Making Schools Healthier in 2019

December 19, 2019

By Rochelle Davis, President + CEO

Since 2002, Healthy Schools Campaign has worked—in Chicago and across the country—to advocate for policies and practices that ensure that all children can attend healthy, safe and supportive schools. Healthy schools can positively impact students’ all-around wellbeing, build a solid foundation for learning, and help address the health and educational disparities impacting the most vulnerable children.

This work is more important than ever. In 2019, we helped more students gain access to school health services, supported states in addressing chronic absenteeism, transformed our 20th green schoolyard in Chicago and grew our network of facility directors improving the way schools are cleaned. We also spoke out on issues that affect children, advanced our programs and advanced important new opportunities in Chicago and nationally.

Increasing Access to School Health Services
Five years ago, the “free care” rule was reversed as a result of our advocacy. This policy change now allows schools to bill Medicaid for a significant number of school health services. Increasing access to school health services is essential to addressing chronic health conditions and ensure that all students are in school ready to learn. We’ve been working with state teams from across the country to take advantage of this policy change. As a result of this work, 10 states can now access Medicaid funds for school health services, and many other states are working to make this a reality. This month, we also released A Guide to Expanding Medicaid-Funded School Health Services a key new resource for expanding access to Medicaid-funded school health services.

2019 Year in Review Infographic

Raising Awareness of Chronic Absenteeism
Nationwide, a staggering number of children are chronically absent from school. While the causes are multifold, one stands out as especially significant: student health. In 2019, we launched Here + Healthy to raise awareness about the connection between health, attendance and learning. We brought major national stakeholder groups onto the campaign, and we worked with partners to develop important resources for their members. This outreach means that people working on the ground in schools, like school nurses and teachers, are now better prepared to identify and address the health-related causes of chronic absenteeism. We also provide valuable resources to states and school districts, including “State Education Policy that Supports Student Health and Wellness.”

Rewriting the Recipe for School Breakfast
Starting this school year, rollbacks on school food nutrition issued by the Trump administration went into effect. Luckily, many school districts agree that this is not the time to move backwards. Every year, our Cooking up Change student chefs impress us with their ingenuity in creating healthy school lunches, but they’ve also taken on breakfast. While breakfast is an essential component of the school meal program, school districts have struggled with finding healthy options that students want to eat. In Chicago, Cooking up Change’s student chefs took on the challenge of creating an easy-to-eat, delicious school breakfast, and Prosser Career Academy took first place in the breakfast category with their Spicy Egg Burrito & Fresh Banana. In March 2019 as part of National School Breakfast Week, students at 100 Chicago Public Schools high schools were able to try this innovative meal. The success of this meal and the inspiration from the other entries prompted CPS to find a better-tasting scrambled egg product.

Growing our Green Cleaning Network
Each and every school day, one in five Americans steps into one of our nation’s schools. Unfortunately, half of them are being exposed to polluted indoor air, chemical fumes, pesticides and other toxins. At HSC, we are supporting school facility directors to implement green cleaning programs that help reduce these harmful exposures—and so much more. That’s why we’ve been working with a network of more than 2,600 facility directors from across the country to improve the way schools clean—by providing practical how-to advice and also by implementing policies, recognizing success and especially by learning from these remarkable leaders who are making change in schools across the country. This year, we provided educational programming to more than 350 people—adding even more leaders to this dynamic network.

Showing Support for High-Quality Physical Education
Parent leaders from our Parents United for Healthy Schools program collected more than 4,000 testimonials in support of high-quality physical education from Chicago parents. Even though CPS has a strong PE policy, incomplete implementation and a change in district and state policy could weaken the district’s commitment to high-quality PE for all students. Right now, only 31 percent of elementary and middle schools and 57 percent of high schools meet the policy requirements. These testimonials show broad support for high-quality PE among parents. “In my experience and from other parents, we have seen that there are schools without physical education teachers, without adequate facilities and equipment, with scheduling challenges,” said parent leader Patricia Morales. “Above all we need physical education to be seen as a priority.”

Transforming Chicago Schoolyards
More than 8,160 CPS students now have schoolyards that provide opportunities for physical activity, outdoor learning and gardening—and mitigate neighborhood flooding. The Space to Grow program we co-manage with Openlands transformed the 20th Chicago schoolyard in 2019. Schoolyard transformations prioritize physical activity, outdoor learning and community engagement. The green schoolyards incorporate landscape features that capture a significant amount of rainfall, helping keep the city’s water resources clean and resulting in less neighborhood flooding. Collectively, the 20 schoolyards can now hold more than 3.6 million gallons of stormwater, which removes water from Chicago’s overtaxed sewer system and helps to reduce flooding.

Sharing Our Healthy Schools Agenda
We partnered with the Bipartisan Policy Center to host a dialogue with national leaders highlighting the inextricable linkage between education and health, and our annual Change for Good Luncheon spotlighted our work to make schools healthier places for all children for civic leaders and community members and introduced these efforts to leaders from the Lightfoot administration. These events highlighted our work with a diverse audience, including national policymakers in Washington, D.C., and public officials in Illinois and Chicago. We also shared our agenda digitally, through our monthly newsletter to an audience of more than 12,000 and social media to more than 30,000 followers.

I am proud of our accomplishments in 2019 and look forward to building on this foundation to do even more in 2020 to ensure all students attend schools that support their health and wellness.