ALA’s Sara Barnes and students are making their campus healthier and safer.

Sara Barnes and students at the Fort Worth ISD’s Applied Learning Academy have scored an A+ implementing Blue Zones Project best-practices throughout the school. Their efforts are benefitting the community as well, resulting in improved walkability for pedestrians.


The Applied Learning Academy (ALA) is an innovative middle school on Fort Worth’s west side that integrates experiential learning into the core of its academic programs. So it’s not surprising that it was a group of students that led the school to becoming Blue Zones Project Approved. Thanks to the impetus of their equally passionate advisor, Sara Barnes, their efforts are going beyond the school and impacting the health and safety of area residents.

Early in the ALA’s work toward Blue Zones Project school approval, the school formed a youth leadership group to lead the way. Called the Wellness Ambassadors and supervised by Sara, the ambassadors quickly became experts at implementing Power 9 principles across campus:

  • Instead of selling cookies or candy, they made $800 by selling USDA-approved “Smart Snacks.” Money raised was used to fund a rock-climbing wall.
  • They promoted Mile Mondays every Monday in P.E. during which students were encouraged to walk or run a mile. The activity resulted in 6,000 miles walked over the course of a year.
  • The school’s Blue Zones Project Field Day, held in conjunction with their approval celebration, inspired a citywide Power 9 Camp which brought students from other Blue Zones Project schools together to share best practices and ideas.

At the same time, the ambassadors became concerned about how difficult it was for people, especially children, to safely cross the four-lane street fronting the school to nearby parks and transit stops. Sara mentioned the concern to a friend at the North Central Texas Council of Governments (NCTCOG) who had been working with Blue Zones Project on similar issues at other schools. As a result of that discussion and under the advisement of another ALA teacher, Alexandra Checka, students worked on a plan to improve walkability. Blue Zones Project team members served as a resource, helping the students explore alternatives and create a recommended solution. The students conducted a walking audit and developed a proposal to create a safer path. They presented their plan to NCTCOG with a request for funding. The result? A $400,000 Safe Routes to School grant for the school, with $320,000 funded by NCTCOG and $80,000 by the City of Fort Worth.

Following their success, the Wellness Ambassadors’ 30-minute advisory period became a full-fledged 45-minute Blue Zones Project course this year, led by Sara, of course. ALA Principal Alice Buckley credits the school’s participation in Blue Zones Project-inspired activities as one of the contributing factors to an improvement in the school’s academic performance, including double-digit gains in science and social studies standardized test scores from 2017 to 2018: “There is a direct translation between a healthy body and a brain ready to actively engage in learning,”