May/June 2014

Rob Bisceglie is CEO of Action for Healthy Kids, a board member for Roselle District 12 and a father of three

School boards in Illinois, like those around the country, have been tackling school wellness issues for many years. The 2004 Child Nutrition and WIC Reauthorization Act, which required school districts that participate in federal school meal programs to establish local wellness policies by the 2006-2007 school year, set the tone for real progress. And, the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 (HHFKA) was designed to strengthen those wellness policies and establish the gold standard for healthy school environments.

In keeping with the requirements of the HHFKA, the Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE) required all public school districts to have locally-developed wellness policies that address nutrition guidelines for all foods sold on the school campus during the school day, nutrition education and physical activity and promotes the translation of these policies into changes in all schools.

So, how are we doing?

Ten years out and we’ve made great progress, but not every school district in the state gets a passing grade where it comes to promoting true school health. This is hard work requiring a patient, long-term perspective for every district, including my own. ISBE does not have an exact count of how many of Illinois’ 867 districts have wellness policies in place, nor does it have all-inclusive data on the quality of existing wellness policies. But, a 2012 snapshot of 442 participants that were reviewed in the National School Lunch Program showed that 262 of those had some sort of wellness policy in place. If Illinois follows the national trend –– identified in the 2013 Bridging the Gap brief report, School District Wellness Policies: Evaluating Progress and Potential for Improving Children’s Health Five Years after the Federal Mandate –– only 46 percent of students attend schools in districts with a comprehensive wellness policy.

We also know that far too many wellness policies have been adopted, only to collect dust on the shelf unimplemented. So, we have somewhat limited understanding of what real progress the state’s schools – and kids – are making on the nutrition and physical activity fronts. As school board members, we have the unique responsibility of not only making sure schools meet the goals set forth by the state, but more importantly, of providing the kids in our districts with the best opportunities for health and learning. We can do that by following a concerted course of action.

Step One: Establish School Health Teams and Action Plans

In order to put every child in Illinois on a path to health and academic success, school board members must take a more active role. First, we need to ensure that our districts have adopted a quality district-level wellness policy that addresses key issues around foods served in schools, nutrition education, physical activity and physical education, among other important wellness topics identified in the recently-released, proposed wellness policy rule from the Federal Government. If your district doesn’t have such a policy, please visit the Action for Healthy Kids online wellness policy tool, which will guide you through the seven steps needed for the development and implementation of a quality, comprehensive policy for your district.

Equally important, we need to ensure that each of our schools have health teams at the school building level that develop actionable plans for improving wellness in their school and then work to implement those plans. This is where the rubber meets the road. Unimplemented policies are useless for our kids. In order to foster real change, each school in Illinois must have a working school health team charged and empowered to develop a school health action plan, implement it in a meaningful way and then monitor, evaluate and report out to the community about it to ensure it is having the intended impact.

As a volunteer member of the school health team at Spring Hills Elementary, where my kids go to school, I can tell you there is nothing more gratifying than the experience of volunteering for a taste test or physical activity event in which our kids have an opportunity to learn and experience what it means to make healthy choices.

Depending on the circumstances within individual schools, getting and keeping a health team in place may not always be easy. But it can be done, if we’re vigilant. At Action for Healthy Kids, we witnessed the power of an active school health team recently in the experience of Josiah L. Pickard Elementary School in Chicago. Last spring, we awarded the school a grant to help improve its school wellness environment and help it align with recently passed district wellness policies. We also helped Pickard create a diverse wellness team that included physical education and classroom teachers, the food service director and the school counselor. The team had already developed a school wellness action plan and had started an application to become HealthierUS School Challenge certified. (This is a voluntary certification initiative recognizing schools that have created healthier school environments through the promotion of nutrition and physical activity.) By the end of the 2013-2014 academic year, school wellness at Pickard had gained momentum and was becoming a priority among staff members. But, over the summer, all but one of the wellness team members was lost to retirement or transfers.

The sole remaining wellness team member, physical education teacher Tom Allen, knew the importance of bringing Pickard staff and the Local School Council on board with school wellness at the beginning of the 2013-2014 school year. So, within the first six weeks of school, he gave presentations to the staff about the requirements of the district wellness policies, approached the Local School Council to present Pickard’s new healthy celebrations and fundraising plan and now sends weekly wellness emails to all staff members to provide ideas and resources for increasing movement in the classroom. He has also recruited a new school health team and has administered a student survey to better understand student knowledge, attitudes and behaviors around eating and being physically active.  

Sometimes it takes the work of one very determined and motivated person, like Tom Allen, to make school health a reality. Just as he focused on keeping his school health team going and its wellness plan alive, it’s important that all school health teams guide their schools with strong wellness plans that encompass sustainable strategies that meet the needs of their particular school. There is no one-size-fits-all solution to this epidemic of obesity, hunger and poor health. Instead, each school health team, with support from other school leaders, must determine how to tackle this challenge in ways that are best for their own community, parents and especially children.

