Integral to our learning environment is a focus on health—a cause about which I have become incredibly passionate. Research shows that a child’s health has a direct impact on his or her ability to learn. When students are healthy and happy, they are more focused on learning. Test scores improve, behavioral issues decrease and, perhaps most importantly, students take the healthy habits they learn at school home, expanding our impact to the entire community.
At Robert C. Hatch, we’ve made small but sustainable changes over time to create a healthier campus for our students and staff, and now, we’ve been nationally recognized for it! This year, we were honored by the Alliance for a Healthier Generation, among more than 300 schools nationwide, as one of America’s Healthiest Schools. We are one of only 10 schools across the country to receive the highest level of recognition—the National Healthy Schools Gold Award.
We did it and you can, too! Here Are Our Three Tips
1. Be Victors Over Victims
Transforming into a healthy school takes time, especially in communities that lack access to adequate resources and support. Seven of the 10 states with the highest rates of childhood obesity are in the South, which puts these children at a disproportionate risk for long-term, chronic health conditions.
We experience these challenges first-hand in Perry County, home to the highest poverty rate in Alabama. Poverty is a very cold reality for residents. The economy is stressed due to the lack of available employment. Our students face challenges that most of us can only imagine. Many not only have family members with serious health issues, but they themselves have developed traditionally “adult” diseases, such as Type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure and heart disease.
Despite this reality, Perry County residents have a unique kind of hope and optimism. Our students and faculty understand the challenges we are facing, but we strive to be victors over our circumstance; not victims. Across the South, schools are getting heathy and setting their students on a path to lifelong health despite the disparity in childhood obesity rates.
Every child, no matter where he or she lives, deserves to grow up healthy. Embracing a positive attitude and developing a determination to this cause is a key first step in transforming the health of your school.
2. Gain District Support to Create a Strong Wellness Policy
When I was introduced to the Alliance for a Healthier Generation’s Healthy Schools Program in my first year at Robert C. Hatch, I did not know much about nutrition standards or wellness policies. However, as a teacher, I’m no stranger to homework. I knew that, in order to be successful, I needed to achieve the support of my peers and administrators.
Despite initial pushback from staff who questioned my ability to lead these efforts as an English and history teacher, I was fortunate to have the unwavering support of our district superintendent and principal, who ensured I had the resources to learn and lead our efforts. Superintendent John Heard III and my principal, Dr. Leslie Ford, were fully behind our health and wellness goals, and it made all the difference in our success.
With their support, we updated Perry County School District’s wellness policy using Healthier Generation’s model template to ensure it complied with national standards. Establishing a strong wellness policy allowed us to send a clear and cohesive message to parents, staff and the community — that in order for students to achieve personal, academic, developmental and social success, we need to create positive, safe and health-promoting learning environments at every level, in every setting, throughout the school year.
3. Get Creative and Get Involved
With our policy firmly in place, we leveraged our district-level support to get others involved in our health and wellness efforts. Parents, students, staff and community leaders serve on our wellness committee, which meets regularly to update and ensure our policy is being implemented across the district.
From birthday celebrations to healthy fundraisers, we find creative ways to send consistent messages to students before, during and after the school day.
With respect to physical activity, nothing screams consistency quite like our daily “Get Fit Break.” A few years ago it began with a recommended 7-minute workout from an app. From there, it grew into a 20-minute, mandatory school-wide fitness break at the same time each day. Everyone joins in the fun by walking on the track, line dancing, playing games, jumping rope and much more. It’s all about being active, together, each and every day!
We also pride ourselves on delivering a consistent message around healthy eating. When we host special events, such as our annual “Grandparents Day,” we ensure that all food items comply with the U.S. Department of Agriculture standards. Through the HEAL program, our elementary students learn the importance of “healthy eating, active living.” They receive a monthly calendar with healthy tips and recipes to try at home.
The impact of our health and wellness efforts has been tremendous. Fueled by a nutritious breakfast and lunch, my students are more alert and focused in class. Many of our student-athletes have stopped drinking sugary beverages and eating unhealthy snacks before practice, favoring healthier options that give them the energy to perform. Staff are eating healthier, feeling more energized and productive, and, in turn, serving as positive role models for students.
These changes did not happen overnight, but I can assure you they are well worth it! Becoming one of America’s Healthiest Schools means you will have happier — and healthier — students, teachers, administrators and parents. With the right combination of determination, teamwork and creativity, you, too, can be one of the nation’s healthiest schools.
Every child deserves a healthy school. As educators, we have a profound opportunity and obligation to make this vision a reality. Get started today on your journey to lead your school in becoming one of America’s Healthiest Schools, ensuring your students can build the healthy futures they deserve! Visit schools.healthiergeneration.org for more information.