Parent Leaders as Pioneers for Children’s Health

August 03, 2012

by Rochelle Davis, HSC President and CEO

Over the past few months, I have been honored and so proud to see the new level of national recognition that Parents United for Healthy Schools has garnered. At the annual parent summit this summer, I was thrilled to celebrate the news that parents had been honored with a unanimous resolution of the Cook County board. A few weeks later, I saw tears in the eyes of many in the audience when parent leaders Hilda Casarez and Karina Macedo shared their stories and accepted a special recognition for Parents United from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation.  And I am moved each time we get a call here at Healthy Schools Campaign from  community leaders in another part of the country who have heard about the model parents have developed in Chicago and want to bring this powerful approach to their community.

For the past six years, I have seen mothers and fathers of Parents United work tirelessly to achieve a simple and powerful goal: healthy school environments for their children. These parents are not only leaders but also pioneers.

It is sometimes hard to remember what it was like six years ago, before childhood obesity and school wellness were regularly in the news and before we had such a strong champion in the White House.  I remember those days when parents first began talking about health and wellness in schools, when many people they spoke with did not recognize the importance of good nutrition and physical activity on student health and learning.

It is amazing to see how Parents United has grown over the years and the power that this parent voice has had in improving the food and fitness environment not only in their children’s schools, but also for all CPS students across the district.

In thinking about this recognition, I think about the 700 parents who participated in a rally for healthy schools in 2006, and the thousands of parents who signed petitions to bring back recess in the years following. These parents were not joining an existing national movement — they were often the first people in their schools and communities talking about health disparities, about social justice and about their vision that schools can be healthy places for all children.

These parents’ impact has been truly amazing.  Schools with strong parent leaders are making changes at the school level.  There are now over 50 parent led wellness teams in Chicago.  Many of these schools have made so many changes that they qualify for recognition by the USDA’s HealthierUS School Challenge program.  In the past two years, many schools with parent leaders received this recognition and a number of parents were invited to celebrate this accomplishment at the White House.  What is even more impressive is to consider the fact that more than half of all the schools that have received recognition in Chicago have parents active in Parents United.

Parents’ impact has gone far beyond changes in individual schools.  Parents worked with their schools to pilot Breakfast in the Classroom and then demonstrated strong support for that program to be available to every grammar school student in the district.  Parents brought recess back in their children’s schools and then worked with CPS officials to make sure that recess is part of every grammar school child’s day.  It is remarkable to see parents make change in their own schools and then take the next step of working together to raise a collective voice and make sure that all students have these same opportunities.

Congratulations to the remarkable parent leaders of Parents United for Healthy Schools on the recent recognition they have received. These honors are built on years of work and vision as true pioneers for children’s health.

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Parents' Rally for Healthy Schools, 2006