School principals wear many hats, but rarely is one of them "aerobics instructor."

School principals wear many hats, but rarely is one of them "aerobics instructor."

It's 8 a.m. and Ruch Elementary School principal Julie Hill is up on the stage in the school gymnasium. R&B is blaring from the speakers, and Hill is kick-stepping, doing a respectable Jane Fonda imitation. Spread out in lines across the basketball court below her are 200 students — ages 4 to 14 — and the entire faculty, all following her in lockstep.

"I've read research that says when you start the day moving and breathing, it's just a benefit for everybody," says Hill. "Plus the fact that we're a community school, it's a great way to meet in the morning and say 'good morning.' I give the announcements, and it's nice to do the Pledge of Allegiance together."

So the kids don't get bored, the morning JumpStart program may consist of walking around the track for 10 minutes or other cardio exercises designed to wake up both mind and body.

Until this school year, the Ruch School didn't have its own physical education teacher. The rest of the faculty designed their own programs for PE class, for after school, and anywhere else they could add exercise. Working together, the teachers made health and fitness — and community-building — a school-wide focus.

This year's Halloween celebration, for instance, includes all the students — in costumes — running two kilometers on the school's cross-country trail. The gymnasium is open before school for informal basketball play. As the days get shorter, this gets increasingly popular.

Exercise makes the principal's job easier.

"I haven't seen a (discipline) referral yet, and we're almost at the end of the first quarter. With 210 kids, I think that's quite a success," Hill says.

Hill's partner in pushing the school's exercise agenda is math teacher — and cross-country coach — Scott Stemple.

When Stemple began teaching at Ruch — this is his ninth year — he had read the book "Spark: the revolutionary science of exercise and the brain" and begun to test its promise of improved mental health and balance on his students.

He found the book to be spot on.

"Exercise helps mitigate the effects of ADHD and other mental disorders," Stemple explains.

With daily exercise, including the morning JumpStart, says Stemple, "They focus more, they work harder, they're more social in their interactions with each other — less pettiness. Middle-school kids, in general, it's a tough age. They're stuck between being little kids and being big kids. "¦ This gives them something positive to focus on every day."

As a math teacher with seventh- and eighth-graders for a first period assignment, Stemple has found that exercise keeps the heads off the desks and behavior sociable.

"There's this social aspect: they have to interact with each other throughout the day," says Stemple. "They take pride in being in shape, and they bring that boost to their self-image and feel it in all their classes."

Exercise has become part of the school ethos.

"By interspersing exercise throughout the day, a social culture has been built," says Stemple. "What are we (as a school) good at? Let's all be good at it."

The results from his math class are hard to dismiss. In the past five years, tiny Ruch School has twice won the Rogue Valley regional "Math Counts," a statewide middle-school math competition, with teams composed of four students per school. Two Ruch students have also won the individual championship during that time.

What has Stemple beaming this week, though, is an award his cross-country team won. It is not an award for being the fastest, but one that Stemple believes proves the success of using exercise to build a school community.

Oregon's middle-school cross-country association selected the Ruch team for the annual sportsmanship award. After finishing the race, several Ruch students ran back to accompany the last-place boy in the race, so he wouldn't feel lonely or embarrassed about being last.

Daniel Newberry is a freelance writer living in the Applegate Valley. Email him at