What Makes a Healthy School: Interview with Rosa Ramirez Richter

May 24, 2022 | Written By:

Rosa Ramirez Richter (center) at a HSC Change for Good Luncheon.

Healthy Schools Campaign is bidding a fond farewell to Rosa Ramirez Richter, Chicago Program and Policy Director, as she embarks on a new professional journey. Over the past 12 years, Rosa has imbued her work with warmth, grace and a deep commitment to racial justice.

I have had the privilege of watching Rosa grow into a compelling and compassionate leader who works effectively with parents, community leaders, partners and political leaders. Her work will have a lasting impact on schools in Chicago.

Rosa recently talked with HSC about how the idea of a “healthy school” has changed over time, her work with parents, and her new position at University of Chicago Consortium on School Research, where she’ll have the opportunity to help translate research into policy and practice. We can’t wait to see what she accomplishes next.

– Rochelle Davis

HSC: Ideas about what makes a “healthy school” have shifted over the past decade. What did it mean when you first started at HSC, and what does it mean now?

Rosa: When I started at HSC, I remember there being a percolating and growing understanding of the social determinants of health and how schools tied in. At the time, it was still really abstract for the larger audience of stakeholders, except for those who were really invested in this particular issue. Also even within the field, it was really narrowly focused on food and fitness, and thinking about how schools could be places for obesity prevention strategies and interventions. It was all very choppy — one group was doing nutrition education, one group was doing after school physical activity programming and other parent programming —  but there wasn’t a lot of coordination of work around a larger goal.

Now, everyone is more broadly focused on creating healthy communities, and thinking in a big way about what that includes — not just healthy food, but health habits, access to health care, and more. 

There has been a real sea change in how we talk about schools and health. So, for example, school climate and culture is now part of the definition of how schools can support health. Our policymakers are also now more broadly focused on how school environments can impact students –and understand the important role of play. There is also a greater understanding of how schools can support student mental health, and there’s a strong focus on the importance of schools focusing on social emotional learning. 

HSC: What are some of your proudest successes from your years at HSC?

Rosa: When I think about successes, I really see them as the culmination of all these moments where we were true to our model of lifting up stakeholder voices, especially the voices of parents, to inform our work. I think back a lot on the start of the national and local conversation about what it takes to get the public behind healthier schools. For example, in 2010 we launched our  Go for the Gold Campaign which provided  leadership training, programs and resources to Chicago schools as they strived to meet the USDA’s HealthierUS School Challenge. This campaign was a really proud moment, because it showed how important parent voices were in making sure that the school district understood the importance of providing opportunities for kids and families to learn about healthy habits. It demonstrated that people care about this work and can get behind it, and showed parents how much they could achieve.

It all goes back to building relationships and connecting — whether it’s with parents or district staff — and taking time to work collaboratively. So for example, I’m really proud of the way our Space to Grow program came together in 2013, with a focus on figuring out how to bring public agencies and non-profit partners to work together on the schoolyards. That program is now a national and international model for these types of innovative partnerships.

Most recently, I have been proud of the way we kept moving the conversation about healthy school meals in Chicago forward. During the pandemic the school meal program has had so many challenges (supply chain issues, distribution issues during remote learning, etc) — but we had such strong relationships that it enabled us to keep talking with our partners about tangible steps to make the program stronger and better in the future.

I am most proud of the way we have kept equity at the center of our work, advocating for policies and practices that support the low-income students of color who are at greatest risk for the kinds of health problems that impede learning. 

HSC: What has your time at HSC taught you about the power of parents to make a difference in their children’s schools?

Rosa: It taught me that expertise and knowledge are found in so many places. Engaging parents and lifting up their voices in policy decisions is time consuming and requires careful thought and planning — but it leads to smarter policies and more buy-in around implementation. People sometimes dismiss parent engagement because it’s challenging, or they feel that parents don’t have the answers — but hearing parent voices is always worth the effort.

HSC: What are some things you are looking forward to seeing HSC accomplish in the future?

Rosa: I’m excited about HSC continuing to push our collective understanding of a healthy school, and how a  healthy and positive school environment is fundamental to student success and effective learning—while centering student and family experiences.

HSC: What lessons did you learn from your work that you’ll bring to your next job?

Rosa: I will always carry with me the value and importance of centering conversations on student and family experiences, and listening with the goal of understanding.

In my new role as the Director of Partnerships and Engagement at the University of Chicago Consortium on School Research (UChicago Consortium), I am committed to bringing my deep understanding of the important role that healthy schools can play to improve both health and education outcomes, particularly for low-income students and students of color. I will be developing and maintaining strategic partnerships with a broad range of stakeholders to support the use of Consortium research to improve practice and policy, including CPS district partners, CPS families, teachers, school administrators, nonprofit partners, policymakers and funders.

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