Making Health a Part of the School Day

May 9, 2012, 2:49 PM, Posted by

A group of professionally-attired policy-makers, influencers and public health professionals in Washington started their day this morning the way students at Namaste Charter School in Chicago do every day—doing upper and lower body exercises and stretches to make physical activity the first learning component of their school day. The Washingtonians—and some key education and health officials from around the country—were at the launch of “Health in Mind,” a project of the Healthy Schools Campaign and Trust for America’s Health (TFAH) that has released actionable recommendations focused on improving student learning and achievement through healthier schools. The recommendations were presented at today’s event to U.S. Department of Education Secretary Arne Duncan and Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Kathleen Sebelius.

“Unless we address health and wellness in schools, our nation’s efforts to close the achievement gap will be compromised,” said Rochelle Davis, president and CEO of the Healthy Schools Campaign, a national group that has focused on improving food and fitness in Chicago public schools.

Health in Mind aligns with the National Prevention Strategy introduced two years ago by the National Prevention and Health Promotion Council, which brings together 17 federal cabinet offices and agencies. The Strategy commits the entire federal government, not just the health agencies, to integrate health into their work and make a healthier nation a priority across sectors.

“The Strategy and these recommendations represent a major culture shift in how the nation views health—health will no longer be separated from education, transportation, housing and other clearly connected policies,” said Jeff Levi, executive director of TFAH and chair of the Advisory Group on Prevention, Health Promotion and Integrative and Public Health. “Health in Mind’s focus on students and schools promises to have a long-term payoff by improving education and quality of life for today’s kids as they grow up—they will do better in school and be healthier.”

Health in Mind focuses on several federal initiatives and policies. Some of the recommendations include:

  • Prepare principals and teachers to promote student health and wellness through professional development programs and in-service training.
  • Provide schools with strategies to partner with parents as agents of change for integrating health and wellness into education.
  • Incorporate health and wellness into school metrics and accountability systems.
  • Incorporate health and wellness into recognition programs to motivate schools to adopt policies and practices that promote student health and wellness.
  • Increase the Department of Education’s capacity to provide leadership and guidance on integrating health and wellness into schools as a way to improve academic performance.
  • Reduce barriers that schools face when seeking reimbursement for health services delivered to Medicaid-eligible students.
  • Re-think the role schools can play in our nation’s prevention efforts and the ways that the Department of Health and Human Services can support schools in creating the conditions for health.

“We will take the recommendations very seriously and want to work with you to put the recommendations in place. In the months ahead I’ll report back to you to let you know how the implementation is going,” said HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius. “I believe our children’s success depends on their health, whether it’s obesity, severe asthma or feeling unsafe in school those factors make it harder for a child.”

The good news, said Sebelius, is that schools are a great place to reach kids, with access to highly-trained school nurses and opportunities for regular physical activity periods.

“We know kids spend about 50 percent of their time in school and so schools have to be healthy places in order to make sure our children can reach their full potential,” said Secretary Sebelius.

Arne Duncan said he was at a concert at a D.C. public school last night all about “Five a Day.” “They were singing about broccoli and artichokes, and we know students remember the songs they learn in elementary school, so that was very creative,” said Duncan. “This work is extraordinarily important, especially ways to think differently about how to present health content.”


This commentary originally appeared on the RWJF New Public Health blog.