Published April 25, 2007

A fitness program aimed at low-income children who might not otherwise be encouraged to exercise is expected to expand into five St. Petersburg elementary schools this fall.

Another five are expected to join the Beach Charities' Tampa Bay Youth Running during the spring term of 2008.

The noncompetitive programs encourage youngsters to walk or run under a coach's guidance, either after school or during in-school programs.

Individual achievement rather than athletic prowess is encouraged, and youngsters are given prizes and incentives to participate.

Wendy Johnson, Beach Charities president, met Tuesday with Pinellas County school district officials to talk about the program.

We had their buy-in at some level (previously). ... This is the first time there's a movement afoot in the elementary schools, Johnson said.

Beach Charities, which puts on several high-profile races including the St. Pete Beach Classic and Bay to Bay, began the program more than a year ago at Gulf Beaches Elementary and at Academy Prep's St. Petersburg and Tampa campuses.

It's not certain which elementary schools will join this fall, Johnson said. Information packets will arrive at Title I schools starting next month. Principals and staff will hear presentations this summer. After that, it will be first-come, first-served until the slots are filled, Johnson said.

The Title I schools, where a large percentage of pupils qualify for free or reduced-price lunches, have priority.

We feel like that's where the biggest need is, Johnson said.

Grants from the New York Road Runners Foundation helped support the program in its beginnings, and more funding from that source is expected, Johnson said.