Our Focus on Healthier Chicago Schools in 2016

January 12, 2016

The start of a new year is a great time to rededicate and reenergize. For us, that means taking an aspirational look at the work we do in our hometown of Chicago and setting goals for the upcoming year. A few weeks ago, we took a look at all that we were able to accomplish in 2015 and now we’re excited to share our goals for 2016.

Our work—in Chicago and across the country—is based on the commonsense notion that healthy students are better learners, and that all students deserve the opportunity to learn in a school environment that will allow them to thrive.

Close to our heart is our work with Chicago Public Schools (CPS) and the wellness issues affecting the district’s primarily low-income students of color. Our efforts to create healthier school environments are shaped by the concerns of on-the-ground leaders and evidence-based practices. In 2016, we’re excited about the promising opportunities we hope to leverage — together with parents, students, school and city leaders as well as partners — to positively impact the health of students and their families.

Review and make recommendations about the CPS wellness policy. In 2015, we embarked on a process in partnership with the CPS Office of Student Health and Wellness to review CPS’ wellness policy after three years of implementation. We brought together students, teachers, school leaders, parents and food and fitness partners to hear about their experiences and gather their ideas for improving the set of wellness policies. We expect to present our findings and make recommendations to the Chicago Board of Education in spring 2016. Given the transition in leadership at the Board and senior management levels, this review process is an important opportunity to ensure that CPS continues to prioritize student health. In addition, we and our partners will continue to support schools in creating healthier environments and work to implement the recommendations for improving the district wellness policy.

Helping schools ramp up for daily PE. In early 2014, the Chicago Board of Education, with the support of many school stakeholders, adopted a new Physical Education policy, requiring that schools implement high-quality daily PE. The new policy, which HSC and its partners were active in developing and supporting, establishes a clear goal for daily PE for all students. The policy had a three-year phase-in plan, targeting the 2016-2017 school year for full implementation—which will be the school year starting this fall. HSC will continue to support the implementation of the new PE policy by providing opportunities for parents, teachers and principals to learn about resources, evidence-based practices and emerging best practices that support quality PE programs.

Moving towards less-processed school meals. We have a long history of working with CPS to help shape the district’s school meal program. From our annual Cooking up Change healthy cooking contest to our advocacy efforts with local parents, to national policy work, we work for change that is meaningful, sustainable, and in the best interests of the students whose health and learning it directly affects. One of the key charges of the School Food Advisory Group, co-convened by CPS and HSC, is to identify new strategies and opportunities for continuing to improve the school food program. A current focus of this work is to transition away from highly processed menus to healthier, more fresh and less-processed food. We do this by incorporating more Cooking up Change recipes in the CPS school menu and implementing a marketing campaign to support these menus; reducing a set of “ingredients of concern” that were benchmarked by national partner and advisory member School Food FOCUS; and empowering parents to document and share their experiences around their children’s school meal program and reinforce healthy eating habits at home.

Green Chicago schoolyards. Together with Openlands, HSC is leading Space to Grow: Greening Chicago’s Schoolyards, an innovative program to transform Chicago schoolyards into centers of school and community life where children can be physically active, learn about the environment, enjoy green space and grow healthful food. Key to this project is a unique partnership with the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago, CPS and the Chicago Department of Water Management to leverage green infrastructure funding, incorporate green infrastructure into schoolyards and address the city’s stormwater management needs. Project partners are working together to build over 30 schoolyards over the next several years. We’re excited to start on another round of schoolyards this year!

Transform the delivery of health services in Chicago schools. We see an important opportunity to rethink the way health services are delivered to CPS students. New marketplace incentives created by the Affordable Care Act and the recent news that a key barrier to funding school health services has been removed (thanks in part to sustained advocacy from HSC and others), make this an ideal time for action.

Your voice and your actions matter in the movement to make Chicago schools healthier places for all children to learn and grow. Stay informed with HSC’s Chicago newsletter and connect with other community members and advocates.

Plus: 2015 has been an exciting year for HSC here in Chicago! Take a look at our Chicago-based 2015 milestones for healthy schools.