Making Student Health and Wellness a Priority in Chicago Public Schools: An Interview with Dr. Steph

December 18, 2012 | Written By:

by Kadesha Thomas, HSC Writer and Researcher

Chicago Public Schools has recently achieved several milestones that support the district’s efforts to prioritize student health. Those milestones include collaborating with the Chicago Department of Public Health to create a new Chief Health Officer position, filled earlier in 2012; reinstating recess at elementary schools throughout the district; officially passing an updated school wellness policy in October 2012 and a healthy snacks and beverages (competitive foods) policy in November 2012; and winning a $4.4 million federal grant to fund school health initiatives.

The leader of the new Office of Student Health and Wellness, Stephanie A. Whyte, MD, MBA, recently sat down with Health Schools Campaign to talk about these milestones and how organizations like HSC helped the district get there.


HSC: Why has school health and wellness become such a big priority for Chicago Public Schools?

Dr. Whyte: CPS has realized that student health has implications for academic performance. For example, asthma is one of those illnesses that can have a great impact on student achievement if it’s not controlled. So CPS created the Chief Health Officer role, which was vacant for four years. I joined 9 months ago to lead the new Office of Student Health and Wellness (OSHW). The staff were housed in Nutrition Support Services, Special Education and other departments prior to settling under OSHW. The new Community Transformation Grant from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services will allow us to build the office’s capacity with six additional staff. The department will have grown from eight to 23 since February.


HSC: What is the Community Transformation Grant?

Dr. Whyte: In collaboration with the Chicago Department of Public Health, the school district had already launched an initiative called Healthy Chicago Public Schools that focused on nine of the 12 key priorities of Healthy Chicago, the city’s first public health agenda. Of these nine areas focused on student health, three are targeted by the grant: obesity prevention, decreasing tobacco use and violence prevention. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services awarded the district nearly $4.4 million to support outcome measures of: changes in weight, changes in proper nutrition, changes in physical activity, changes in tobacco use, and social/emotional well-being, which, for us, includes bullying and violence prevention.


HSC: How did community partners like Healthy Schools Campaign help CPS reach its recent milestones in school health?

Dr. Whyte: The district by itself can’t do it all. We just don’t have the capacity. We can say ‘this is the law of the land,’ but in order to successfully change a culture you must have support from people who are well-versed and informed about the changes. Healthy Schools Campaign has been a subject matter expert on parent engagement, student wellness and health school environments. Before anyone was watching, they were calling attention to these issues. That energy has helped us build school wellness teams and to support the mission of the Office of Student Health and Wellness.


HSC: What was HSC’s role in positioning CPS to win the CTG grant?

Dr. Whyte: The partnership with HSC and other organizations, like the Chicago Department of Public Health and the Respiratory Health Association, brought a very specific intelligence to the table and then helped us step back and look at the big picture. That was really critical for the grant. The timing was perfect. We were already updating the district’s wellness policy. Partners like HSC helped us culminate all of our activities for the grant and thus create a well-rounded 24-month strategy.


HSC: The specific role HSC plays in implementing the grant’s activities is developing a parent engagement toolkit. Why is parent engagement such an important factor?

Dr. Whyte: I’m from the community and have worked in the community. I’ve seen how a condition like asthma, for example, can have a great impact on a student if it’s not controlled. I’ve seen moms sit and cry because they didn’t know what to do. There were a lot of assumptions that when parents got the inhaler they knew how to use it, when to use it. Then, they were sent home — confused. But having open, honest and engaging dialogue with parents makes a huge difference. That is the environment the district is working hard to create, one in which parents can freely ask questions and we improve on how we react and relate to parents. Parent empowerment is huge!  So if you’re coming to the school to discuss your child’s asthma, you’re an active participant in your child’s care. That’s what I want.


HSC: So what do you hope parent engagement looks like after CPS and HSC develop the parent engagement toolkit for schools?

Dr. Whyte: Right now, being a principal is like being in a buffet line with so many options that things are falling off the plate. It’s 100 people saying, ‘All you need to do is this.’ But they can’t do everything. Remember when you would order a computer from Dell? The service guy arrives after it’s delivered, sets it up and you’re ready to go. That’s how I want this toolkit to function. I want any school that uses this toolkit to be full of engaged parents and know what to do when parents want to get involved.


HSC: How does the district’s health and wellness strategy compare with the national prevention and health promotion strategy for students?

Dr. Whyte: That’s another conversation to have after we’ve reached our goals. We are the third largest school district in the nation, so I know there are national implications. I know there are people watching. We’ve already heard from other school districts. But right now, it’s important for us to focus on doing a good job for our students. Our focus is on having an impact on improving student health locally.

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