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outside

I am typically not a fan of organizations using the “Report Card” device as a way to draw attention to their reports. Usually, I see organizations produce a report lamenting the work in a specific areas, looking to generate headlines like, “Organization X Gives Y Failing Grade.”

The recent ParticipACTION Report Card on Physical Activity for Children and Youth  does do some of that, but is far more nuanced.  While yes, it does give a D- to overall physical activity, there are good grades for a number of areas including youth participation in sports, support of parents, government and non-government investment and the role of schools.  The report lauds the physical education curriculum in each province, with special mention of Manitoba.

The most powerful part of the report was the focus on getting kids outside and letting them play.  Quoting the report:

We may be so focused on trying to intervene in our children’s lifestyles to make sure they’re healthy, safe and happy, that we are having the opposite effect . . .  We overprotect kids to keep them safe, but keeping them close and keeping them indoors may set them up to be less resilient and more likely to develop chronic diseases in the long run.

The report relies on a variety of studies that have a number of conclusions that, while not surprising, run counter to many current practices including:

  • pre-schoolers spend twice as much time being active when play is outdoors
  • students take 35% more steps when physical education class is held outdoors
  • Canadian kids who play outside after school get 20 more minutes of heart-pumping activity per day than those who don’t

One conclusion that I found particularly striking is that children and youth are less likely to engage in higher levels of physical activity if a parent or supervising adult is present.

With my Superintendent view, some of the takeaways for me include:

  • We are on the right track in our district (and others in BC) with outdoor learning programs – and we need to continue to encourage their growth
  • The growth of urban agriculture courses and school gardens is an important trend – outdoor learning does not just have to be about physical activity
  • We need to be careful that safety and liability concerns don’t unnecessarily block wonderful outdoor learning opportunities
  • We need to be sure that recess and other outdoor learning opportunities are valued and we need to remind parents that kids should get outside even when it is cold or rainy
  • There is going to be increased emphasis on natural elements in playgrounds moving forward
  • The urgency around physical literacy is inclusive of doing a better job with structured opportunities and also ensuring kids have unstructured free play opportunities

The report takes the bold position, “Access to active play in nature and outdoors – with its risks – is essential for healthy child development.  We recommend increasing children’s opportunities for self-directed play outdoors in all settings – at home, at school, in child care, the community and nature.”

My hesitation in reading the report is that some will suggest that we just have to go back to the “way it used to be when we were young”.  I am always concerned with this view.  The world today is different for kids than the one their parents grew up in – it is not as simple as turning back the clock; we also often have a habit of romanticizing our youth.  The answer around getting kids active is not telling people we just need to go back to how things used to be it is about building something new rooted in our current reality.

The entire report is worth reading, and there are some great resources to share with teachers, parents and others in the community (e.g. this Infographic and this tip sheet) .  Reading the report, and reviewing the data there is a strong case for broadening our current thinking about how we encourage  young people to be active.

And as we embark on summer it is a good reminder that we need to model the way with our kids and get outside!

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desk

It seems I can’t go a week without hearing someone say that “sitting is the new smoking.”  And I have one of those rather terrible city commutes – often over an hour each way – that is a lot of time sitting.  So, I have been intrigued watching the furniture revolution happening in offices and in schools.  I took the plunge last August and got a Varidesk.  It is an adjustable desk that will rise so you can stand and work and lower so you can sit and work.

And . . .. I wouldn’t go back.

What I have learned:

  • I never lower the desk.  I did a little bit when I first got the desk but it was done more as a novelty.  I leave it so I can stand and work.  If I want to sit, I unplug my laptop and sit in a chair.  I don’t stand all-day but I am definitely standing for the majority of time I am in my office.
  • The standing desk has increased my productivity.  I find I am far more focused and engaged when I am standing at my desk.  I have always been someone who likes to move when I work, so I will work intently for several minutes and then stretch / walk and then get back to work.
  • I have less back pain.  In the post-40 year-old world of mine, like many I have developed a series of regular aches and pains. Standing has lessened my back pain and overall I have far less pain than from sitting for long periods of time.  It did take a little getting used to the first couple weeks, standing all day, but it is now just my routine.  Having a gel mat to stand on also really helped.
  • I get more “steps”.  This may mean very little to many of you but I am very conscious about my daily step count that is linked to my FitBit.  Just by working standing-up I will get a couple hundred steps an hour – rather than the zero I get sitting.
  • I still have to do a better job of being conscious about my posture.  Especially in the afternoon I will lean on the desk when I work, and probably just replacing the problems of sitting with a different set of problems.

