The school was the only school in Volusia County that made the list of "America's Healthiest Schools."
Teachers at Port Orange Elementary are teaching students about making healthier choices, and their efforts have won them national recognition.
Alliance for a Healthier Generation, a national organization dedicated to helping children create healthy habits, recognized 461 schools from 26 states as "America's Healthiest Schools." The list included Port Orange Elementary, which was one of 22 schools in Florida and the only one in Volusia County.
The initiative combats child obesity, which affects 1 in 5 children in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. About 30% of children between the ages of 10 and 17 in Florida are overweight or obese.
Port Orange Elementary was listed this year after students and staff met rigorous criteria for the distinction. In 2017, the school began serving healthier meals and snacks, encouraged students to move more, improved health and physical education and empowered school leaders to set an example.
Making changes took some creativity. Salads and fresh fruit were displayed in front of unhealthier snacks, the school had occasional "fun runs," where students run laps in lieu of going to art or music class, and they installed water bottle refill stations at the water fountains, said Julie Kirton, Port Orange Elementary physical education teacher.
The school also hosted a Take a Hike Fundraiser to raise money for shades in the school's court and teach the importance of sun protection. It also hosted a "Biggest Loser" type competition, which encouraged healthy weight loss among staff. Principal Tennille Wallace, for instance, lost 100 pounds.
Kirton was elated when she saw the school on the list after the hard work put in by students and staff.
She said she attended school in Volusia County. As a teenager, she battled anorexia, an eating disorder. As she became healthier, she set a goal to help students learn to love and care for their bodies.
"It's a really great feeling for me to be able to help them," Kirton said.
After the school began participating in the program, students became more interested in physical education and joining sports teams, chose healthier snacks and food during lunch and started drinking more water.
The school earned a bronze award this year, but they hope to bring in more programs to win gold in the future.
Soon, they will teach gymnastics and yoga. They also intend to highlight mindfulness among students, which will help during stressful testing seasons and throughout the school year.
"It helps them with any anxiety they may be experiencing at school or at home," Wallace said.
Susan Freeman, area superintendent for Volusia County Schools, thanked Wallace and Kirton for going above and beyond to help their students.
"It's wonderful that the impact they're having is not solely academic, but on the whole student — mind, body and spirit," she said.