Brenna Swift, The Union Democrat

Data released Thursday by the California Department of Education shows Calaveras and Tuolumne county students performed better than their peers statewide on six-part fitness tests last spring, substantially in some areas.

Both counties improved their results in most areas, but Tuolumne County made more consistent gains on all types of fitness tests compared with last year. The six-part test generates a report called the "Fitnessgram."

In accordance with state law, students in fifth, seventh and ninth grades take the tests in the each spring. They include pull-ups, push-ups, mile-long runs, body composition assessments and stretches.

They may seem onerous, but students and parents shouldn't discount the importance of the tests, according to Brie Ferguson, a Sonora Regional Medical Center nurse who helps run Tuolumne County's Fit for the Future program.

"If a student achieves six of six in the tests, they can be deemed fit and less likely to have chronic health problems later - or even, sadly, now," Ferguson said.

The good news is that Mother Lode kids seem to be getting healthier. During the 2010-11 school year, about 31 percent of Tuolumne County fifth graders tested into the "Healthy Fitness Zone" in all six components of the fitness assessments. This year, the number went up to about 35 percent.

For Tuolumne County seventh graders, the improvement was even bigger: almost 40 percent tested as healthy in all six areas, compared with last year's 29 percent. High school freshmen made a similarly dramatic gain.

In Calaveras County, the number of fifth graders testing into the Healthy Fitness Zone in all six areas was up by 10 percent over 2010-11, to a total of 34 percent. The rate for seventh graders improved slightly, but it declined by 2 percentage points for ninth graders.

Statewide, about 25 percent of fifth-grade students tested into the fitness zone in all six areas, a level almost exactly the same as last year's.

The improvement in Tuolumne County may be correlated with the Fit for the Future program adopted last year by the Tuolumne County Office of Education.

Superintendent of Schools Joe Silva said his goal is to eliminate, not simply reduce, childhood obesity on the local level.

"We feel very good about it," Silva said. "We think that the program we had as a pilot last year was a good pilot program, and that for the most part it was successful. … We're setting the bar pretty high."

As part of the initiative, Ferguson and Curtis Creek physical education teacher Paul McIlroy visit each county elementary school one or two days a week.

They integrate lessons on nutrition, as well as fitness training, with the regular P.E. curriculum for fifth and seventh graders, Ferguson said.

Last year, the initiative kicked off at Jamestown Elementary School, Curtis Creek Elementary School and later Twain Harte School. This year, it will reach all public-school fifth and seventh graders in the county.

Fit for the Future is funded by an $80,000 grant from Anthem Blue Cross-Blue Shield, in addition to $16,000 a year from the Tuolumne County Public Health Department and an anonymous donation of $5,000 this summer.

Ferguson said gains on last spring's fitness tests were particularly strong at Curtis Creek Elementary, one of Fit for the Future's pilot schools.

There, just 19 percent of fifth graders tested into the Healthy Fitness Zone for all six assessments in 2010-11. Last year, the number rocketed to about 55 percent.

What the statistics don't show is that every single student in the program made gains on at least one of the fitness tests, Ferguson said.

Fit for the Future kicked off the year with "baseline testing" so that students' progress can be tracked.

"What we'll do is spend the next few months from now until February teaching nutrition, giving tips on things to do at home and how they can improve their scores," Ferguson said.

The goal is to have 50 percent of students pass all six fitness tests in the spring, which exceeds state fitness levels by a wide margin.

Students whose classes do meet the goal will have their names entered in a drawing for a family all-expense-paid trip to Disneyland, said Silva.

Fit for the Future hasn't expanded to neighboring counties, but some Calaveras County schools made gains on fitness tests too.

For example, about 41 percent of Mark Twain Union Elementary School District fifth graders who were tested attained the Healthy Fitness Zone level in all six tests, compared with 24 percent last year.

Slightly more than 36 percent of Bret Harte Union High School District freshmen who took the tests fell into the fitness zone. Last year, the rate was about 33 percent.

Fitness levels remain an ongoing focus for the California Department of Education, with State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson stating in a release Thursday that students need "more opportunities for exercise."