Making Health a Part of School Life

Making Health a Part of School Life

By Alvin Crawley, E.D., Superintendent, Alexandria City Public Schools

Step by step, health and wellness are being embedded into the fabric of Alexandria City Public Schools (ACPS) for students and staff alike, for both their physical and mental health.

It’s an important enterprise, one that began nearly two years ago when, with the support of the community, the Alexandria City School Board approved a strategic plan for the school division that, for the first time, incorporated goals for improving the health and well-being of students and staff.

I’m happy to report on the progress we are making. I recognize that we can’t do everything at once, but we are doing a lot.

To launch our strategy, we identified 12 performance metrics to measure our progress in improving student health and well-being. In 2016, six of those performance targets were met, one area showed improvement, and performance in five areas was consistent with the prior year. There was no area of decline.

Ensuring that our students are healthy and ready to learn when they come to school is one of our top priorities. We are focusing on students who are chronically absent for health reasons, and have added an outreach specialist to each school to help identify these students and work with families to support their children’s physical well-being and mental health. We are monitoring this area closely to determine whether we are reducing chronic absenteeism.

We also want to make sure that our mental health counseling and positive intervention support programs are meeting students’ needs. We surveyed students in grades 6 through 11, and an astonishing 97 percent reported that they are satisfied with the services they are receiving. We are excited that our school counselors are doing such a great job.

A positive school environment is critical to the health and well-being of students and staff. We have set high expectations for the behavior, interpersonal relationships, teaching and learning practices, and organizational structures of all our schools. Our goal is to maintain an environment where everyone feels safe, respected, and engaged. We have intensified our professional development and services in this area, and at the high school level, used restorative practices, such as community circles, to help build more positive interactions among students. T.C. Williams recently served as a host site for a four-day regional training on restorative practices.

We also want to increase the numbers of students who bike to school. We are installing more bike racks at schools, for example, and we are working with the City of Alexandria on the upcoming Bike to School Day.

ACPS is taking steps to ensure that that all students have the benefit of access to nutritious, appealing school meals and that lessons on the importance of nutritious foods are included in the curriculum. We are surveying students to get a better understanding of their nutrition preferences, and we are encouraging students who are eligible for Free/Reduced-price meals to eat the nutritious meals prepared by ACPS staff. This month, ACPS launched its first “Greens and More” salad bar at Charles Barrett Elementary School with plans for expansion throughout the school division. In addition, Francis Hammond Middle School was selected this month as one of four Virginia Breakfast Challenge winners based on significant student participation in the school breakfast program.

To support and improve the health and well-being of ACPS staff, we are working gradually to develop a sustainable program, adding new events each year. In 2016, we launched the Spring Movement Challenge to get school system staff outdoors and active. We handed out 600 pedometers for a “step challenge” and rewarded those schools that logged the highest number of steps per day and the highest number of participating employees. We got about 30 percent of ACPS employees to participate—a great start—and we hope to do even better this year.

In fall 2016, we held our first school health fair for ACPS staff, where we made mobile vans available to give employees vital readings and information about nutrition and healthy lifestyles. Each consultation took 10 to 15 minutes. We started at a single school, where well over 100 employees participated. Next fall, we want to bring this event to all ACPS schools so that more employees can benefit.

We are pleased with the progress we’ve made so far, and eager to continue moving forward. Schools can play an important role in the health of students and staff. At ACPS, we are proud to help lay the groundwork for not only lifelong learning and success but also lifelong health.