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ELEVATE: Health Emphasis Transforms School


Maryetta expected to receive Safe, Healthy Schools distinction

STILWELL (Nov. 4, 2019) – The center of Maryetta Public School reverberates with cheering and splashing as children swim a relay race in the indoor pool. Every Thursday during her physical education class, Harlie Smith hopes for a turn at the diving board. This is her happy place.

A kid swimming“I’m not as bored after recess or P.E., so I pay more attention in class instead of being tired. It makes being in class more fun,” the seventh-grader said.

Every Thursday, Harlie waits to take that leap off the diving board. The steps taken to get her to that point have been no less a leap for the community.  

Maryetta Public Schools, a small district in Stilwell, is a leader in offering healthy opportunities to its students. Its initiatives are of particular urgency, given the grim statistics the county faces. Rates of poverty and crime are high in the town. Nearly a third of Adair County residents live in a food desert, areas that lack affordable fresh produce, and 40% qualify as obese.

“Doing something about these challenges requires monumental work for a community. This is certainly not something you can change in a year, or even a decade. It’s generational work,” said Levi Patrick, assistant executive director of curriculum and instruction for the Oklahoma State Department of Education (OSDE).

To turn things around for its families, Maryetta school leaders began assembling initiatives to tackle problems plaguing their community. Over time, the district has been awarded more than $1.4 million in grants to build a network of healthy options in food, exercise and learning. Key improvements include before- and afterschool programs, made possible by a 21st Century Community Learning Center grant, and walking trails, fitness equipment and playground improvements, made possible by a grant from the Tobacco Settlement Endowment Trust. The school also revamped its cafeteria to include a salad bar and other healthy options.

A girl spinning on new playground equipmentNow a Certified Healthy School with an excellent rating from the Oklahoma State Department of Health, Maryetta is expected to add another safe and healthy school distinction next year with the new Programs of Excellence. The aim of the OSDE initiative is to highlight areas of focus and celebrate exceptional school programs that foster a well-rounded education. Beginning in 2020-21, a school’s distinction as bronze, silver or gold in a variety of programs will be visible on its report card, which can be found at In addition to safe and healthy, areas of distinction include fine arts, computer science, English language arts, math, science, social studies and world languages.

A recipient of the federally funded OSDE Champions of Excellence grant, Maryetta has found new ways to keep children focused on being active at recess and to reduce bullying. In fact, behavior referrals on the playground have been cut in half.

Harlie’s favorite recess game is gaga ball, a gentler but more physically demanding version of dodgeball. Children of all fitness levels can compete in gaga ball, which is played outdoors inside a small fenced area. Harlie acts as a junior coach on the playground, facilitating structured recess activities like gaga ball and helping younger children with conflict resolution. Training staff to be recess coaches and reinforcing those concepts with middle school mentors has created a playground culture where all kids feel included and skills like leadership, teamwork, communication and problem-solving are encouraged.

Carlene Yell, an administrator at Maryetta, said the changes have had a dramatic effort on learning long after recess is over.

“When they come into the classroom, their brains are actively engaged; they’re ready to start learning,” she said.

Yell said lifestyle changes are sticking at home too. On Sunday afternoons, she sees parents and kids walking together on the new trails looping the school. And Harlie said her favorite food at home is tacos, but she likes salad too. Her go-to snack is now bananas and strawberries.

The partnerships Maryetta has forged with state agencies and community leaders has allowed the school to take small steps toward an enormous goal. Lisa Pivec, senior director for public health for the Cherokee Nation, said the tribe has partnered with the schools in Adair County for the last 25 years, including work on projects that stress the importance of physical activity and nutrition.

“It’s so important to be involved with schools, especially in the rural areas, because they are the hub for everything. We’re able to reach community members with that work, as well as the students and their parents,” Pivec said.

Patrick said collaboration is resulting in significant changes to promote a culture of healthy choices in the Stilwell community.

“Our core belief is every child deserves a champion. You can tell that the folks in Maryetta are playing that role. At a state level that’s what we want to do as well. We want to be a champion for those school leaders who are trying to make a difference.”


Kids playing with a ball
Middle school students act as “junior coaches” for elementary students to help them learn the rules of structured games on the playground at Maryetta Public School.
2 kids swimming and passing a baton
Maryetta has an indoor pool, where students can swim during their P.E. classes.
Kid on top of a foam block
Three-year-olds in Maryetta Public Schools’ preschool program receive time in the psychomotor lab where children learn how to be safe when they’re active.
Kids playing with a ball outside
Students at Maryetta Public School play gaga ball, a variation of dodgeball.
Kids playing in a gym
Three-year-olds in Maryetta Public Schools’ preschool program receive time in the psychomotor lab where children learn how to be safe when they’re active.
A kid hanging from a playground bar
Football players train on new workout equipment at Maryetta Public School.

Annette Price is communications and constituent services specialist at the Oklahoma State Department of Education.

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Last updated on November 5, 2019