In 2006, a federal law required schools to adopt a wellness policy. In its wellness policy, Chicago Public Schools (CPS) stipulated the formation of local school wellness teams. An ideal team is made up of community members, teachers and parents and is led by a wellness champion who’s appointed by the principal. With as few as three and as many as 20 members, the teams plan and implement school initiatives that promote a healthy school culture and learning environment.
Many schools have had success with creating wellness teams. According to district data, one of the policy provisions schools had most success adopting was convening wellness team that met at least quarterly throughout the school year.
Often, schools did not know how to get wellness teams started. Parents United for Healthy Schools, a parent-led movement lead by Healthy Schools Campaign, stepped in and leveraged the policy to help parents establish parent-led wellness teams. Parents United has worked with parent leaders and schools to spearhead wellness teams by empowering parents and providing them with the skills and knowledge they need to run successful wellness teams and make healthy changes at the school level.
Eli Whitney Elementary School in Chicago’s South Lawndale neighborhood is one of the schools with a thriving wellness team. The school serves a student population that’s 98.8 percent Hispanic and 96.5 percent low-income. According to data from the city of Chicago, 52.3 percent of CPS students in the neighborhood were overweight or obese during the 2010-2011 school year, the most recent year data is available.
Liliana Hernandez, a parent at Eli Whitney, started learning about the link between health and academic success six years ago when she got involved in Parents United for Healthy Schools. Every day, she experienced the real-life repercussions of statistics showing that health disparities disproportionately affect her community. Yet she had only a vague notion that her children’s school could play more of a key role in supporting student health and wellness.
That was until she got involved in her local school wellness team as part of the Parents United program. Liliana engaged other parents through one-on-one meetings, where she shared her experiences and learned about others’ experiences. She also learned about the district’s policies and what her school was doing well and what some key areas of improvement were.
Liliana started an exercise club for other parents at her school, and has used the knowledge she’s gained through Parents United training programs to improve the health of her family and friends through regular exercise and healthy cooking at home. For the past several years, Liliana has lead the wellness team and successfully advocated for breakfast in the classroom and healthier school menus and helped collect more than 1,000 signatures in support of the district’s new PE policy.
Eli Whitney was one of the pioneer schools to achieve the healthy school certification and was part of a delegation that traveled to Washington, D.C., to be honored by the First Lady. To date, Parents United has worked with more than 3,000 parents. Sixty parent leaders from 45 different CPS schools attended our most recent Parent Leadership Institute. Over the past 10 years, hundreds of parents have led wellness teams.