I find the efforts around learning spaces in our schools to be fascinating.  I love the variety of options we are giving students from bouncy chairs, to standing desks to quiet spots in the corner.  I have visited a number of classrooms at both elementary and secondary that are creating a variety of desk options and also looking seriously at how they use space for learning.  It is not just our schools that are looking at standing desks.  Here is a recent story on the use of standing desks at New Westminster Secondary School and a CTV story on their use across North America.

The changes in our classroom are clearly much more than just technology.

And admittedly as a sample size of one, I am finding the standing desk has really changed how I work – helping my health and making me more productive.

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kids-300x255

Outside of work, I spend many hours coaching my kids and other parents’ kids in school and community sports.  There is a  lively debate right now in the youth sports community about the value of focusing exclusively on a single sport from a young age. I wrote on the topic in a 2012 post on the Multi-Sport High School Athlete, and in 2013 on Being a Sports Parent Today.  Part of what really draws me to this challenge in youth sports are the parallels and similar debates in education.

I find the conversation around sports and whether we should be keeping score and ranking players and teams from youth, akin to the conversation around the purpose and appearance of elementary school report cards. Letter grades are very much like keeping score; those who argue for them remind us of the competitive nature of the world we live in and the need to let kids know where they stand, with those opposed contending the real competition is with oneself, learning and improving skills and the relative comparison to others is really secondary.

I also find the challenges for new providers in the youth sports game very similar to what has happened and is happening in education.  A generation ago it was the local community sports associations who were organizing youth sports. If you wanted to play hockey, soccer or basketball there was really only one option available.  Now, there are dozens — traditional community providers sharing the stage with other non-profit organizations, for-profit enterprises, as well as a series of new sport providers in as many sports capacities.  Similarly, in education we see public education challenged by independent schools for market share, and even less traditional options for learning like for-profit tutoring companies and completely virtual options like the Kahn Academy.

Youth sports, like learning options for young people, is in a time of transition — and it is part of what makes it an exciting time.

With that as a backdrop, here are my recent comments I shared for an article by Don Fennell, Sports Editor for the Richmond Review, Year-round sports mode: top athletes, coaches share their thoughts. I have also included the comments of my wife and oldest daughter on the topic from the article because the thoughts are really ‘all in the family’.

The shifts happening in youth sports are far more complex than just being good or bad, says educator Chris Kennedy, who is also a former president of the B.C. High School Boys’ Basketball Association.

“With the opportunity to go year-round, we have seen the traditional season disappear for almost all sports,” he says. “And there are some real concerns. There is a lot of research that early specialization leads to fatigue and burnout and overuse injuries. It also seems to serve the adults more than the kids. Kids are looking to have fun and often it is the adults’ competitiveness that is driving the decisions their kids make. There is also research that suggests adults who specialized in one sport growing up have higher rate of adult physical inactivity.”

Kennedy says the related debate with increased early specialization is whether sports should be more or less “score-focused” at younger ages. He thinks youth soccer and basketball have it right: de-emphasize scoring at younger ages and focus on development.

“This doesn’t mean we don’t want kids to be competitive, but do we need to keep score and have a focus on winning and losing all the time?,” he asks. “I like the race to nowhere metaphor and how it applies to youth sports. Parents are killing themselves to get their kids to so-called elite training that is getting in the way of being a kid and what is really the goal.”

Kennedy’s wife, Stephanie, is equally passionate about the topic. She has always believed that kids should be exposed to and participate in as many different sports as possible while they are young. And for a variety of reasons.

“I know through my own four children that all kids have their own structural make-up, both physically and mentally, and that different sports may cater to these differences,” she says. “I truly believe there is a sport for all kids, but it may take some effort and time to find out what that is. And in today’s age of childhood obesity, low activity levels, access to electronics and the resulting de-socialization of youth, sport can play a key role in reversing these trends.”

Stephanie, who runs Panther Cheer Athletics, is also adamant that kids participating in as many sports as possible when they’re young aids their physical development. This doesn’t mean, she says, they must do multiple sports at the same time, but within a calendar year should shift from one activity to another.

