Teaching Elementary Students To Go The Distance

In 2006, cross-country legend Reggie McAfee turned his love for running into Cross Country for Youth, an organization that teaches character while instilling healthy habits in school-aged children.

McAfee, a Hall of Fame runner, is spending his golden years bringing his amazing cross country and character development program to schools throughout the country. He started his program in 2006, in Charlotte, North Carolina, and expanded it to four CPS elementary schools in the fall of the 2019-2020 school year. Activities Beyond the Classroom supported McAfee in his efforts to get the program up and running in CPS.

Character Building Comes First

The core focus of Cross County for Youth is not running, it’s character building. “We want to catch the younger kids early on, give them the tools they will need later in life, and help them better perform in the classroom,” said McAfee. Lessons on topics such as discipline, respect, integrity, and perseverance are instilled in young students at a formidable age. Site Coordinators facilitate the classroom learning sessions and provide the coaches with the character message of the day, so that the coaches can reinforce those values during practice.

Young runners support their teammate while being handed a medal.

McAfee and his team created a 10-week curriculum and fitness regimen that focuses on instilling these character traits. Students met two times a week to practice their newly learned skills. Each 90-minute session includes 30 minutes of classroom instruction in the areas of character building and nutrition, and 60 minutes of distance running.

Many of the students who participate in Cross County for Youth are not on any sports team and have never experienced distance running before.  “We typically go after kids who are not considered athletic, and over the course of 10 weeks get them to the point where they can run two miles,” said McAfee.  Cross Country for Youth works with children with varied physical abilities, including students with handicaps, breathing difficulties (such as asthma), and other ailments, such as ADHD. According to McAfee, “elementary school kids run all over the place.” Thus, he decided to teach them to harness their natural energy by introducing them to the sport of cross country.

During each character-building session, students are taught about a specific topic related to positive behavior. The Site Coordinator defines the characteristic, then the students are given examples of the character attribute and provided with scenarios where they are asked how they would handle the situation. Afterward, the Site Coordinator helps them determine which decision demonstrates the highest form of the characteristic. After each session is completed, students are sent home with “Points to Ponder,” cards that let the parents know what their child was taught during the sessions.

Measuring Success

McAfee asked Alvin Jefferson, a retired professional with Xerox, to join the Board of Directors prior to the launch of Cross Country for Youth in 2006. Jefferson was a non-runner who went to college on a tennis scholarship. That said, he knew from working with McAfee at Xerox that McAfee was committed to excellence, and decided to accept McAfee’s invitation.

Together they came up with a strategy to measure the impact of the cross country program. At the beginning of each season, the Site Coordinators do a pre-screening, followed by a post-survey. In addition to measuring the students’ Body Mass Index, they track behavioral changes in the areas of physical activity, nutrition, and character.

Quite possibly, the best measurement of the program’s success is the essay submissions the organization receives. In these essays, young students share how this program has impacted them.

Cross Country teaches the great skill of running. I learned strength and stamina and got better at pacing. I also learned about nutrition and how it affects the way I run. Healthy food boosts energy for running long distances and I personally ate an apple before every cross country meet. By eating well and doing practice runs each week I improved my time from the first race. At the final competition, I was able the complete the race without walking.                                                                                                                                                                                                          -Finn, 6th grader at Fairview Clifton German Language School

Cross Country for Youth has helped me feel more confident in everything, even schoolwork. I
feel like I can get through more challenges without giving up or slacking effort. I try more and when I get stuck. Rather than just being stuck and putting the wrong answer, I’ll try to work hard enough to get the right answer.

-Theo, 4th grader at Fairview Clifton German Language School

Living Legend Pays It Forward

Reggie McAfee after he ran the mile in under four minutes

Reggie McAfee has a long-standing relationship with running. He grew up in Cincinnati’s West End, Mt Auburn and Avondale neighborhoods. He attributes his successful running career to a variety of opportunities that he was afforded at a young age. For example, when he was still very young, McAfee received a scholarship from Christ Cathedral Church to attend summer camp. “I will never forget that experience—it gave me the opportunity to see what life was like outside of the city.” During the hot summer months, volunteers from the Walnut Hills area opened up the track and worked with children, including McAfee. Furthermore, McAfee spent many cold winter days running on the indoor track at the YMCA on Central Parkway, in Over-the-Rhine.

After graduating from Courter Tech High School in 1969, McAfee went on to Brevard College, where he obtained the National Championship in the 1-Mile and 2-Mile competitions of cross country. While attending the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, McAfee made history, and became the 1st African American to run the mile in under 4 minutes!

McAfee Joins Forces with Activities Beyond the Classroom

Activities Beyond the Classroom Program Coordinator Rachel Stallings helps pass out medals at a Cross Country For Youth race.

When Reggie McAfee decided to expand his organization to the Cincinnati area, he reached out to his longtime contacts, Ozie Davis III and Roland West, and the pair put him in touch with Activities Beyond the Classroom. ABC helped McAfee introduce his program to leaders inside Cincinnati Public Schools, and helped fund the pilot program. As a result of ABC’s commitment to ensure that all CPS students have access to extracurricular activities, the funding provided ensured that there would be no cost to the students who were interested in participating in the newly-added Cross Country for Youth program.

McAfee is appreciative of the overwhelming support the Cincinnati running community has offered to him and his team. One example of this support came from Bob Ronker, a former business owner and a member of the Board of Directors for the Flying Pig Marathon. Ronker coordinated a group of volunteers to manage the races and competitions for the team.

McAfee and his team are looking forward to expanding the number of schools in which the program is offered in the coming years. He knows firsthand how teaching young students about positive behaviors, nutrition, and distance running can transform their young lives. McAfee closed by saying, “I believe if we give them a healthy start, that there is nothing that they can’t do!” At ABC, we couldn’t agree more.