A Look Inside: A Principal’s Perspective on School Wellness

June 05, 2012

By Brittany Wright, HSC media + outreach specialist

IMG_1315rszWe’ve recently shared how the wellness team at Nathanael Greene Elementary created an engaging event and serves as a resource for the school community. One aspect of the parent-driven group’s success is their collaboration with the school’s administration.

Principal Michael Heidkamp has a hands-on approach to school wellness. He frequently attends the health and wellness committee meetings and supports parents in bringing resources to Greene Elementary.

The former teacher has served as a Chicago Public School principal for four years. “I’ve never lost the teacher’s perspective, which is having the privilege to go into a classroom every day and be a part of the learning experience and getting to know the students on a level that few people have the opportunity to do over a year,” said Heidkamp.

We spoke with Principal Heidkamp to learn how wellness and parent engagement work at the southwest Chicago school.

What role does wellness play in student success?

One of the things we attempt to do is broaden the conversation about student success beyond just test scores. When you’re talking about student success, you’re really talking about lifestyle choices.

Reading workshops are as much about the disposition of readers as they are about any skill or content knowledge. If you can get the disposition level then you’re talking about something that kids are going to carry with them for the rest of their lives — not just something unloaded on a particular test. It’s the same thing with health and wellness, this idea of supporting students to really develop a lifestyle that makes living healthy normal and just what you do. Through afterschool programming and the health fair, we’re creating a “new normal” of what they should expect of themselves — getting them to see beyond the immediate satisfaction of eating fries or chips to broadening that vision beyond the immediate moment. That’s been a big part of our push here. We do afterschool programming, we have yoga , karate, running club, folkloric dance, soccer with [community partners] Urban Initiatives, Girls in the Game, Girls on the Run, and regular seasonal sports programming.

All of that is a part of a bigger integrated and comprehensive approach to really creating a healthy lifestyle for our students.

How did Greene initially take an active role in promoting health and wellness?

It was very parent-driven. Karena Macedo [a parent leader], in conjunction with the previous administration, had worked very hard in getting the school certified by the HealthierUS School Challenge with the Gold of distinction. She actually went to the White House to receive the award for the school.

One of the issues is that as the principal, sometimes you can get very myopic in the sense that you're getting press for test scores and short term gains and short term results. I think it’s nice to have a strong group of parents that are constantly reminding you that their child’s experience is so much more than that.

What we’re about is educating the child to lead a responsible life. Part of that is respecting their intellectual gifts and what they can do as students, but also this other piece of understanding that how you treat yourself and how you view yourself and the choices you make with regard to your health are equally as important and deserve that same level of instruction and support. As a parent, it's great that my kid is doing well on a particular assessment, but what kind of person is my child becoming? What kind of values are they carrying? Those are the kinds of things that are less apparent when you do the number crunching off of the standardized test. It’s been really nice to have our parents out on the forefront saying there are other things we value.

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Prinicpal Heidkamp and parents leaders discuss school wellness

How have health and wellness impacted the school community?

In terms of participation — we’ve got close to 150 students that are involved in some sort of extracurricular sports activity. Last year, there weren’t these offerings. A good 25 percent of our student body is engaged in some sort of exercise in addition to a strong physical education program. The health and wellness committee organized the health night and we had over 300 people attend. That was all organized by the health and wellness committee — that didn’t exist last year. They really put together a terrific event.

Kids are making the choice to participate, adults are making the choice to participate and parents are making the choice to take on the leadership role in increasing the resources that are available and really challenging the culture.

What can parents do to make health and wellness a priority in school?

You don’t need to wait for everyone to show up to a meeting. You can start a meeting with three people. If you already have a sense of what the needs are, you can send out a survey to parents. Your role and that of the entire of group will increase tremendously. You can start pulling people in to sponsor activities. People will start to come, more and more people are going to want to be a part of that.

In fact, as long as you have a good sense of the community, you can start reaching out for those resources. Build your group and your committee based on the roll-out of those different resources to get your name and mission out there. That is a very powerful way to attract other parents.

Kudos to Nathanael Greene Elementary parents, staff, and administrators on moving school wellness forward! Keep up the great work!