By Madelynn Coldiron
School board members, heal thy districts.
Dr. John Skretta, pictured at right, keynote speaker for the June 24-25 Coordinated School Health Symposium co-sponsored by KSBA, says school board advocacy was one of the major factors in his district’s successful coordinated school health program.
Skretta, who has been recognized by the national Alliance for a Healthier Generation, heads the Norris School District in Firth, Neb. He said in the current political climate, with revenue cuts and steep accountability, “coordinated school health doesn’t tend to be the top funding priority.”
But in his district, the school board has enacted “genuine” health and wellness policies, he said, citing board members’ knowledge and involvement.
“I think our school board has done a great job in ensuring that the policy adoption for student health and wellness is more than something that just sits on a shelf, existing abstractly, but is something we actually use in our system,” he said.
School board members should be encouraged to be health and wellness advocates, he said.
“It is board members who can steer districts through policy and empower districts through governance to do good things for kids,” he pointed out.
Health and fitness should not be an afterthought in schools, but instead should be “absolutely central to what we do,” Skretta said.
“The stakes are really high,” he told attendees. “You are on the front lines of fighting a public health epidemic.”
Skretta said his district is “on the way” to better health and nutrition, and while it is still not perfect, has found some strategies that worked for its students and staff.
He gave school district employees, administrators and board members attending the Lexington event a list of “common sense” actions for effectively fighting that battle.
• Collect strength, endurance and flexibility data. “It’s a means by which students can see their own growth and improvement over time in these areas,” he said, advising districts to get away from emphasizing “the PE mindset of competitive sports.”
• View physical education as a core curricular area and attach data to it, Skretta said, “because it has that kind of importance on outcomes.” Ask where PE fits in your assessment system, he advised the audience. “In a lot of districts, nothing that happens in PE is measured.”
• Promote classroom-based physical activity with regular breaks. “It only has to be a moderate level of physical activity, it’s low to no cost, it’s guaranteed to refresh and invigorate the classroom.” Re-energizing helps students focus, he said, so these breaks don’t take away from instructional time.
• Use rigor and relevance in health education. Skretta said the high school health teacher in his district provides practical, real-life examples to convey nutrition information, such as listing the calories, fat and sodium in different types of fast-food and popular restaurant menu items and then showing the amount of physical exercise required to work off those calories. “It’s great to help kids with health curriculum in a way that helps them come to terms with that knowledge,” he said.
• Focus on fabulous food service – make healthy choices prevalent and realize that food service directors, like all school employees, are also educators. Serve visually appealing fresh fruit in appropriate portions, Skretta said, “and kids will eat it.” In addition to presentation, quality matters. “If it looks bad and smells worse, the kids probably won’t eat it,” he said, adding, “I think food service is actually a fundamental, important part of the school day.”
• Empower teacher leadership with school wellness councils, classroom-based interventions and “collective ownership.” He cited examples of teachers whose classrooms had built a raised-bed garden to help kids understand the connection between what they eat and how it grows, who replaced student chairs with exercise balls for seating, and who took their students on short walks outdoors twice a day.
• Employee wellness “is a huge part” of the path to staff ownership of coordinated school health. His district’s policies encourage staff to be health role models for children. It also worked with a physician’s group to get blood workups for employees during a staff development day and another health group to give free, one-on-one counseling on diet.
In addition, Skretta said the Nebraska state school board has a coordinated school health policy that it encourages districts to follow, though they are not accountable for it. It’s important to have “an overt endorsement” from a state board of education, he said.
“We understand what we need to do in schools,” Skretta said. “The research supporting a coordinated school health approach is absolutely persuasive. The question is will we have the moral courage to do it?”