Off to save the English language

Educators design program, biking to raise awareness

By Katheran Wasson Published:

Steve Stewart will climb onto his bicycle next week for a 3,600-mile tour across 10 states to bring attention to an educational program he designed that pairs phonics with physical activity.

“Sound Off! Movement Adventures” turns kids into secret agents as they work to save the English language from a former agent gone rogue.

The video series debuted Monday at Second Street School, as Stewart, dressed in all black, led kindergarten, first- and second-graders in their first mission.

Stewart has stockpiled six weeks of vacation time for the trip, which he’s named “The Integrity Challenge.” The idea is to promote the program, which he’s offering at cost to schools nationwide for 60 days.

He’s traveling to the capitals of the 10 states with the highest childhood obesity rates, pulling a cart behind him with his belongings. He must average 100 miles a day to meet his goal – he realizes how crazy that sounds.

“I don’t ride bikes, either,” he said, with a laugh, after the kids headed back to class Monday. “I started training two months ago.”

Stewart, 41, is already in shape, but he knew he needed to prepare for his journey. He spends three hours a day on a stationary bike and rides on the road two days a week, averaging 60-70 miles per trip.

His itinerary will take him from Frankfort to:

>Springfield, Ill.

>Little Rock, Ark.

>Austin, Texas

>Baton Rouge, La.

>Jackson, Miss.

>Montgomery, Ala.

>Atlanta, Ga.

>Nashville, Tenn., and

>Charleston, W.Va.

He plans to finish the tour in Washington, D.C. on the Friday before Election Day. The marathon trip would take about 60 hours by car.

“My goal is just to spread the word,” he said. “It’s just a way to get out there and meet the community.”

Stewart, who has a degree in special education, started building “Sound Off! Movement Adventures” 12 years ago when he worked at a school in Tallahassee, Fla.

He was focused on fitting more physical activity into the school day when his superintendent asked if he could incorporate reading to take advantage of a grant the school district had received.

“I just took everyday activities we were already doing – worksheets, learning centers, small group activities – and started playing with them in a video format, trying to get it in a form that would be usable,” he said.

“It eventually morphed into this.”

Stewart left the classroom five years ago to spend more time developing the program. He’s back in his hometown of Frankfort, working for the Kentucky Higher Education Student Loan Corp. at night and visiting schools during the day.

He’s collaborated with other educators, including Frankfort residents Kim Willhoite, principal of Clear Creek Elementary in Shelby County, and her husband, Rusty, and Katie Havelda-Dent, a school counselor in Bourbon County.

Web designer Larry Stafford and videographer Austin Wilder have produced the 70 DVD series and soon-to-launch website.

Stewart has funded the project mostly on his own with the help of some investors, who agreed he could sell it at cost if he wished.

The program could eventually cost a full price of about $1,500 to generate a profit, he said.

But he’s offering it at cost for 60 days beginning Oct. 1 – $250, including a money-back guarantee. That fee would allow him to pay back his investors, he said.

When he arrives at each capital city, Stewart plans to reach out to local schools, media outlets and others to promote the program.

He also plans a campaign on Kickstarter, a website to fund creative projects through donations. For a $250 donation, Stewart will give a copy of the program to the donor’s chosen school for free.

“We want to be able to say that we did everything we could to offer this at an affordable price and get it in as many kids’ hands as possible,” he said.

Stewart says the goal of the program is to reinforce what students are already learning – and get them moving.

It’s designed for teachers to use twice a week for 20 minutes to supplement their usual lesson plans. It can also be used in physical education classes, after-school programs or daycares, he said.

SSS is one of seven Central Kentucky schools piloting the program this fall.

The kids who tried it out Monday walked or ran in place as they practiced their “k” sounds, jumped up and down like kangaroos and quickly crouched to the ground to hide from the rogue agent.

SSS Principal Travis Harley said the secret agent theme is a hit with kids, and it gives them a chance to move around and learn reading skills simultaneously.

“There’s no downside for us,” he said. “It’s just one more way we can get kids moving and physically active and engaged all day.”

Harley said it’s crucial to keep young kids moving throughout the school day. Besides the health benefits, it helps them pay attention to their teachers and cuts down on behavior problems, he said.

Kids at SSS get 30 minutes of recess a day and gym class every third day. They are also “highly encouraged” to participate in other programs that pair learning and movement, he said.

“It’s not only wise, but also a best practice to have stopping points or physical activity breaks throughout the day so that kids don’t become disengaged,” he said.

“It’s harder to restart a kids’ motor after it stops, and if they’re constantly moving through the lesson that doesn’t happen.”

Stewart said he has a year’s worth of informal data that compares two similar classrooms, one that implemented the program and one that didn’t. The kids in the classroom that used it earned an average score of 30 on a reading test compared to 23 in the other classroom, he said.

The results of a formal study are pending, he said.

“It gives kids another 20 minutes of exercise two times a week, it’s academically sound – it makes sense,” he said. “This stuff works, it’s solid – I wouldn’t put it out there if it wasn’t.”

Visit www.integritychallenge.com for more information and to follow Stewart on his trip.

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