We all know that making sure children have access to healthy foods and exercise are important to their growth and development. But many may not realize the link between health and school success. When children are healthier, they are more likely to attend school and perform better in school, and that in turn can impact their success later in life. In addition to encouraging students to be lifelong learners, it is also important to develop lifelong healthy behaviors.
That’s why, in June 2015, spurred on by community support, the Alexandria City School Board voted to pass the school division’s strategic plan that, for the first time, includes specific goals and objectives for improving the health and well-being of students and staff in Alexandria City Public Schools (ACPS).
Our decision is rooted in an evidence-based framework for student success: The Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development’s Whole School, Whole Community, Whole Child model. Under this model, the school division works together with key community health leaders to develop new strategies for integrating health services and activities more deeply into the day-to-day life of schools and students. The ACPS strategic plan also aligns with the goals of the Alexandria Children & Youth Master Plan to help ensure that all children in Alexandria city have the chance to grow up healthy and be successful later in life.
Starting this fall, and over the next five years, we will work to integrate the health and wellness goals of the strategic plan into the fabric of our school system. One priority is encouraging our students to engage in more physical activity. That includes working to build in more time for recess and breaks as part of school instruction. We are working with various organizations to increase the number of bike racks outside of schools to encourage more students to bike to school.
Focusing on students’ health and wellness also means making sure they are emotionally healthy and have sufficient social support. We’ve developed an organized approach for assessing students who have barriers that are impacting their success, such as chronic suspensions or attendance issues. Our monthly SchoolStat review process, involving school and central office leaders, provides an array of services to students, ranging from mentoring to therapeutic counseling services. And we want every student to have at least one mentor or access to a caring, responsible adult, which we know can protect children against stress and boost student confidence and academic performance.
We’ve also made a commitment to focus on the health of staff through on-site wellness programs and organized fitness events. Research shows that participation in employee health promotion programs reduces absenteeism. A cohort of nurses in our school division participated in the highly touted and selective Johnson and Johnson School Health Leadership Program. They have been strong advocates in improving employee wellness activities in ACPS. In our school division, we consider ourselves family. And as a family, we are looking out for each other to ensure that both our staff and students are learning to adopt life-long healthy habits.
As we look to the start of a new school year, I would encourage all Northern Virginia school divisions to think about the role schools can play in health. Students and staff who have supportive and healthy environments are more likely to be healthy and successful in school and in life.
Dr. Alvin Crawley serves as the superintendent of Alexandria City Public Schools (ACPS). He was a member of the Stakeholder Committee which worked to develop ACPS’ strategic plan. Tricia Rodgers, Program Officer for the Northern Virginia Health Foundation, served on the committee with Dr. Crawley. This kind of community involvement is part of the Foundation’s commitment to going beyond grant-making to effect change.