Grants in Place Spotlight: Learning Healthy Living in Rural Kansas

A Grants in Place award powers an action-packed learning festival for students at Kanopolis Middle School in Rural Kansas.

May 23, 2024 |
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Learn about Healthy Living Day, a project at Kanopolis Middle School in Kanopolis, KS. The project was led by Karl Dawn Stover, the Career and Technical Education (CTE) Coordinator, agriculture education teacher, and FFA advisor at Ellsworth Junior Senior High School. Karl Dawn is the Kansas recipient of RSC’s 2024 Grants in Place program, which provides awards to teachers in each of our hub regions to undertake a Place-Based Education project in their learning community.

Kanopolis Middle School sign.

On a bright, warm early May afternoon in Kanopolis, Kansas, there are no kids to be found in the classroom. To have better luck finding Kanopolis Middle School students, a better place to look would be at key locations spread around the town of about 500. Instead of learning within four walls, the students are dialed into today’s lessons outside of the fire station, the lawn of the community center, sprawling in the expanse of a local park, or on the ball field across from school. Their teachers for the day are the local high school students, and today’s goal is a practical lesson on healthy living, diet, and exercise.

This first-time, special event was made possible by Rural Schools Collaborative’s Grants in Place program, generously funded by the Patterson Family Foundation. Karl Dawn Stover, the Career and Technical Education (CTE) Coordinator, agriculture education teacher, and FFA advisor at Ellsworth Junior Senior High School, is this year’s recipient of the award from RSC’s Kansas Hub. Karl Dawn co-led the event with Mandy Burger, the Family and Consumer Science teacher and Family, Career, and Community Leaders of America advisor at Ellsworth. The Grants in Place Fellows Program is offered annually to rural classroom teachers who teach in school districts that are located in one of the Rural Schools Collaborative's Regional Hub areas.

Spencer Clark, RSC Kansas Hub Lead, Karl Dawn Stover, and Savannah Franklund after the Healthy Living Experience.

While participating in three separate stations around town, broken up into their respective grades, Karl Dawn shares that students are “learning about healthy living– whether that be nutrition or just having an active lifestyle. Students are ending the day hopefully with more knowledge and getting their heart beat up a few notches.” With the sun shining on the end of the semester, the day was also an opportunity for students to blow off steam, run around, and interact with local high school students.

That the day would be led by high school students was crucial for Karl Dawn. The event provided an opportunity for students to, as Karl Dawn notes, “really step up and be leaders, and step out of their comfort zones.” It was, additionally, a chance for them to gain practical experience in planning, organization, public speaking, and leadership. Responsibilities included planning stations, designing t-shirts, and setting up materials. At each station, community members, teachers, and school board members looked on as adult observers, to make sure that everything went smoothly and deal with any safety or bigger concerns that could arise. “This event was an opportunity for high school students to grow and see their education in a different light by taking the reins and teaching those younger children about something that will impact them their whole life.”

“Rural America is one of the most special places to live and work. People truly care about each other and support one another. This really was highlighted by the students, mentor team of Mandy and I, and the community members, staff, and school board members coming out to support our students at growing their knowledge of making themselves healthier. We can only hope they take this knowledge on and share it with their families.”

Karl Dawn Stover (left) and Nell Goss (right), a freshman student who helped lead the event.

Nell Goss is a freshman from Kanopolis, and works with Karl Dawn in FFA as well as at school. She was a group leader for the healthy living day, traveling from station to station with the sixth grade class. Nell notes that a day like today is meaningful for her “because the kids get so excited when you're taking them out of school, but they're learning and they're doing so much extra . . . it's so impactful and when you get to be older, and you see faces and they recognize you. It's just so meaningful that you did something and they remember you.”

At one station, students learned about ‘eating the rainbow,’ exploring the benefits of eating different colored foods and the importance of a variable diet. This was followed by an obstacle course, with a fruit kebab as the prize for successfully negotiating the hurdles, cones, and ladders laid out by the high school leaders. At another, students broke into smaller groups and played a trivia game about foods, which served as a medium for an engaging discussion about the various food facts that each of them knew. They walked (or just as often, ran) between stations, wandering throughout the town sidewalks, demonstrating the value in being active, and even more so with friends.

Mallory Dobrinski (right) and a class mate passing out breakfast sushi, a popular treat during the Healthy Living Experience.

Mallory Dobrinski, a 10th grader, notes that the students’ favorite activity involved learning about healthy breakfast options: “they talked about what a good healthy breakfast was and what a bad breakfast would be. And we made them breakfast sushi, which is a burrito with a tortilla with peanut butter and banana put into it, and then just cut into little circles.” All three events, which were both fun and educational, demystified the food system and were a great way for the high school students to apply their knowledge from nutrition class.

This is especially important for students who may not have easy, consistent access to healthy foods, a common problem in rural areas that can be considered ‘food deserts.’ Karl Dawn sees an event like this as an opportunity to break out of the limits and challenges that geography can pose: “we just don't have a lot of options in terms of shopping; this really kind of opens eyes up to the possibility of what healthy living can look like and how it is accessible in a small community. You just might have to be a little more creative.”

Creative is as good a word as any to describe this event, which brought together community members, middle school students, teachers and administrators, and high school students. Nell and Mallory note that bringing people together and fostering untapped potential is common for Karl Dawn. Nell describes how she has opened otherwise closed doors: “She's super impactful in my life, and she takes us all over the state, giving us more opportunities to learn [through FFA].” Mallory echoes those sentiments, adding that this year “I’ve traveled more here than I have in my entire life. We've done this. We've been to Indianapolis, we've been to Texas to do different things that are like this. We do a lot of fun stuff at the school. She's put on a few things– it's really amazing with different involvement.”

Students are excited to share what they know about fruits and vegetables at the "Eating the Rainbow" station.

Nell and Mallory see this day as a microcosm of both Karl Dawn’s passion for rural education, and the power of community in a small town. “I feel like being able to walk around the town was pretty amazing. It's very small so you can normally get to where you're going in 5 to10 minutes. We had fun running. The kids enjoyed it a lot” notes Mallory. Nell offers a similar sentiment, highlighting the value of getting kids into the community, reflecting that she will remember “the smile on the kids faces after they ran or they did something fun. All those kids are just so lit up and full of energy. It's just so awesome that they have that energy and they're excited about this because that's really what makes this special.”

Rural Schools Collaborative is thrilled to support Karl Dawn Stover of USD 237 through the Grants in Place Fellows Award. While involving multiple grades and making lessons student-led, healthy living day is a school-wide project making a community-wide impact. Rural Schools Collaborative is extremely grateful for the Patterson Family Foundation’s support of the Grants in Place Program. RSC would also like to thank Spencer Clark, of the Kansas State University Rural Education Center, for leading our Kansas Hub and joining us on the visit to Kanopolis.

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