“This allows children’s young bodies, which are often growing and changing so rapidly, to adapt and hopefully grow stronger with minimal injuries,” she says. “I know from personal experience as a provincial level gymnast that I enjoyed the opportunity to play intramural sports (such as volleyball, basketball and soccer) in high school but began to resent the fact I wasn’t able to participate in these in any large way as gymnastics took most of my time. It also alienated me from my peers who played more conventional team sports and were members of high school teams. “

The eldest of the couple’s four children, Elizabeth, 12, thinks those who focus on one sport may quickly tire of it, burn out and then have no other alternatives.

“It is also more likely you will be injured because you are using the same body parts over and over,” she says. “(Alternately), if you play a lot of sports you have the chance to meet a far more diverse group of people and learn a diverse group of skills.”

Elizabeth says unfortunately sports out of the mainstream don’t get enough exposure and because kids don’t know about them “they may never try a sport they could be really good at or have a passion for.”

“Coaches in some sports are also organizing so many practices (young athletes) don’t have time to try other sports,” she adds. “I think there will be many more overuse injuries and once their career in that sport is over they won’t know what to do because they will feel it is too late to try a new sport.”

The entire article is worth a read here.  It is interesting that there is general consensus from all those interviewed of the value of young people playing a range of sports. So, I am left wondering, if we all believe this to be the right approach why then is this topic such an issue?  I think we may know it to be right on the theoretical level, but in the heat of  “keeping of with the Joneses” we have trouble letting our actions reflect this approach.

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health

There are observations often made about young people today. Young people today are “taking more risks” or “using more drugs”.  The observation becomes generalized that young people today are “just not as good” as young people of the past. The observations are insinuated quietly and, as isolated incidents emerge, they become referenced through the media in a way to punctuate the negative narrative. More observations are then made about why the incident has happened; maybe it is all the video games, or a shift in societal values, or that we are raising a generation of young people who are just not quite up to standard of those before them.

Well, this is where the latest survey results from the McCreary Centre Society  become interesting.  The McCreary Centre Society “is a non-government, non-profit organization committed to improving the health of B.C. youth through research and community-based projects.”  Since 1992, they have had students complete surveys on a range of topics related to comprehensive school health. The latest results published this year are the fifth such set of results based on the surveying of about 30,000 students in Grades 7 to 12.

Unfortunately, the media release which accompanied the results from the McCreary Adolescent Health Survey did not seem to generate a lot of discussion. Quoting from the release:

Results show that youth are generally making better choices about risk behaviours than they have in previous years. For example, a lower percentage of students reported having tried tobacco, alcohol, marijuana, or other substances than their peers five and ten years ago. They were also more likely to engage in injury prevention behaviours, such as wearing a seat belt and not driving after drinking.

These choices may also be reflected in better health outcomes: students were less likely to have had a sexually transmitted infection or to have been pregnant or caused a pregnancy, and a smaller percentage reported serious injuries than in previous years.

Other encouraging news from the survey included a decrease in the percentage of students who had been physically or sexually abused, as well as in the percentage who had been sexually harassed.

Now, that is a story that just doesn’t fit in with the observations. In fact, the kids today are actually doing pretty good.

The McCreary data is exceptionally useful for school districts in our planning processes. We have already spent quite a bit of time dissecting data and there is more time that will be spent still to come.  With thanks to Maureen Lee, our District Administrator (all data charts and graphs below are Maureen’s) we are looking at current areas of strength, concern and noticeable trends.

There has been tremendous work around school safety over the last decade. From the province’s ERASE Bullying Strategy, to numerous local school and community initiatives, there has been a sustained focus in this area.  Our data is trending in a direction that shows these efforts are paying off:

 

safety in schools

The “%” listed is for 2013 and the “%” bracketed is for 2008.  In all areas of the school, students are reporting they are feeling more safe and the numbers reporting they feel safe “Usually” or “Always” is over 90 per cent.

As we look at substance use the statistics are flat for marijuana, with three in 10 young people every having used it; tobacco use is slightly less with one in four having tried smoking. Of other drugs, it is prescription pills that still standout — although down from 17 per cent in 2008, the number is still at 10 per cent.  This has been a concerted area of work in our community with the school district working with West Vancouver MP, John Weston, the West Vancouver Police Department, as well as other partners to raise awareness on this issue.

