In 2013, the National School Boards Association Board of Directors requested that NJSBA lead a research project on student health and wellness and school climate and how they relate to student achievement. In late October, the final report of the NJSBA Task Force on the Impact of Health and Wellness on Student Achievement was released at Workshop 2015.
The study reinforced the importance of schools working to improve the well-being of all students. The group’s research confirms that the academic achievement of America’s youth is strongly linked with their health. Health-risk behaviors such as unhealthy eating, physical inactivity, early sexual initiation, and violence, are consistently linked to poor grades, test scores, and lower educational attainment.
The good news is that scientific reviews have documented that school health programs can have positive effects on academic outcomes, as well as health-risk behaviors and health outcomes. Evidence also shows that school programs that are primarily designed to improve academic achievement are increasingly recognized as important public health interventions.
Coordinated School Health Programs The group’s core recommendation for school districts is to implement Coordinated School Health (CSH) programs, as described by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC).
CSH is a systematic approach to improving the health of students so they can fully participate and be successful in school. The process involves bringing together school administrators , teacher, other staff, students, families, and community members to assess health needs, set priorities and plan, implement and evaluate all health-related activities.
The CDC recommends eight steps for implementing a coordinated school health program: secure and maintain administrative support and commitment; establish a school health team; identify a school health coordinator; develop a plan; implement multiple strategies through multiple components; focus on students; address priority health-enhancing and health-risk behaviors; and provide professional development for staff.
CSH typically integrates health promotion efforts across eight interrelated components that already exist to some extent in most schools: health education; physical education; health services; nutrition services; counseling, psychological and social services; healthy and safe school environment; health promotion for staff; and family and community involvement.
The report makes specific recommendations under each of these eight areas; there are 125 separate recommendations in all. Some samples of those recommendations are in the box on page 37.
District Success Stories The report also provided the details of school districts that have successfully taken steps to improve the health of students and staff. Below are some highlights from the South Orange-Maplewood, Long Branch, and West New York districts.
The South-Orange Maplewood district shifted the focus of its physical education program from team sports and games to concept-based physical education in middle school (invasion, fitness and net/wall games) and a fitness-focus in high school (spin, interactive cardio, advanced fitness, and other lifetime activity pursuits such as golf, table tennis, badminton, and Project Adventure). The district has installed climbing walls at the elementary schools, school gardens at three elementary schools and has implemented the Coordinated Approach to Child Health (CATCH) program in five elementary schools and the SPARK PE curriculum K-12 to develop articulation between all schools and grade levels. The district also has a staff wellness initiative that has teachers wearing pedometers and participating in Zumba and Spin classes which are conducted exclusively for district staff.
South Orange-Maplewood has earned several honors for its wellness initiatives. It is the only two-time New Jersey recipient of the Carol M. White Physical Education for Progress Award (PEP Grant), in 2009 and 2013, with award funding totaling $2.74 million. The district’s PE Supervisor was the National PE Supervisor of the Year in 2013. Similarly, the district’s health and physical education department has been nationally recognized as a model for school wellness by the Society for Health and Physical Educators.
In Long Branch, the district transformed its approach to health care, and is on track to save approximately $4 million in health care costs. Working with Integrity Health, the district established an on-site primary care health facility called “Partnership Health Center Long Branch” (PHCLB).
At PHCLB, employees who choose to participate, and their dependents, receive care without co-pays; lab work, X-rays, and most prescriptions are included at no cost. The doctor in residence coordinates all aspects of each patient’s care, working with other doctors to ensure outside procedures align with the member’s overall health plan. In effect, the center serves as the hub of care coordination.
Over time, employees visit the PHCLB more often (instead of expensive emergency rooms); receive better health care; and ultimately achieve better health. To date, utilization rates are well ahead of projections – more than 2,500 visits so far. As a result, members are saving time and a substantial amount of out-of-pocket expense. Next year, a member with family coverage can save more than $500 in health care premium contributions, plus $10 with every visit to the center.
In West New York, a longtime initiative in cooperation with the Alliance for a Healthier Generation, a group which seeks to curb the rise in childhood obesity, has led to wellness becoming embedded in the school day. There are fitness breaks in classrooms, label-reading lessons in science class, and after-school fitness classes for staff and students. A district school became the first in the nation to reach gold status with the Alliance, and every school in the district has been recognized by the group.
West New York has been featured in a number of news programs. In 2012, when President Bill Clinton visited one of the elementary schools to celebrate the program, he noted that the district’s commitment wasn’t temporary or simply a passing fad. “This isn’t just here for you to see today; if you came back here tomorrow or next month, you would see the same things happening in these schools,” said Clinton, “this is in their DNA now, this is their culture.”
The full report of the Task Force on the Impact of Health and Wellness on Student Achievement, which includes sample board policies related to health and wellness, is located online.