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Pilsen Principal Sets Gold Standard for Students' Nutrition

By Chloe Riley | December 31, 2012 12:14pm

PILSEN — At Irma C. Ruiz Elementary, principal Dana Butler takes a mind and body approach: What goes into the students' stomachs can be as important as what goes into their brains.

The principal at Ruiz for nine years, Butler oversees a school where 90 percent of its predominantly Hispanic student body qualifies for free or reduced-price lunch.

"We know the importance of trying to have a healthy mind and a healthy body. And that most certainly will translate into kids being better ready for their academic school day," Butler said.

Butler, 50, who comes from a family of teachers, taught at Ruiz for nine years before becoming first assistant principal and then head principal in 2004. He's a popular figure. Kids shout out "Mr. Butler! Mr. Butler!" when they see him in the hallways, and he responds by calling the students by name.

His attention to food can be seen on the daily lunch schedule posted on the school's website. Featuring locally sourced food items, a typical lunch at Ruiz might include a garden veggie salad with pita chips or mandarin chicken with brown rice.

Through a grant this spring, Ruiz was one of six schools to start a community garden with fruit trees and a vegetable garden.

Students use food from that garden in a program called Common Threads, which teaches cooking skills to students ages 8-11.

Last October, students and faculty from Ruiz gathered at the White House, where the school was honored for meeting the gold standard in first lady Michelle Obama’s HealthierUS School Challenge

The challenge, Go For the Gold, requires participating schools to have a combination of healthy meals and nutrition education plus physical education and activity.

“It’s a huge challenge to change the culture at a school,” said Rosa Ramirez, who helped organize the Go for the Gold program at Ruiz. “Teachers may be really accustomed to rewarding their students with pizza or candy.”

Butler also has partnered with Ramirez to implement the Fit to Learn program, which educates school administrators on the connection between health and learning.  

“The mark of a really successful school principal is their ability to see partnerships and leverage resources. He’s always searching for grants or programs and research he can bring to the school,” Ramirez said.

Butler said remembering his roots as a teacher is key to his current role as principal.

“I never have forgotten what everybody does,” he said. “I ask myself, as a teacher, if I had to do all of those things, what kind of supports would I want?”

In the nine years she’s been an assistant principal, Marla Elitzer said she has seen Butler often work around the clock to make sure his students get the best possible school experience.

“He brings Ruiz home with him because he cares so much,” she said.