The alcohol data shows the number of students who have tried alcohol has dropped by about 10 per cent and there has been a slight increase of students who have not “ever tried alcohol”.  It is also interesting to note, of those who have used alcohol, the age of first use has risen — so, young people are choosing to drink in lower numbers and are also choosing to drink later:

 

alcohol

In looking at the foods our young people are consuming, some of the messages around fruits and vegetables seem to be sticking.  Our young people are also drinking more water than when previously surveyed:

food

 

One final chart, which really struck me, was the one on Internet safety (below). Over the last five years, technology use in the hands of young people has exploded; it has become increasingly mobile and we are also encouraging students to bring their devices to school. In spite of this quick and huge growth in technology, students are reporting they feel safer with fewer feeling unsafe online and fewer reporting they have been cyber bullied.  Again, this is an area of huge investment between schools and communities and it does appear to be paying off:

 

cyber safety

As with learning outcomes, we have to be careful when we talk in percentages. If four per cent of students are feeling unsafe, these numbers represent real children and anything below 100 per cent (feeling safe) tells us we still have work to do.  We should be pleased with the story our young people are telling us and we can also take this as a clear message we need to keep doing what we are doing — our interventions are working.  There are also other areas we must continue to focus on including mental health, a lack of sleep and physical activity.

The Provincial BC Adolescent Health Survey is available on their website here.  The McCreary Centre Society will also be producing documents for each of the 16 health service delivery areas.

Of course, there are areas we still need to focus on and even in areas of strength, we must remain diligent. But, we do need to tell the story of our young people today and their health — it is a good story, an improving story and not just an observation.

 

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fitbit_2776467b

As I walked into our Soccer Academy class, the students were getting ready for their workout and part of that process is to adjust their heart-rate monitors.  The teacher, Jesse Symons, had an iPad to monitor the heart rates of all students in the class.  As he reviewed the live data, it was interesting to see what he was looking for.  As the intensity of the workout increased, he was looking for students who were raising their heart rate to a place where they were pushing themselves.  He could review the data of the entire class and see how much time each student spent in each “zone”.  Based on a colour scheme, red was the optimal zone for high intensity workouts. Also interesting to see was how quickly students’ heart rates would recover to a resting heart rate during breaks. This, as he pointed out, was usually a sign of strong athleticism, of an athlete who could quickly raise and lower their heart rate. Students who struggle to lower their heart rate (as activities slow down) are often not in as strong a condition.

Jesse Symonds reviews the live data

Jesse Symons reviews the live data

Of course, the next step is for students to understand the data.  Students are able to login to see their specific data and, as Jesse joked, the data doesn’t lie. It is early days yet, but there has already been some interesting findings.  For example, with Grade 8, high-level soccer players, there was a gender difference with many of the top female athletes not seeing their heart rates push to optimal levels for extended periods of time.  The fitness monitoring in the soccer academies is part of an Innovation Grant Program through the West Vancouver School District, with similar efforts also being made with Hockey Academy students.

Jesse talks about how heart rate monitors are being sourced with the Vancouver Whitecaps and the National Team. Combined with a GPS, the monitors give a full picture of their activity levels.  It is clearly a growing area in the science of sports and physical activity.

Personally, I’ve become convinced of the power of digital health tracking over the past few months since I started wearing my Fitbit. Actually, four of us have similar devices in our house — my wife and two older kids (ages 12 and 10) are also wearing these devices.  My Fitbit Force tracks my steps, distance, calories burned, minutes of vigorous activity and even my quality of sleep. There are dozens of these type of devices on the market with many more being promised this year. A report last week on wearable tech devices suggests these devices may see a 350 per cent growth in sales in 2014. I also think they have a huge potential to benefit students. For decades we have been encouraging students to keep logs and diaries of their physical activity.

Currently, in BC, through the Daily Physical Activity mandate, students track vigorous and sustained activity.  Anyone who has tried to keep an activity log is aware of its challenges. Logging the physical activity in a log book, or a computer is difficult to do (if not time-consuming) on a regular basis.  On the other hand, if all this data could be automatically collected, synced to our computers, iPhones, etc., we would be able to spend more time analyzing the data, rather than entering it.

