Case Study: Parents Unite for Health and Wellness

February 18, 2013 | Written By:

By Kadesha Thomas

For school principals, every priority related to student achievement is the top priority. No factor that influences student learning can become an afterthought, especially not student health and wellness. Fortunately, Principal Michael Heidkamp, at Nathanael Greene Elementary School on Chicago’s Southwest side, can lean on the leadership of his school’s wellness team to integrate health and wellness into the school’s culture.

The Greene Elementary School wellness team is composed of people with a deeply personal and powerful influence over the students—the parents. “As the principal, sometimes you can get very myopic in the sense that you’re getting pressed for test scores and short-term gains and short-term results,” Heidkamp explained. But his students’ parents are constantly emphasizing that “their child’s experience is so much more than that.”

The parents on the Greene Elementary wellness team are members of Parents United for Healthy Schools/Padres Unidos para Escuelas Saludables. Parents United/Padres Unidos is a coalition of more than 40 parent and community groups dedicated to bringing healthy eating and physical activity to Chicago schools, particularly those in Latino and African-American communities facing significant health disparities. Parents United/Padres Unidos, led by the Healthy Schools Campaign, equips parents to advocate for policies and programs that promote healthy eating and active lifestyles in their schools by educating parents on best practices around nutrition and physical activity. Parents United/Padres Unidos also trains parents on strategies for organizing effective school wellness teams and provides ongoing support as parents lead these teams to transform schools.

The wellness team came together at Greene Elementary School after Karena Macedo, a parent on the team, led the school to become certified with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s HealthierUS School Challenge, an effort First Lady Michelle Obama is promoting to combat childhood obesity. Macedo even represented her school at a White House celebration the First Lady hosted to honor schools that achieved this certification.

Jovita Flores, Healthy Schools Campaign’s manager of Parents United/Padres Unidos, sat down with the wellness team at Greene Elementary in March 2012 to reflect on a recent initiative, the school’s first health and wellness resource fair. The event featured health education, food demonstrations, and physical activity—all focused on what Principal Heidkamp describes as the school’s goal of “creating a new normal” around healthy living.

Community agencies provided glucose, blood pressure, and vision testing at the fair, along with
instructions for follow-up services. The fair also incorporated nutrition education, demonstrating small steps parents could take to improve their family’s diet. Lunchroom manager Christina Hernandez and a parent/wellness team leader, who is also named Christina Hernandez, taught parents how to make smoothies with fruit and vegetables. “Nobody knew the vegetables were there and they were amazed,” Heidkamp said. “Kids were coming back for more!”

More than 300 people attended and plans are already underway for next year’s event. Heidkamp said parent leadership has been key to prioritizing health and wellness at the school. The wellness team connects parents and school administrators by creating structured activities to promote student health.

During the most recent school year, the wellness team helped revamp the afterschool program. It now includes yoga, several running clubs, folkloric dance, soccer and other seasonal sports. “A good twenty-five percent of our student body is engaged in some sort of exercise in addition to a strong physical education program,” Heidkamp said. Such opportunities did not exist during the previous school year. “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.”

The wellness team is also preparing to tackle classroom celebrations that often lead to a frenzied sugar high, then an energy drop, when parents bring sweets like cupcakes and brownies. “It’s important that parents are speaking to other parents about that, not just administrators,” Heidkamp said.

Leveraging the influence of dedicated parents on the wellness team has been the school’s most effective strategy for posing healthy lifestyle changes to parents. “It’s a decision by the community for the community,” Heidkamp added. “It’s much more about ‘this is why,’ and ‘this is the change that I’m making with my child and that you can make with your child.’”

This case study was originally published in Health in Mind, a report from HSC and Trust for America’s Health (TFAH), which details immediate solutions that can help close the achievement gap and create a healthy future for all children. As the year progresses, we’ll share more about the progress of this initiative. For more information, see HSC’s National Collaborative page.

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