Get Ready! Get Set! Go, Chicago Run! A local non-profit creates a program that gets city kids running—and chasing important goals. by Meghan Schmidt | photo by Tommy Giglio
In spring of 2008, Chicago International Charter School teamed up with Chicago Run to begin a running program at CICS Bucktown and CICS Longwood. (CICS Wrightwood was added in fall 2009.) The timing of the partnership was beneficial for both parties: Chicago Run, a newly formed not-for-profit, was charged with bringing running programs to students from disadvantaged communities. Meanwhile, Chicago International was looking for ways to increase physical activity for students, as physical education classes are limited in what they can accomplish without supporting activities and programs. Strong partnerships tend to form between organizations that share a mission or vision. In the case of Chicago Run and Chicago International, both organizations were 28
motivated by a disturbing trend: According to the Journal of the American Medical Association, between 1980 and 2004 the percentage of children ages 6-11 who were overweight or obese increased from 6.5 to 19 percent. Knowing these data and that obesity is a leading risk factor contributing to diabetes, heart disease, and strokes led CICS Bucktown and Longwood to embrace the Chicago Run program. Here’s how it works: Chicago Run identifies a teacher at each campus—usually the Physical Education Instructor—as the program coordinator. Campus coordinators are coached and receive professional development from the Chicago Run staff by way of a “train the trainer” method. The coordinator selects a target group, say fifth– graders, and starts incorporating Chicago
Run activities into the school day, 15 minutes per day, 3–5 days per week. Chicago Run founder Alicia Gonzalez points out that a successful program rollout depends on the site coordinator. “He or she really has to be on board with the program,” Ms. Gonzalez says. “[The coordinator has] to be the cheerleader. If you’re easily overwhelmed or set back by space constraints, then you may have a hard time getting the program to stick.” (One example of space constraints: Some schools’ programs rely upon students running in the gym, where 30 laps equal one mile.) For some CICS students, the running program began with setting a goal of one half-mile walk/run or a brisk walk around the campus gym. Over time, and with encouragement, students began to run outdoors around the school building.
“I didn’t think I could run this far.” “What? Me…a runner?” “I don’t know how.”
Setting and meeting running goals increased students’ self confidence; by the end of 10 weeks, students had run a total of 26.2 miles —the equivalent of a marathon! To keep kids motivated and teachers engaged, Ms. Gonzalez says she wanted to add a technological and academic layer to the program. “[For safety reasons,] the kids are limited by the boundaries where they can explore, yet their neighborhoods have rich histories that are worth exploring. So my team created a computer application that the kids could use as a digital learning medium. The kids login and enter their running data, tracking their progress towards running a full 26.2-mile marathon. There’s also a visual animation component where they get to ‘run’ through historic Chicago neighborhoods. As they ‘run’ the virtual race, historic landmarks pop up, their school pops up, and they can also see where other Chicago Run-participating schools are located.” In addition to the virtual maps, students receive incentives as they reach certain mile marks. For example, wristbands are awarded at 10 miles and lanyards are awarded at the 15-mile marker. The Chicago Run team and CICS teachers also developed teaching resources that align with Illinois State Learning Standards. Chicago Run has made great strides in engaging the larger Chicago community. In November, Ms. Gonzalez and her team hosted a Washington Park Fall Fun Run. Participants included student and family participants from CICS Bucktown, Longwood, and Wrightwood, as well other Chicago Run-participating schools. Ron Huberman, CEO of Chicago Public Schools, jogged along with the young runners.
Ms. Gonzalez’s vision is clear: “Chicago Run has been on a path of rapid growth since the launch of our programs in March 2008 because of the positive feedback from the schools and community groups as well as the cost-effectiveness and simplicity of the programs. The goal when starting out was to ‘track’ these kids from the early ages in elementary school through high school by providing age-appropriate fitness programs that benefit them physically, cognitively, and behaviorally. The two programs that we have created in the last two years for elementary kids and middle school youth were also created to cater to the specific needs of the Chicago community, addressing not only the fitness element but also digital learning, team-building, social empowerment, and youth development. The vision is to eventually introduce running to every child in the city of Chicago as a means to improve health, increase self-esteem, and enhance academic performance.” That vision translates into hundreds of kids who no longer say they don’t know how to run or can’t run. Instead, Chicago has a new population of students with healthier bodies, greater curiosity about their neighborhoods, and stronger minds. It’s a vision well worth chasing. Left: ALICIA GONZALEz, EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR, CHICAGO RUN Right top to bottom: CICS BUCKTOWN STUDENTS WORKING OUT IN THE SCHOOL GYM. PARTICIPANTS FROM THE WASHINGton PARK FALL FUN RUN.