Lakewood Ranch schools selected to implement collaboration with Brain Health Initiative | east county

Page of the ranch: Jay Heater

In March 2019, we first heard about the Brain Health Initiative, coming to Lakewood Ranch to impact how the world views brain health and create changes that could positively impact our society.

The plan involved a decades-long, multi-generational study, with key players being the Academy for Brain Health and Performance and Massachusetts General, a teaching hospital of Harvard Medical School.

The initial excitement was great. Schroeder-Manatee Ranch provided $600,000 for the study. At that time, SMR had already led the formation of the Lakewood Ranch Brain Health Coalition, comprised of 22 advocacy groups including Lakewood Ranch Medical Center, FCCI Insurance and the Lakewood Ranch Business Alliance, to lay the foundation for the initiative.

It was ambitious, grand and a bit sketchy.

Skeptics question the value

For skeptics, it could have been another stupid study, burning 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. Better diet and exercise can improve your brain health.

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

It was understandable why some people questioned the importance of the BWI.

The initial support was not surprising, however, given that you had a Harvard-affiliated degree. That’s instant credibility. Then you have the community – wealthy people committed to healthy living. The study would follow 3,600 Lakewood Ranch residents of all ages and demographics.

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

Unfortunately, most of us like to see quick results. We fall asleep when a movie lasts longer than two hours. How do we survive five years of study and research? How about 10 years?

We were told that we would see the Brain Health Innovation Lab, a multidisciplinary community of global researchers and professionals who will propose, fund and conduct research studies to promote and maintain brain health. But at this time, the Bran Health Initiative does not have an office at Lakewood Ranch.

It’s been three years now. We have waited.

Schools for BHI

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

The Brain Health Initiative’s founder and executive director, Stephanie Peabody, said the school district was selected to conduct 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 every school across the country. Unlike the long-term study launched in 2019, this program could provide results and feedback that should generate immediate support and excitement.

Bradley Warren, the junior high school principal at Lakewood Ranch Preparatory Academy, is one of the most excited about the collaboration.

Lo and behold, when no one was looking, the Brain Health Initiative was collecting data on how to make a positive impact on schools’ learning environments.

Warren has been talking to Peabody for more than six months about opening his charter school in August. The discussions revolved around colors, textures and lighting. They talked about snacks and lunch. They looked at furniture and thought about what activities to do during thought 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 health school from the moment it opens its doors.

“Keep in mind that honestly, diet isn’t something that most people are going to focus on,” Warren said. “We are working with our potential food suppliers, of which we only have two left. They understand that they will work closely with BWI. It will be healthy grains, lean meats, and not overly processed foods.

“Stephanie (Peabody) helped us set our colors. Light blue, green, and orange were better, she said, and they give the kids more energy. What do we do with our broken brains? Stretching, deep breathing, yoga meetings with our parent groups and that was very exciting for them.”

He said the BWI’s proposals would not only affect students from 8am to 3pm at school. He expects the brain-healthy environment to have a ripple effect that will be felt in students’ homes. Warren considers a cooking class for parents at the school, which could be part of the parents’ personal plan.

A BWI publication states that several evidence-based suggestions for students, teachers and parents have been shown to improve skill development, cognitive training and social-emotional learning skills. These include better nutrition, physical activity and developing a more conducive learning environment.

Other Lakewood Ranch schools selected to work with BHI include Lakewood Ranch High, BD Gullett Elementary and Dr. Mona Jain Middle School. Unlike the Lakewood Ranch Preparatory Academy, which incorporated BWI suggestions from its opening day, the other Lakewood Ranch schools collect feedback from their students, parents, and staff before making changes to the environment.

“Parents have to make that choice,” said Cynthia Saunders, the Manatee County school district superintendent. “This will not be a standard curriculum – parents can choose. One of the things we try to develop is that the child feels good about what is going on in life. But for now it’s all a concept. More research is needed.” Time will tell. We’re receptive.”

Feedback will be collected during the summer break.

“Hopefully we can get initiatives rolling out in the fall,” Saunders said.

Lakewood Ranch principal Dustin Dahlquist said no specific changes are being made at his school yet. He is waiting for the BWI to evaluate the data collected.

However, he looks forward to examining the proposals.

“Based on the data we have collected, we will select a few (initiatives),” he said. “Let’s say diet. How can it affect brain health in conjunction with our food service?”

He expects the Schools for Brain Health program to ultimately have a major impact on the community.

A BWI publication noted that 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 are suffering from a wave of depression, anxiety, trauma and more and other disorders.

“This isn’t just a problem at Lakewood Ranch,” Dahlquist said. “It’s ubiquitous across the country. So it’s quite impressive to be part of a respected group of doctors and experts in the field of (brain health). This will affect our region, our state and possibly the nation. It’s exciting for our community and we want this to be part of the solution. It’s not every day that you work with these types of people.”


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