The good news is that there is growing evidence that school board and school health team members can share with their communities proving that healthy kids learn better. For example, where physical activity and physical education are involved, we know from numerous studies that enhancing physical activity will lead to better academic outcomes for students. As indicated in Action for Healthy Kids’ 2013 report, The Learning Connection: What You Need to Know to Ensure Your Kids are Healthy and Ready to Learn ,   kids who get regular physical activity experience improvements in their fitness levels and brain function.

The bottom line is, active children are able to better concentrate during school and perform at higher levels on standardized tests than their less active peers. The research around the impact of hunger and unhealthy food choices on academic achievement also isn’t far behind. As you’ll see below in this article, school breakfast and other nutrition issues have been proven to impact academic performance. After all, haven’t we all experienced that inability to concentrate after having failed to consume a healthy breakfast? Well, our kids are no different. Those who come to school hungry are at an unacceptable disadvantage.

Clearly then, there are needs in every school building for comprehensive physical activity programs that incorporate both P.E. and physical activity throughout the school day as well as high quality practices around foods served in schools and nutrition education. I caution, though, that policies alone won’t mean anything without school improvement systems that include health objectives and measures. It’s important to know what goals are important for our schools and how well each school is doing while working to achieve them.

Step Two: Implement Quality School Health Programs and Practices

It’s in the interest of every school that standards-based physical education be a part of the curriculum. Illinois is one of few states that mandate daily P.E. by statute. But, by the same token, the waiver system that’s in place allows the majority of schools in the state to offer P.E. a scant once a week. As a result, students across Illinois are not getting enough physical activity, are not exposed to daily standards-based quality P.E., and consequently are not developing the important lifelong habits necessary for health and learning. Having a strong P.E. policy that allows districts an out is not much better than having no policy at all.

As a proponent of enhancing P.E., I believe ISBE’s recent approval of the Illinois Enhance P.E. Task Force’s 2013 recommendations to improve P.E. Learning Standards in Illinois are right on track because they increase requirements for P.E. The changes call, in part, for schools to:

• Increase the amount of time students are moderately-to-vigorously physically active in P.E. to at least 50 percent of the time

• Ensure appropriate class size of no more than one teacher to 25 students in elementary classes; one teacher and up to 30 students in middle and high schools

• Promote and adopt Enhanced P.E., defined by the Institute of Medicine of the National Academy of Sciences as programs that increase the length of or activity levels in school-based physical education classes

• Use the Presidential Youth Fitness Program as a tool to measure student fitness

• Provide training and professional development to P.E. teachers

Meeting the P.E. mandate likely will have budget implications for districts throughout Illinois, and therein lies a very significant challenge we’ll have to overcome.

Of course, P.E. isn’t the only way to keep students active. School boards also should consider the promotion of opportunities for physical activity throughout the school day. Brain breaks of physical activity during classes, recess between classes or even physical activity programs before the start of the school day are great ways for schools to provide kids with at least half of the recommended 60 minutes of daily physical activity, in addition to P.E. If your schools are interested in these ideas, please check out the Action for Healthy Kids free, online program, Game On! The Ultimate Wellness Challenge . It encourages elementary staff and students to incorporate physical activity and healthy food choices into their daily lives.

On the other side of the school health equation are foods served in schools and nutrition education. School boards should make sure proper nutrition guidelines and education are in place. In practical terms, I believe we have a responsibility to make sure every child our districts educates has access to healthy foods in schools, particularly since so many hungry children don’t have the option of eating healthy food at home. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, as many as one in five kids in the U.S. are sent to school each day from homes where breakfast isn’t a daily guarantee. Those students are at a disadvantage for learning. As indicated in The Learning Connection, kids who eat nutritious breakfasts have positive academic outcomes. Those who don’t, experience the opposite effect. In fact, a review of 50 studies, which appeared in the September 2011 issue of Journal of School Health, points to growing research that reveals skipping breakfast hurts kids’ overall cognitive performance. Meanwhile, a 2013 national report by Share Our Strength’s No Kid Hungry campaign, done in collaboration with Deloitte, showed that on average students who eat school breakfast have been shown to attend 1.5 more days of school per year and score 17.5 percent higher on standardized math tests.

