Our work at Healthy Schools Campaign stems from the core belief that healthy students are better learners and that all students—regardless of race or socioeconomic background—deserve a school environment that supports student health and wellness and builds a foundation for learning.
The prevalence of chronic diseases—including asthma, obesity and diabetes—has doubled among children over the past several decades. Today, one in four American children have health issues that affect their ability to succeed in the classroom, twice the number just 30 years ago. In addition, low-income students of color are at increased risk of health problems that hinder learning. We believe that prioritizing health in schools will yield lifelong benefits for the 52 million children currently attending America’s schools—and that our nation’s future hinges on giving all children a chance for a healthy, brighter tomorrow.
April is National Minority Health Month and is a great time to reflect on our work to address these health disparities in Chicago and across the country. Our approach to this work is strategic, clear and comprehensive: We empower, we advocate and we build.
The Chicago Public Schools system serves more than 400,000 students at more than 600 schools. African-American and Latino students comprise 85 percent of the district’s student population, and more than 86 percent of the students are considered economically disadvantaged. HSC’s successful efforts to transform the food and fitness environment in Chicago schools provide valuable lessons on how addressing health disparities in schools could improve student health, help close the achievement gap and help all students reach their potential.
HSC empowers parents, teachers, school nurses and many other school stakeholders with the knowledge and skills to make changes for health and wellness at the school level and to have a voice at the district, state and national levels. For example, HSC’s Parents United for Healthy Schools coalition has engaged hundreds of parents in Chicago’s low-income Latino and African-American communities in training on health disparities, school wellness and the ways in which parents can create change at the school level. Parent leaders have formed wellness teams that are making health-promoting changes at more than 50 Chicago schools.
HSC advocates for practical policy recommendations that support healthy schools and advocates for these policies at the local, state and national level. For example, at the same time that HSC-trained parents have been making school-level change, they have also been successfully advocating for change at the district level. Parents gathered thousands of petitions in support of recess and attended CPS board meetings to present the petitions in a strong show of support for bringing back recess. When parents started working on this issue, only 6 percent of CPS elementary schools offered recess. In 2012, recess returned to all elementary schools.
Making sure that schools have the capacity to support wellness is critical to creating sustainable change, so one of our key strategies is to build support for student health and wellness in the education sector and beyond. School-level successes have shown others what is possible, and built a foundation for the strong district wellness policy that we see today. CPS has one of the strongest and most comprehensive wellness policies in country. Three years after a new wellness policy was adopted, nearly half of CPS schools are implementing a majority of the wellness policy provisions. The wellness policy is extremely important in setting standards, creating accountability and building the capacity of schools to implement health-promoting policies and practices.
Through our work and the work of tireless parents, teachers, principals, community members and civic leaders, Chicago schools are healthier. But we still have a lot of work to do.