Marin County school switches to standing desks after parent-led campaign
Students at Vallecito Elementary School in San Rafael have a leg up on other schoolkids, literally. That’s because this past year, every desk in the school was replaced with a standing desk.
“People think this is just another gimmicky, wacko thing they’re doing in Marin, but there’s science behind it,” said parent Juliet Starrett.
Juliet and her husband, Kelly, are co-founders of San Francisco Crossfit, a workout facility that trains Olympians and other athletes in ultra-intense workouts. Kelly is a doctor of physical therapy, who coaches athletes on how to avoid injuries.
They are also parents of two daughters who attend Vallecito, ages 7 and 10. Last year, when Georgia was in the fourth grade, she started to have muscular issues. After visiting the school, and noticing children having difficulty getting into gunny sacks before a race, a light bulb went on.
“After spending a decade lecturing teams and corporations about the hazards of sitting, we realized that our daughter’s elementary school had the same problem,” Juliet Starrett said.
The Starretts figured they would run into some resistance bringing the idea of standing desks to the school, and it would take some convincing. But Principal Tracy Smith was on board right away.
“They had a good pitch, and we just happened to have a classroom that needed desks,” Smith said. “In the world of education, if it sounds good, we try it. We had no expectation to have the whole school standing.”
Part of the Starretts’ pitch was also that they would pay for the classroom’s desks themselves.
Other parents had their concerns, one of which was that the kids would get tired. Smith, who also has had her own standing desk for a year, explained to parents that this was a trial.
There were initial complaints of sore and tired legs, and it took two to four weeks for the students to get used to standing. The classrooms are also furnished with optional stools they can use. Teachers instruct them to listen to their bodies. If they are tired, they should sit down.
But once they adjusted, teachers reported the children were more attentive, and parents claim they are sleeping better at night. They are more focused, especially noticeable during writing time. Smith and the teachers have also observed fewer behavioral problems, including less classroom disruptions and fewer trips to the principal’s office.
It was interesting watching them adapt, Starrett said. First-graders never use the stools. They’re fresh out of kindergarten, where students don’t do much sitting.
“It’s a nothing transition for them,” she said.
The desks cost about $250 each. The Starretts researched local and national companies and decided on the AlphaBetter desk manufactured by Safeco and distributed by School Outfitters.
The desks are not perfect, Starrett said, but have a lot of appealing elements. They have a wide range of height options, even for an adult size. It is a little cumbersome to adjust, however.
One of the greatest features of the desk is a fidget bar, a moving foot rest.
“Micromovements is key,” she said. “If they can’t move, they can’t think. Kids are in constant micromotion. That really helps avoid aches and pains of standing. It’s really revolutionary. A mistake a lot of adults make with a standing desk is not having the bar.”
Students have the element of choice, a freedom of options, to stand, lean, fidget or sit. They now move in small but nondisruptive ways. Kids are not punching or kicking their neighbor in a pent up-energy release.
A recent, two-year study at Texas A&M revealed that average-sized children with a standing desk burned 15 percent–20 percent more calories, while obese students burned 25 percent–30 percent more. Students were also 12 percent more engaged in the classroom, which amounts to about 45 more minutes in the day.
“We’re not creating standing soldiers, we’re giving them options to move,” Starrett said. “When you’re in a chair you have one position to - sit.”
After that initial classroom success, more kids and teachers wanted the desks. By January 2015, the Starretts paid for three more classrooms to get the desks.
By then, comparison of the sitting students versus the classrooms with the standing students was alarming.
“It looks horrible,” Starrett said. “Students of all sizes crammed into their one-size-fits all desks - it looked uncomfortable.”
To raise enough funds to buy standing desks for the rest of the school, the Starretts subsequently partnered with DonorsChoose.com, a New York-based nonprofit crowdfunding for teachers. In just two months, enough was funded for 350 desks, and broke the record for the number of donors to an individual crowdfunding on the site.
In time for the beginning of the fall 2015 semester, every classroom in the school had standing desks.
The old desks are being donated to an international scholastic organization, Smith said.
“We don’t blink an eye,” Smith said. “It feels like it should be.”
Starrett said she is aware of a few pockets of other schools that have standing desks in certain classrooms, one in Oakland, and another in Alexandria, Va.
With the success at Vallecito, Starrett, also an attorney, started a website movement (StandupKids.org) to promote the use of standing desks in school. The goal is for every student across the U.S. to have a standup desk in 10 years. On DonorsChoose.com, they are working towards a $1 million matching grant to fund 50 percent every time a desk is posted. Starrett said they are receiving hundreds of emails from educators around the world.
“We want this to be teacher-driven for it to be a success,” Starrett said. “Educators are screaming for changes. Every teacher at Vallecito said, ‘yes, we’re in.’ We’ve really struck a chord.”