Illahee Elementary puts focus on fitness

School, community drive aims to create path for students

By Marissa Harshman, Columbian health reporter




• Illahee Elementary School is raising money to build a 1/5-mile fitness pathway. They hope to raise $30,000 for the project.

• For more information about donations, sponsorships and purchasing engraved bricks, visit or contact Brigitte Conrad at 360-903-7047 or bconrad3@hotmail....

Anne VanLaeken has seen firsthand the declining physical fitness of kids.

When VanLaeken began teaching physical education 25 years ago, kids were accustomed to running hard and fast for long periods of time.

Today, VanLaeken sees kids cry in fear during gym class because they’re unfamiliar with the feeling of their hearts beating fast and being out of breath.

This fall, only 27 percent of fifth-graders at Illahee Elementary School, where VanLaeken teaches, met fitness standards in four testing areas — aerobic capacity, push-ups, curl-ups and flexibility. But those test scores aren’t unusual; they’ve become quite typical among elementary school kids, VanLaeken said.

“Over time, there are fewer and fewer that pass all four,” she said.

The good news is the kids, with the help of school staff, are taking steps to improve their physical fitness. And VanLaeken hopes a school and community drive to create a fitness path on school grounds will only help to boost fitness.

“I’ve always wanted a path,” she said. “I wanted a place where kids could run continuously.”

A group of parents has taken on the task of raising money to create a 1/5-mile pathway to loop around the school’s soccer field. They expect the cost of the fitness path will be between $23,000 and $30,000. So far, they’ve raised about $13,000 through fundraising events, business sponsors and by selling engraved bricks that will be laid at the path’s entry.

They hope to have the rest of the money raised by the end of the month so the path can be built this summer. If not, the money will stay in its designated Evergreen School District Foundation bank account until enough money is raised to fund the project.

The school, which was built in 2001, sits next to Shahala Middle School. While Shahala has a track, it’s not a viable option for the elementary school students. They would need parental permission slips to leave the Illahee campus. Plus, middle school classes often use the track, said Erin Lucich, Illahee principal.

When the weather is nice, elementary PE classes will go outside if there’s enough space for a class and recess activities. If kids want to run at recess or before or after school, they can run in the grass field. But if it’s rained recently, the field is a muddy mess, Lucich said.

“It’s not the safest,” she added. “It’s pretty uneven.”

During recess, some kids play tag or hold races. But the kids who don’t like competitive games often just sit and talk, VanLaeken said. With a pathway, staff can encourage those kids to walk laps while they talk, she said.

“If we provided kids access and teach them about their bodies, they will make use of their bodies,” Lucich said.

VanLaeken is also brainstorming incentives to get kids moving once the path is in place, such as a mileage club where kids get small tokens for reaching milestones or a marathon board that keeps track of how many miles kids have run or walked.

If they can get the pathway built this summer, the project will tie in well with other efforts on campus to bring more attention to nutrition and physical health. This summer, volunteers are bringing the school’s garden back to life. Teachers will use the garden to educate the kids about how food is grown and about making nutritious choices during meal times. In the future, the school hopes to get the whole family involved with fun runs on the path and health fairs.

“The idea is to have a nice, cohesive package and empower them to make healthy decisions,” Lucich said.