Some 32 million students eat school meals each day; for many low-income students, up to half their daily energy intake is from school meals. Fortunately, the federal school meals programs provide a real opportunity for schools to feed their students healthy breakfasts and lunches — for many, at reimbursed or free rates. New meal standards implemented under HHFKA, improve the nutritional quality of school meals by making whole grains, fruits and vegetables more available; requiring the selection of a fruit or vegetable; increasing the portion sizes of fruits and vegetables; removing trans fats; and placing limits on total calories and sodium levels. And, as a result, students are eating healthier fare. That’s exactly what the standards were meant to do. And thanks to what’s commonly known as the smart snacks rule, healthier standards apply to all foods and drinks sold in vending machines, school stores, snack carts and a la carte lines during the school day. These are all positive steps. According to a Harvard School of Public Health Study, students in an urban, low-income district chose more fruit (selection increased by 23 percent) and ate more of the vegetables they were served (consumption of vegetables increased by 16.2 percent) after the new meal standards went into effect. Of course, additional research and validation is needed to further our understanding of the impact of these new policies.

The expansion of the Community Eligibility Provision of the HHFKA also will allow schools that serve heavy concentrations of students from low-income families to provide free breakfasts and lunches to all students. This alternative approach differs from previous requirements that families apply for students’ participation in the free and reduced lunch program, and I encourage every eligible district to consider participation when it becomes available nationwide during the 2014-2015 school year. In short, the Community Eligibility Provision will help improve access to free school meals in high poverty communities while eliminating the administrative burden of collecting household applications. This is a potential win-win for many districts.

Fostering healthy eating habits is not just about the food kids are offered, but also about teaching healthy eating practices. Nutrition education that connects the classroom to the cafeteria reinforces key messages. That’s why it’s important that we make sure schools implement nutrition education from pre-school through secondary school as part of a sequential, comprehensive school health education curriculum designed to help students adopt healthy eating behaviors. Schools can find free nutrition education curricula and ideas online through USDA’s Team Nutrition. This nutrition education approach includes setting board precedent and/or policy that prohibits the marketing and advertising of unhealthy foods that undermine that which is taught in the classroom and send mixed messages on the value of health.

Step Three: Create School-Family Community Partnerships

Obviously, our schools can’t accomplish our child health goals alone and shouldn’t be expected to do so. Progress on school and child health is only possible when school health activities are supported by parents and other community members in school and reinforced at home. Genuine school-family-community partnerships are only possible when districts and schools are in communication with parents and other community members to keep them abreast of school health issues in a timely and transparent manner. In fact, HHFKA requires that school districts inform and update the public about their progress in implementing their wellness policies. If your district participates in the National School Lunch Program or other federal Child Nutrition programs and does not make its wellness policy assessment available to parents and the public periodically, your district is not in compliance with the law, and school board members can and should take action to ensure transparency.

I know from personal experience that school administrators will find parents are tremendous partners around school wellness issues and as members of school health teams. At Action for Healthy Kids, we’ve worked with parents across the country through our Parents for Healthy Kids program to improve the nutrition and physical activity levels of students both at home and in schools since 2007. Through the program, we provide:

• A Parent Leadership Series, which teaches parents and other volunteers how to work collaboratively within their school communities to improve policy and practices related to school nutrition and physical activity

• Share Healthy Food & Activity at School, a 15-minute presentation for parents and other school leaders to use in their communities to build awareness, support, and momentum for creating healthier learning environments

•  Four Easy Ways for Families to Improve Health and Well-Being, a series of short, targeted presentations for parents and families covering four simple key messages that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also recommend.

Each series in the program contains tip sheets and hand outs (often in English and Spanish) to help parents and their schools get started.

From our work here in Illinois and all across the country, we’ve learned informed and involved parents can have a big positive impact on their schools. Over the years, Allison Stewart, a Denver-area mother of two elementary students and a member of Action for Healthy Kids’ Colorado team, has devoted several hours each week making sure Denver-area teachers and parents know how to create healthy environments for kids. At any point in the school year, she could be found doing anything from leading kids through a series of physical activity lessons and nutrition exercises to holding in-school healthy food taste tests.

A dedicated mother, Stewart found her way to Action for Healthy Kids and school health issues after her daughter came home from school one day and explained she was rewarded with cookies for doing her school work, something she was expected to do. That didn’t make sense to Stewart. So, she searched the internet for ‘non-food rewards’ and found Action for Healthy Kids, along with the tools and resources that helped her get involved in her children’s school.   That was in 2009. Since then, Allison Stewart has been involved in myriad school-based projects that are creating a healthier environment for all the students.

If one caring mother could do so much, imagine what we, as members of school boards, can accomplish if we put our minds to it. After all, researchers have now proven what many of us may have witnessed with our own kids and students, that healthy children learn better. It stands to reason then, that school wellness is both our responsibility and an opportunity for us to ensure that every Illinois child is healthy and ready to learn.

If you are interested in new ways to incorporate school health teams, school health programs and parent volunteers into your school community, I encourage you to take Action for Healthy Kids’ “Every Kid Healthy Pledge” and become part of this important campaign. Working together, we can and will give kids the keys to health and academic success, one district, school or even one home at a time.

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