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Lakewood Ranch schools chosen to implement Brain Health Initiative collaboration

The School District of Manatee County will work with Brain Health Initiative to create a better learning environment.

Stephanie Peabody's Brain Health Initiative has launched a collaborative program with the School District of Manatee County. (File photo)
Stephanie Peabody's Brain Health Initiative has launched a collaborative program with the School District of Manatee County. (File photo)
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Side of Ranch: Jay Heater
Side of Ranch: Jay Heater

It was in March 2019 when we first heard about the Brain Health Initiative coming to Lakewood Ranch in an attempt to influence how the world views brain health and to affect changes that could make positive impacts on our society.

The plan involved a multigenerational, decades-long study with the major players being the Academy for Brain Health and Performance and Massachusetts General, which is a Harvard Medical School teaching hospital.

The initial excitement was considerable. Schroeder-Manatee Ranch had committed $600,000 to the study. At that point, SMR already had led the formation of the Lakewood Ranch Brain Health Coalition, comprising 22 stakeholders including Lakewood Ranch Medical Center, FCCI Insurance and the Lakewood Ranch Business Alliance, to help lay the groundwork for the initiative.

It was ambitious, grand and somewhat sketchy.


Skeptics question value

For skeptics, it could have been another silly study that burns up millions of dollars to uncover facts already known by seventh graders: Smoking is bad for your brain health. Drinking is bad for your brain health. A better diet and exercise can improve your brain health.

Our world is full of silly studies. Consider an Australian study in 2015 — the results were published in the Journal of the American Medical Association — that told us fans can actually cool you down.

It was understandable why some people might question the importance of the BHI.

The initial support wasn't surprising, though, as you had a study that was attached to Harvard. That's instant credibility. Then you have the community — affluent people who embrace healthy living. The study would follow 3,600 Lakewood Ranch residents of all ages and demographics. 

It all made sense. This could be, literally, life changing.

Unfortunately, most of us like to see results in rapid-fire fashion. We fall asleep when a movie takes longer than two hours. How do we last through five years of study and research? How about 10 years?

We were told we would see the Brain Health Innovation Lab, a multidisciplinary community of global researchers and professionals who will propose, financially support and execute research studies related to promoting and sustaining brain health. But at this point, the Bran Health Initiative doesn't have a Lakewood Ranch office.

It's been three years now. We've been waiting.


Schools for BHI

But just when our attention was ready to turn elsewhere, the Brain Health Initiative and the School District of Manatee County made an announcement this week about a collaboration that could have major implications when it comes to the Brain Health Initiative's impact on the community.

Brain Health Initiative founder and Executive Director Stephanie Peabody said the school district was selected to execute a pilot Schools for Brain Health program.

The hope is that building a brain healthy school environment will produce a model that can be replicated by any school throughout the country. Unlike the long-term study that began in 2019, this program could offer results and feedback that should generate immediate support and excitement.

Bradley Warren, the principal of the Lakewood Ranch Preparatory Academy's lower school, is among those most excited about the collaboration.

Lo and behold, when nobody was looking, the Brain Health Initiative was collecting data about ways to make a positive impact on schools' learning environment. 

Warren has been talking to Peabody for more than six months about the opening of his charter school in August. The discussions have been about colors, textures and lighting. They have talked about snacks and lunches. They have looked at furniture and considered what activity to do during brain breaks during the school day.


Unique environment

"It's going to be a unique environment," Warren said, adding that he looks forward to Lakewood Ranch Prep being a model brain healthy school from the moment it first opens its doors.

"Consider that diet honestly isn't something most people will focus on," Warren said. "We are working with our potential food vendors, which we have down to two. They have the understanding they will be working closely with BHI. It will be healthy grains, lean meats and not overly processed foods.

"Stephanie (Peabody) helped us solidify our colors. Bright blues, greens and oranges were better, she said, and they give the kids more energy. What do we do with our brain breaks? Stretching, deep breathing, yoga. She has been meeting with our parent groups and that has been very exciting for them."

He said the BHI's suggestions won't just affect students from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. at school. He expects the brain healthy environment to have a ripple effect that will be felt at the students' homes. Warren is considering a cooking class for parents at the school that could be part of a parents' personal plan.

A BHI release said several evidenced-based suggestions for students, teachers and parents have been proven to increase skills development, cognitive training and social-emotional learning skills. Those involve better nutrition, physical activity and developing a more conducive learning environment.

Other Lakewood Ranch schools chosen to participate in working with BHI are Lakewood Ranch High, B.D. Gullett Elementary and Dr. Mona Jain Middle School. Unlike Lakewood Ranch Preparatory Academy, which is integrating BHI suggestions from its opening day, the other Lakewood Ranch schools will collect feedback from its students, parents and staff before making any environmental changes.

"The parents will have to opt in," said Cynthia Saunders, the superintendent of the School District of Manatee County. "This will not be a standard curriculum — the parents can choose. One of the things we are trying to develop is the child feeling good about what is going on in life. But right now this is all a concept. Additional research is needed. Time will tell. We are receptive."

The feedback is being collected during the summer break.

"Hopefully, we can put initiatives in place in the fall," Saunders said.

Lakewood Ranch High Principal Dustin Dahlquist said no concrete changes are being made at his school yet. He is waiting for the BHI to analyze the data being collected.

However, he is looking forward to going over the suggestions.

"Based on data we collect, we will select a few (initiatives)," he said. "Say nutrition. How can it affect brain health in conjunction with our food service?"

He expects the Schools for Brain Health program to eventually make a major impact on the community.

A BHI release noted the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and the Children's Hospital Association have declared a national emergency, saying 1 in 4 children is experiencing a surge of depression, anxiety, trauma and other disorders.

"This isn't just a Lakewood Ranch issue," Dahlquist said. "It's pervasive across the country. So being part of a prestigious group, with the doctors and experts in the (brain health) field, is pretty impressive. This will affect our region, state and potentially the nation. It's exciting for our community, and we want this to be part of the solution. It is not every day you get to participate with these kind of individuals."


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