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Natchez’s Gilmer McLaurin Elementary named ‘The Healthiest School in Mississippi’

NATCHEZ — Gilmer McLaurin Elementary School has been named “The Healthiest School in Mississippi,” the Blue Cross & Blue Shield of Mississippi Foundation announced Wednesday.

The award carries a $50,000 prize to enhance the school’s wellness programs.

“It feels great! It feels healthy!” said McLaurin Principal Britaney Cheatham upon learning her school had won.

Cheatham said the prize money would be used to purchase playground equipment, workout equipment and possibly a pavilion with shade to block the sun on the school’s playground area.

Other winners of the sixth annual Healthy School Awards announced Wednesday include DeLisle Elementary School (Pass Christian School District), Moselle Elementary School (Jones County School District) and St. Martin High School (Jackson County School District). Those schools will each receive $25,000 for their respective wellness programs.

Cheatham attributed McLaurin’s win to dedicated staff and students, including Coach Lacie Johnson who has been hands on with the school’s health and wellness program day in and day out.

“We applied last year, and we fell a little short of the $50,000, so the team got together and looked at some of the critiques some of what they did do and some of our shortcomings were the challenges so they started a little bit earlier the year preparing, so they didn’t give up,” Cheatham said. “They stayed in the fight but they just had some feedback in looking at they needed to do to improve the next go round when they submitted in October.”

Johnson said initiatives at the school this year that attributed to the school’s success included nutrition programs and fitness programs that included students and faculty.

“We had to do a lot through our P.E. program, our health classes and with teacher health,” Johnson said. “We started a teacher challenge with health challenges anywhere between two or three challenges a week the teachers would do. We also had teacher-student basketball games.”

Cheatham said McLaurin’s health and wellness program began four years ago.

“We funded a garden initiative four years ago and that started the vision through Master Gardeners, Mississippi State Extension Services just some locals, who were partnering with our school at that level,” Cheatham said. “Our Brother’s Keeper was one of them, so it started really small, a class garden that led into the healthy initiative where they were planting cucumbers and onion and carrots and cabbage and the students started cooking those healthy items at the school level like taste and sample type things. It just went from there.”

The Healthy School Awards are judged by an independent panel of Mississippi leaders in education and youth services. The judges for the 2020 Healthy School Awards were Dr. Ira E. Murray, president and CEO, United Way of the Capital Area and Dr. Aleshia Hall-Campbell, executive director, Institute of Child Nutrition.

The Healthy School Awards Program is also supported by the Mississippi Association of School Superintendents that has provided a platform to promote the Program statewide and to acknowledge winning schools during its annual conferences.

Each winning school will host a Healthy School Awards Celebration Day to publicly recognize their achievements in creating a healthy school environment.

The Blue Cross & Blue Shield of Mississippi Foundation’s Healthy School Awards Program recognizes and rewards public schools with health policies and programs that promote healthy eating, physical activity, staff wellness, tobacco-free lifestyles among students and staff, and parental and community involvement. The criteria for this award are based on state and national school health standards. The goal of the awards is to motivate Mississippi schools as they create and maintain healthy school environments. Healthy schools to help students achieve full academic potential and support them in developing lifelong healthy behaviors.

“A special shout out to the health and wellness committee at our school the administrators, the staff, the students and the families that we serve,” Cheatham said. “We couldn’t do it without all hands. We are truly a campus that believes in being connected, and we want to make sure that Master Gardners, My Brother’s Keepers, anybody who had hands on it, get a tank you for your support. We look forward to staying healthy at McLaurin. We are going to use this money to move even further and hopefully you will see us in round two next year.”