and his feet are stronger.

Like many Hawaii public elementary schools, Keaau has no physical education teacher, because schools can choose how to allocate resources, and the Department of Education has no set standard for instructional time for PE.

So three years ago Bellosi got 18 of her students to run 1,000 miles.

She hooked up with Mighty Milers, a national youth running program based in New York that serves children of all fitness levels from pre-kindergarten through eighth grade in underserved communities. The organization keeps an online database where the children's miles are logged and provides rewards: Students receive a medal each time they reach 26 miles, equivalent to a marathon. Mighty Milers also donated PE equipment, 50 schoolbooks and 200 T-shirts to Keaau.

Now every Wednesday, Keaau's whole fifth grade runs during the last 30- to 45-minute period. Every sixth day, students get 100 minutes of PE and use it to run.

And Bellosi has signed up 500 Keaau students from grades 1 to 5 and a special-education class for next school year. Six other teachers will also participate, including a 60-year-old who walks in high heels.

"Some people run for health, some people run for medals," said Albert, who said he would like to get his friends to take part.

"I want them to get more energized and fit," he said.

Koren Ketano, 10, notices that after running and a short morning calisthenics program called Brain Gym, "I'm more awake and not asleep." He said he'll try out for track when he moves up to middle school this fall.

Running is his favorite activity, which helps with his soccer game.

"I'm going faster and getting the ball better," he said.

Kaylee Marques, 11, has logged 64 miles with friends and has gotten stronger and better at school.

"It was really fun," said the fifth-grader.

Makana Cruz, 10, said running 70-plus miles this school year has helped him loose weight and gain endurance. Now, when playing basketball or football, he said, "I'm able to run faster than most of the others."

Cruz said his math grades have gone up since last year, when they were average.

He's not alone.

Keaau's fifth-graders have the highest test scores in math and reading within the school. In a single year their reading test scores jumped to 71 percent proficiency from 55 percent, and math scores climbed to 68 percent proficiency from 58 percent.

"For any child, give them a chance to get into moderate to vigorous exercise mode for 10 to 15 minutes, then they sit down and they will concentrate," said Donna Ede, DOE acting educational specialist for health and PE. "They will focus. If they're antsy, that's how they will remain."

Ede said Dr. John Ratey of Harvard Medical School, an expert in exercise and the brain, spoke a few years ago at a Hawaii conference of "compelling studies that tell us that exercise does wonderful things to chemicals that increase brainpower and learning."

Bellosi, who was one of 10 children in a Kailua, Oahu, running family dubbed the "Motley Crew," tries to motivate by example, as did her parents, making it fun by running with the kids and dropping comments like "old lady coming through" as she weaves through the pack. There is no pressure nor drill sergeant tactics.

She points out that running doesn't require great skill or agility, and some prefer to walk and talk.

Bellosi said students more involved in sports and clubs are not only healthier, but also less likely to be influenced by negative things.

At Keaau, 75 percent of students are at the poverty level, predominantly from immigrant Filipino and Micronesian families. Many can't afford running shoes.

Because they have modest means, the students often have poor diets, with little fresh fruit and vegetables, Bellosi said.

"They have very little control over their circumstances and their lives, so we give them an opportunity to do something to make good choices."

A variety of programs is helping public school students. They include Kahoomiki, an after-school program in 172 schools that has a physical activity curriculum and a nutrition component.

The U.S. Tennis Association has a 10-and-under tennis program that also looks at nutrition.

One other Hawaii school, Keonepoko Elementary School, also on Hawaii island, participates in Mighty Milers, which is sponsored by New York Road Runners, which puts on the New York City Marathon.

"Our hope is that they love running so much, they take it up in their spare time," said Laura Paulus, spokeswoman for the New York Road Runners.

To sign up for Mighty Milers, go to

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