Friends in Education, Partners in Building Capacity

March 25, 2013

This blog features a case study from Health in Mind, a new 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. Here, we learned about the Colorado Department of Education’s (CDE) innovative strategy to integrate health and wellness into schools by building capacity.

Above: Dr. Helayne Jones speaks at a Health in Mind event last May.

Today we’re featuring a case study from Health in Mind, a new 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. Here, we learned about the Colorado Department of Education’s (CDE) innovative strategy to integrate health and wellness into schools by building capacity.

By Kadesha Thomas

One of the primary catalysts behind the Colorado Department of Education’s (CDE) ability to integrate health and wellness into schools has been the ability to add capacity.

State legislators gave CDE the green light to focus on school health and wellness as a strategy to boost academic performance. But that was only the first step. The next step was to equip the department’s Office of Healthy Schools with funding, training and technical assistance to carry out school health and wellness efforts, such as funding districts to address student wellness and offer comprehensive health education, supporting school health services reimbursed by Medicaid, and providing professional development to teachers and school leaders who were implementing health and wellness strategies. The state also advanced the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Coordinated School Health model, which includes health and physical education, nutrition, school health services, and social and emotional wellness.

This breadth of initiatives not only requires legislative and funding support, but also manpower, primarily through partnerships. The Colorado Coalition for Healthy Schools is a collaboration of local partners and stakeholders who promote healthy schools through policy, surveillance and partnerships.

The coalition is managed through an interagency partnership between CDE and the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. The coalition’s capacity is bolstered and enhanced by the Colorado Legacy Foundation (CLF), formed in 2007 to be an accelerator of innovation for CDE. Under the leadership of Dr. Helayne Jones, who became CEO in 2009, and in close collaboration with the Board of Trustees, the organization has successfully filled unmet needs to help school districts translate health and wellness policy into practice.

“The unique relationship between CDE and the Colorado Legacy Foundation is gaining attention as a national model,” Dr. Jones said. “Our partnership allows us to provide resources and build capacity to implement health and wellness strategies that help students lead healthy, active lives.”

That means helping the CDE test new ideas before it commits resources. When CLF received additional funding for comprehensive health and physical education, it loaned CDE a content expert to assist school districts with implementing the new state standards. CLF was also able to provide a staff member to implement the state’s recognition program for schools’ health and wellness initiatives. “Capacity building is a significant need,” said Stephanie Wasserman, Director of Health and Wellness at CLF.

“It’s not just about having another funding opportunity or another strategic plan. It’s about having boots on the ground and expertise from people who can implement the programs.

“Most state agencies are under-budgeted and overstretched. That makes it hard for them to be innovators and incubate new ideas, like school health recognition programs,” Wasserman added. (See the case study, “Applauding School Wellness Efforts with Colorado’s Statewide Recognition Program”.) “By serving as a capacity builder, we are flexible enough to bring in new ideas, new people, and new ways of looking at things without being afraid to push the envelope and be responsive to lessons learned.”

More than 90 percent of the foundation’s nearly $10 million operating budget supports specific reform initiatives within CDE and school districts throughout the state. This allows CDE to test and refine new initiatives before committing its own resources. The expectation is that CDE will transition to assuming the full financial and implementation responsibilities, but only for those initiatives that prove to be effective.

At the same time, CLF serves as a voice in policy change. Dr. Jones and key members of the leadership team participate in cabinet and executive committee meetings at CDE. “This role in our partnership is essential because it grounds our work in student achievement,” Wasserman said. “The truth is that many educators support the idea of school health, but they may not feel it is a priority. They may not think focusing on it helps them meet their educational goals. Our work supports school health and wellness strategies that directly connect with increased student performance and academic achievement.”

CDE and CLF, along with other community partners, have successfully launched or sustained other school health and wellness initiatives in the state:

  • More than half of all Colorado’s 1,800 schools have an active building-level school health team that serves to assess need and coordinate the implementation of school health strategies.
  • The Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports program is operating in 742 schools in 70 school districts to promote behavioral health more broadly.
  • Schools and districts across the state have adopted social and emotional learning, including bullying prevention, in pre-K-12 classrooms as part of the new state standards for comprehensive health education.
  • Schools and districts are increasingly employing innovative and best-practice strategies to improve school health, such as school gardens, salad bars, school-based health centers, healthy cooking from scratch, physical activity breaks in the classroom and a universal breakfast.

This model—a strategic partnership among a state education agency, an independent partnering organization and a coalition of other collaborators— has garnered attention from other states and the U.S. Department of Education. Wasserman said similar capacity-building efforts and partnerships could allow the Department of Education to broaden its focus to include school health and wellness without overextending its resources.

The state of Colorado’s approach to school health and wellness stands in contrast to other efforts that attempt to include school health and wellness without a comprehensive, capacity-focused strategy.

“The downfalls generally have to do with patchwork approaches, duplication of efforts, and inability to sustain programs after funding runs out,” Wasserman said. “By addressing systemic approaches to health and wellness, and aligning those efforts with educational outcomes, health and wellness becomes a matter of course, promoting a climate that optimizes healthy and productive learning environments.”