Most adults would jump at the chance to take a longer lunch break or more time to unwind at work. But what about kids in school?

At the beginning of the school year, the Anchorage School District implemented a pilot program in 21 schools, adding more recess and lunch time while cutting time from other classes.

The program caught the attention of Juliana Cohen, an adjunct assistant professor of nutrition at Harvard.

"So Anchorage is really innovative in that it's currently the only school district in the nation that is really pilot testing the impact," Cohen said. "So it's really interesting I think even on the national level to think about what are the implications to something like this. What are the challenges to implementing it and what are the benefits?"  

Cohen works in the Department of Nutrition at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. She is also an assistant professor of health sciences at Merrimack College.

The pilot program was of such interest to Cohen that, with the help of grants, she volunteered her own time to travel to Anchorage and take a closer look at the program. 

"This evaluation is being done completely independently so I'm not receiving any funding from the Anchorage School District," Cohen said. "Every penny really needs to go towards the kids so I'm volunteering my time on this project. I'm very fortunate that my department back home is funding my plane ticket and for me to stay here and I'm volunteering my time because I think that this is really important for us to learn about this evaluation."

While in Anchorage, Cohen visited six schools in the program. She spoke with the district, school officials and parents.

"Our hope would be that we're not having to eliminate something and more so maybe evolve something," Sand Lake Elementary parent Rick Peterson said.

Peterson said he's happy to be a parent at a school that is willing to look into new things and working to better the education of Anchorage kids.

Carey Carpenter, a member of ASD60 — a parent-led group promoting wellness and fitness — said she's noticed a difference in her kids since the program started. She said they've come home happier and more energetic.

"If we really want kids to learn reading, well, you can either try to teach them over a 90-minute period in which they don't get to do anything else or you can make sure that all of their needs are met," Carpenter said, "So when they are learning reading they' re much more efficient at it. They're ready to learn."

Cohen said the issue is nationwide and sometimes the perceived challenges outweigh the perceived benefits. But, she said there's an opportunity for educators to learn from Anchorage.

"What I think is really interesting is that I'm seeing very different things even within the same school," Cohen said. "I'm really learning about how much it can really depend on the day. You know, some days are just a lot tougher than others where kids really need that exercise time even more and some days where kids are a little bit calmer. It sounds like there's are a lot of innovative ideas going on here in Anchorage to how to get that time for the kids."

Cohen sent a preliminary report to ASD and is currently working on the finalized version. She hopes to publish the data she's collected so others can learn from what Anchorage is doing.

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