How to Include Health and Wellness in School Improvement Plans

October 12, 2016

States are hard at work implementing the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), the new national education policy passed this past December. ESSA specifically acknowledges the importance of supporting the physical and mental health and wellness of students. ESSA also gives states and districts broad discretion in their approach to improving schools.

One of the ways schools, districts and states can use the new education law to promote student health and wellness is by including it in their school improvement plans. To help schools, districts and states with these improvement plans, the National Association of Chronic Disease Directors (NACDD) recently released a guide for incorporating health and wellness into school improvement plans.

What is a school improvement plan?

Schools have always pursued some form of strategic planning to improve student achievement, but the process was formalized under the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB). Under NCLB, schools designated as “in need of improvement” were required to have school improvement plans (SIPs). Additionally, many states have mandated or recommended that all schools have SIPs. There is not a single template for SIPs, but the goal is to identify deficiencies and develop strategies that will support continuous improvement and student achievement. This need for schools to have plans for continued improvement continues under ESSA.

Why should health and wellness be included in school improvement plans?

We know that healthy, active and well-nourished children are more likely to attend school, be ready to learn and stay engaged in class. Unfortunately, many school environments do not promote health. Too many students spend their days in buildings with unhealthy air; have limited opportunities for physical activity; have inadequate access to fresh water, nutritious food or a school nurse; and come to school with one or more health problems that impact their ability to learn. Ensuring that health and wellness are a part of school improvement strategies is key to supporting student success in these schools.

How can health and wellness be integrated into school improvement plans?

It starts with the school improvement team. Does the SIP team include members who are well-versed with the physical, social, nutritional, emotional and behavioral needs of students? Then, it is important that health and wellness data be part of the improvement planning. In addition to the standard academic data, there are dozens of assessments, surveys and tools designed to supply schools with health- and wellness-related data. Once armed with this data, consider the root cause when analyzing any data point. The cause of a low test score or poor literacy may be related to instruction, or it might be the result of chronic absenteeism, or a nutrition deficiency, or any number of other health and wellness factors.

The NACDD guide includes examples of how schools, districts and states have successfully incorporated health and wellness into the school improvement planning process. Fremont City Schools (FCS) in Ohio implemented a “Take Ten” physical activity break program and a fresh fruit and vegetable snack program in elementary schools with the goal of increasing nutrition and fitness knowledge. The Austin Independent School District (AISD) implemented a campus-wide behavior system that includes strong systems with clear expectations with the goal of reducing discipline referrals.

Healthy Schools Campaign has partnered with the Alliance for a Healthier Generation to develop a framework for ESSA implementation. The framework, which will be completed soon, will offer guidance for integrating health and wellness into your state’s ESSA implementation strategy. The framework will offer recommendations that incorporate student health and school wellness into the state’s accountability system, needs assessments, evidenced-based practices and professional development, all key aspects of school improvement plans.