In our house, we have become much more aware of our physical activity, how much of it is really vigorous and the role that sleep (or lack of it) is playing in our lives.  These are great conversations to have in our PE classes. Just as we want students to take greater ownership of their learning in Science and English and we see that technology as part of this overall plan, the same should be true for health education and physical activity.  We want students to own their own data, set goals, not in efforts to compete with others, but to better themselves.

There are concerns about wearable technology — that these type of devices, as well as others like Google Glasses and Samsung Smart Watches, are once again pushing technology into all aspects of our life.  I am always interested in technology when it can help do something we have always wanted to do but have not been able to without it.  I see the tracking of our health and physical activity in this category.  We want students to own their own learning and education and this includes owning their own physical activity and health. So, we need to find ways to integrate this emerging technology into our schools.

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Photo Credit:  Prasan Naik

Photo Credit: Prasan Naik

The first wave of national rankings from the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA)  are receiving a lot of attention, but there is some very interesting data which tends to emerge from these results over time, often informative and often challenging our assumptions.  This graph from the Key Findings document did just that (you may have to click on the image to enlarge it):

motivate

According to the PISA Reports, “Stratification in school systems, which is the result of policies like grade repetition and selecting students at a young age for different “tracks” or types of schools, is negatively related to equity; and students in highly stratified systems tend to be less motivated than those in less-stratified systems.”

This is the latest contribution in the forever-long debate about the streaming of students. It is interesting to see the negative relationship regarding motivation. The equity issue could be understood — as students are streamed, those requiring more assistance tend to not get it, and lower level classes may receive less experienced teachers and fewer resources. But, it is the findings around motivation I find very interesting. I have often heard (and have likely repeated) that enriched/advanced classes allow high achievers to work with similar learners, allowing another group of students to be the high flyers in the ‘regular’ classes — opportunities they may not have had without the streaming.  The PISA results tend to counter this. It is interesting to see that Canada is low in streaming internationally, but high in equity and motivation.  The current push in British Columbia and Canada, around personalization and differentiation, embraces the idea that there are different levels of learners learning together in a classroom.

I also recently read an article from author, commentator and sports contributor, John O’Sullivan, Our Biggest Mistake:  Talent selection instead of talent identification which Alison McNeil shared on Twitter. This article takes on a similar topic, in the sports arena.  In it, O’Sullivan describes the differences between those who select talent and those who identify talent:

Talent selection is the culling of players with the current ability to participate and be successful in events taking place in the near future. Talent identification, on the other hand, is the prediction of future performance based upon an evaluation of current physical, technical, tactical and psychological qualities. Talent selection is pretty simple; talent identification is an art. One yields great results today; the other builds elite athletes and winning teams for the future. Our current “win at all costs” youth sports culture promotes talent selection. When a coach is pressured to win by parents or a club, or when he or she feels the need to win to serve their own ego, that coach becomes a talent selector. When you are focused on talent selection, you are picking athletes to help you win now, and cutting ones that will not. You are looking at current athleticism, technical ability and traits to help achieve short-term success.

O’Sullivan concludes “the emphasis on winning prior to high school is destroying youth sports.” And while he is making his argument to a United States audience the same debate occurs in Canada. While the Long Term Athletic Development Stages are being adopted by many sports organizations, it is also being scoffed at by others who see the de-emphasis on competition at young ages as a terrible sign of the times. It is interesting to take O’Sullivan’s writings, and substitute “learner” for “athlete” and “student selection” for “talent selection”. Enriched classes are very much like our private, tiered sports programs.  I have heard similar arguments for streaming young people in sports as young as five, as I have with enriched classes — they allow the high flyers to play with others like them, and allow others to excel at a lower level without the high flyers present.

O’Sullivan makes the argument that U.S. (and I would say Canadian) sports programs are in deep trouble unless there is a radical shift away from talent selection and toward talent identification. I see this as a similar argument that the PISA results are making with learning around the world — those who select and stream talented students instead of identifying and personalizing learning are bound to have less equity and lower levels of motivation.

This is another example of how efforts in our schools like removing letter grades at younger ages, and focusing on learning, are similar to efforts in our community sports to remove the keeping score and tallying of winners at young ages. While some argue these efforts are reducing standards and rigor, research is showing we need to look at youth development differently.

