Alisson Bonner, counselor at Columbia Elementary School, is recognized with the Physical Activity Leadership Award from SHAPE America organization

The Society of Health and Physical Educators (SHAPE) has selected Columbia Elementary School counselor Alisson Bonner as the Physical Activity Leader (PAL) of the Year for 2020 in Washington state. According to the SHAPE announcement, “the PAL award recognizes an individual who exemplifies leadership within the PAL Learning System, embodies the Let’s Move! Active Schools spirit, and champions a comprehensive school physical activity program within his or her respective community.”

Alisson (Ali) will receive her PAL award at the SHAPE Washington conference in March 2021. Melanie Flink, physical education teacher and 2015 recipient of the Mabel Lee SHAPE award, initiated the nomination.

Bonner’s unique combination as an exercise science graduate alongside her Masters degree in counseling makes her an outstanding proponent for the “whole child” approach in education. She is a wellness and a physical activity champion. She has been with the district since 2018, serving first as a home health tutor and a substitute counselor. She was hired full-time as Columbia’s  school counselor in August 2019. In her first year in the district, she was a leader on the district Playworks team, has championed the innovative national program called The Daily Mile, USA, and was an important member of the pandemic wellness team, leading the charge for professional development on action-based learning and self-care tips for staff and families.

According to Jessica Sankey, Executive Director of Operations and Wellness, Bonner has accomplished much in her short time in Bellingham Public Schools. “During the pandemic closure alone, Ali has been a leader on the wellness team,” Sankey said, “vetting content for social media posts, designing wellness courses, and coordinating an awesome online Playworks training for recess staff.”

In 2018, Bonner volunteered with the district to enhance data collection for fitness assessments for elementary physical education. She is passionate about supporting quality data collection and reporting for physical activity and health for students, and has worked closely with data specialist Charlotte Davis in Research and Assessment to collect physical activity data in the same location as other assessment data. “Her dream is a local ‘state of play’ report that shows the intersection between physical activity for kids and their health, well-being and academics,” Sankey said.

Bonner has also served as adjunct faculty in the Whatcom Community College parenting education program, has led after-school sports enrichment programs at Parkview Elementary and has coached community youth sports for the last six years. She is also a mother of three with children attending Parkview Elementary and Whatcom Middle School.

How does your background in exercise science feed/inform your current work as a counselor?
When I started working at Columbia Elementary School last fall, kids on the playground would often ask “Why is the new counselor playing tag with us?” Although I am a counselor by training, I often draw on my undergraduate exercise science background in my work, which includes playing tag with kids as often as possible! But, why?

As a counselor, my objective is to help students lead the most productive, fulfilling lives as possible, which includes supporting their academic, social-emotional and physical development. Exercise, and active-based learning activities, embedded into counseling lessons and student interventions, are extremely powerful tools to teach self-regulation, self-awareness, social awareness, and build relationships skills. Neuroscience has demonstrated that daily short bursts of exercise have incredible power to also improve mood, concentration, attention, cognition, can help regulate depression, anxiety and to build lifelong healthy habits for all students.  Implementing The Daily Mile, playing tag with kids at recess, using the gym for active counseling lessons, using movement as calming techniques, and adding a sensory pathway to our school hallway, are just some ways I’ve been able to use my background in exercise science to also support social-emotional learning. I harness the power of exercise to support kids in their journey to becoming active, healthy individuals whenever possible.

Your work with The Daily Mile, USA is foundational for health advances in kids. In a utopic world, with enough time and energy for staff, how would you integrate this into curriculum across the district?
The Daily Mile is just one of many innovative ideas that have the potential to transform student lives, acknowledging that we have a new generation of kids who are moving less, sitting more, and facing more mental health challenges that ever before. The Daily Mile is a simple daily movement program aimed to get students walking, jogging or running 15 minutes a day, three to five days per week during the school day. It is free, flexible, and accessible for all students at any fitness level. This simple program can increase movement opportunities for kids by 45 minutes to an hour each week, ensuring all students get a jump start toward reaching the recommended 60 minutes per day of exercise, not just students that have the means to access outside recreational opportunities. It is a wonderful complement to PE, adding valuable movement time for kids when teachers feel their kids most need a brain boost. Several staff at schools around our district have already successfully integrated The Daily Mile into their classroom routines by scheduling the program into their daily plan. This year at Columbia we also demonstrated it was possible to align this program with social emotional learning (SEL) lessons. It was a valuable tool for building relationships with students and heart-warming to watch students connect with each other and with students across other grade levels on their daily runs.

If money and time were no object, how would you see a school day unfold for optimum health and wellness?
For optimum health and wellness, I could see kids benefiting from more frequent movement breaks throughout their day with access to a greater variety of movement options within the school buildings. Alongside The Daily Mile, other innovative ideas include the creation of movement labs, with options such as pedal desks and flexible seating, and sensory pathways inside and outside of every elementary school. Explicit, ongoing education for students on the BIG 4 Wellness themes of the interconnectedness of mental/emotional health, physical activity, social connection and reflection would also be vital.

More frequent access to physical education classes for our youngest students could also be beneficial. Additionally, expanding ongoing professional developmental opportunities for staff on the interconnectedness of exercise and learning and practical ways to integrate active-based learning activities into the classroom would enhance staff knowledge. Finally, increasing after school, enrichment programs that offer daily movement or sport activities could also open up more student access to physical activity opportunities. These are just some big dreams I have for the future of wellness for students.

What would you like to share about your time in the district and about receiving this award?
When I interviewed at Columbia, I made my passions and ideas for wellness pretty evident and it was so exciting to get to implement some of my new wellness ideas once they hired me.

Receiving the SHAPE award was such a heartfelt surprise, especially as a counselor having recently joined the district. I have been passionate about advocating for physical activity opportunities for all students as an integral aspect of wellness, social and emotional health for years, but it’s not a journey I’ve been on alone. I had the good fortune to collaborate with so many talented, knowledgeable elementary PE teachers in our district, along with support from our Executive Director of Operations and Wellness Jessica Sankey. In addition, Columbia classroom teachers, the district wellness team, researchers at the Sports Institute at UW Medicine, and the support from Columbia principal Aaron Darragh have all been important colleagues on the same journey. Many have taken time to hear out my new ideas for wellness and champion them along the way. So many great strides have already been made in our district regarding physical activity — everything from strider bike units, to bike rodeos, to free middle school sports — and I look forward to dreaming up new ideas to increase movement opportunities for elementary students, as well as new wellness opportunities for students and staff  alongside this wonderfully supportive district.

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