How Action for Healthy Kids Helped Make Chicago Schools Healthier

  • April 4, 2017
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Three years ago, Funston Elementary School in Logan Square only provided its students with 60 minutes of PE per week (compared to the best practice of 150 minutes per week); did not have a policy to monitor healthy celebrations, fundraising and non-food rewards; and had little infrastructure to support school wellness practices.

That was until it partnered with Action for Healthy Kids, one of many partners that’s been helping Chicago Public Schools (CPS) implement the wellness policy. Research shows that schools who receive assistance make more progress in implementation that those that go it alone.

Local school wellness policies are an important tool for school districts to promote student wellness, ensure regular physical activity opportunities for students and provide assurance that school meals and snacks are healthful. CPS has a strong wellness policy, but policies are only as good as how well they are implemented.

AFHK supported 20 CPS elementary schools in implementing healthy eating and physical activity initiatives to align with the district’s wellness policies. These schools were all located on the city’s Southwest and West sides and had high rates of childhood overweight and obesity, a large number of students qualifying for free or reduced-price meals and an absence of other health and wellness community partners to support wellness policy implementation.

Over the past three years, Funston improved in 16 of 20 wellness indicators the district tracks and is now aligned with all district wellness policies. Key to the school’s success was establishing and maintaining an active wellness team. Establishing this school wellness infrastructure allowed the school to host school wellness events for students and their families, gather equipment for physical activity and indoor recess, integrate health and wellness into the school’s communication systems, work with parents to provide healthy and non-food options for school celebrations and host regular healthy eating workshops and cooking demonstrations for parents.

And Funston is not alone. In a comprehensive report, AFHK found that all schools involved in the pilot created and sustained wellness teams—up from just 16 percent when the pilot started. By the end of year three, 74 percent of schools met the requirements to become recognized as a healthy school by the district, compared to the district average of 21 percent.

Through AFHK’s three-year model, schools first focused on building a strong wellness infrastructure, then concentrated on parent and community engagement efforts and, in the last year, focused on sustaining school wellness initiatives. Through our Parents United for Healthy Schools program, we’ve experienced the incredible power of parents working together and establishing parent-led wellness teams. We applaud AFHK for recognizing the crucial role of parents in supporting the health of children at home and at school.

The increased focus on student health and wellness in these 20 schools was seen in academic indicators as well. Participating schools improved from the 68th to the 78th percentile in reading (compared to overall district growth to the 72nd percentile) and from the 49th to 56th percentile in math (which mirrored the district’s growth).

Healthy Schools Campaign is excited—but not surprised—by these results. We know that healthy students are better learners and are better able to focus on academics throughout the school day if they have access to nutritious food and physical activity. The results from these 20 schools clearly show that schools putting wellness policy standards into practice will be healthier places for students.

Many partners, including Healthy Schools Campaign, are happy to help all Chicago schools work toward implementing the wellness policy. Please contact Rosa Ramirez Richter at rosa@healthyschoolscampaign.org.