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throw ball

There has been an important recognition in schools, particularly at the junior grades, that we need to be doing more to keep kids active.  In British Columbia Action Schools BC have been leaders in this effort.  They are, in part:

a best practices whole-school model designed to assist elementary and middle schools in creating and implementing individualized action plans to promote healthy living while achieving academic outcomes and supporting comprehensive school health.

Daily physical activity is a regular part of schools and “action breaks”, among other strategies, are regularly employed. All of these physical activity initiatives are popular with educators, and they are also supported by research in: Spark – The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain by John Ratey.  The good news is — it may be just working. Last week the Globe & Mail reported on a recent US study that teen obesity rates could be leveling off and young people may be doing more exercise. This is all excellent news.

But, back to my question — can they throw a ball?

With all of our efforts focussed toward increasing physical activity, some are lamenting the”sports” part of the physical activity is taking a backseat.  From baseball to soccer, basketball to tennis, schools are now seen less as places for young people to acquire sports-specific skills and that we are turning, instead, to the community for the development of sport-specific skills.  Of course, community sports are nothing new, but “school” sports like volleyball and basketball were, only a generation ago, exclusive to schools and are now taught at younger ages primarily in the community.  As well, groups like KidSport help bridge the financial barrier for some families when kids can’t participate in community sports.  Still, some will argue that sports aren’t a necessary part of our school system, but I think most would agree that the fundamental skills of running, jumping and throwing a ball are core skills we want for all young people. Canadian Sport for Life describes this in its Long Term Athlete Development Plan.

So, looking at our elementary schools, one key challenge is the lack of teacher training for sports skills. PE specialist teachers are exceptionally rare in the province and teachers either have to teach their own PE classes or swap with another staff member (e.g. Teacher A takes Teacher B’s art class while Teacher B takes Teacher A’s PE class).  Without the training, many elementary PE classes are high on activity but not so high on skills-acquisition.

Our district is part of a program trying to change this and is investing and partnering in programs that support physical literacy.  Diane Nelson, who is the Principal-lead on our Sports Academy Programs at secondary, is working with others in Metro Vancouver on a program partnering our Grades K-3 teachers with coaches who have strong skills in teaching sports-specific skills.  The three-lesson progression helps both teacher and students.   Chartwell Elementary Principal, Aron Campbell, recently blogged about the program, Physical Literacy:  The Other 3 R’s . . . Running, Jumping and Throwing.  And, over the course of the year, our K-3 teachers will have the opportunity to work side-by-side with Jesse Symons who is a head coach / teacher in the district’s Premier Soccer Academy. To quote from Aron’s blog:

Although some of the basic skills such as walking, running, jumping, hopping, throwing and catching may seem natural or innate in children, for many kids, this is not the case. Developing basic “Physical Literacy” ​is critical for kids to acquire in order to build an ongoing sense of athletic confidence, as they are exposed to more and more opportunities to be active and involved in sport throughout their years at school and beyond.  Whether it is organized soccer, t-ball, or games in a PE class or at recess, a firm grasp in ‘physical literacy provides the motivation that can be invaluable for kids in the future development of self-esteem and the pursuit of a physically active lifestyle.

And once students have these core skills at the primary level, it is a goal for our intermediate classrooms to continue the partnership with local sports organizations. It is not a new idea, but part of a systemic plan for elementary schools to partner with the local soccer clubs or tennis organizations in offering programs to students.  It is a win-win opportunity since most community sports organizations are struggling to attract young people and are facing declining numbers; by partnering with our schools, they can offer their expertise to all students and can ignite the passion of a student who will pick the sport up in the community. To me, it is an approach that has some real opportunities and we should try to tap into it.

It is absolutely important to recognize the great work being done to help our kids to become healthier, whether it is eating better or being more active. While some (albeit mostly south of the border) were recently bemoaning the narrowing of the curriculum that saw a reduction in physical activity, there is a realization young people being active is a key part of improving student success.

That said, the time is right to invest in sports skills for all young people in schools — not only because we are taking on the training of the next Olympians, but because these skills are also life skills and they are best learned at a young age as they expose students to sports and games they might not otherwise try. And, we can’t solely rely on the community for them.

Thanks to Diane Nelson, District Principal Sports Academies and the driving force in our district behind this work, and to viasport for their financial support.

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