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Bernie Lubell /MEDILL

Benny the Bull joined kids at Namaste Charter School to celebrate their Gold Distinction. He called on one student to name the three levels of fitness at Namaste: cardiovascular, muscular and flexibility.

Bernard A. Lubell/MEDILL

Allison Slade, founder and principal of Namaste Charter School, leads the students in their daily morning exercise to the song "One Day" by Matisyahu.

Grabbing the “Bulls” by the horn: Southwest Side school receives top honors for health innovations

by Bernard A. Lubell
Feb 10, 2011


Bernard A. Lubell/MEDILL

Government officials and Benny the Bull joined students at Namaste Charter School to congratulate the kids.


Bernard A. Lubell/MEDILL

Students at Namaste start their day with 15 minutes of yoga.


Bernard A. Lubell/MEDILL

Namaste was founded on principles of peace, health and wellness.


Bernard A. Lubell/MEDILL

A student's letter talks about a healthy lunch.

Sixth-grader Jamar Gayles climbs six flights of stairs to reach Namaste Charter School’s gym each morning. Like all students at Namaste, he participates in an hour of physical education, not including his daily recess.

He outlines this in his letter selected to be hand-delivered to first lady Michelle Obama.

On Thursday, Namaste became the second school in both Chicago and the Midwest to be awarded the Gold Distinction Award as part of the HealthierUS School Challenge, the United States Department of Agriculture’s highest honor. The school also celebrated the one-year anniversary of Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move! campaign.

“It means that they are serving the most nutritious food, they’ve got a great exercise program, and a lot in the area of nutrition education,” said Julie Paradis, administrator of the USDA Food and Nutrition Service, who will be hand delivering the winning letters to the first lady. “It’s thrilling because we don’t have many gold distinction schools around the country.”


Founded seven years ago on principles of peace, health and wellness, Namaste is a lottery charter school on Chicago’s Southwest Side that educates children “from the inside out.”

The school’s mission is to use health, physical fitness and nutrition as an avenue for student success, according to Allison Slade, founder and principal. Some unique foods Namaste serves include tilapia and butternut squash.

“Every day, students have a wellness block where they get nutrition, health, or peaceful people tools education,” Slade said. “We see a lot of really mature, self-directed students, solving their problems with each other.”

Victor Rodriguez, 12, is one of those students.

“I’ve learned how to be a healthier person not only physically, but mentally,” Rodriguez said.

“Namaste has taught me a lifetime … at my old school, they weren’t challenging me enough. But here, it meets my needs not only inside, but outside the class.”

Namaste’s strides in health and wellness serve as an example to other Chicago schools. Students who have learned the skills at Namaste can become ambassadors to their families and communities.

“The idea is we want to have an educational arm where we’re educating children about physical activity and proper nutritional choices, but also taking it home,” said Dr. Ian Smith of the President’s Council on Fitness, Sports and Nutrition.

Smith said he would like more schools in the city to take the initiative. “I think that if we can get this trend going within Chicago and the rest of Illinois, we’ll see more improvement not just in our kids, but in our families overall.”

This is the first generation that is predicted to not outlive their parents because of rates of obesity and type II diabetes, said Smith.

The Let’s Move! campaign was started by Michelle Obama on Feb. 9, 2010, to eliminate a generation of obesity. In the past three decades, childhood obesity rates in America have tripled, according to the USDA. Nearly one in three children in America is overweight.