It’s the late afternoon on a weekday in early fall at Cather Elementary School. School is out, and neighborhood kids are playing a pick-up game of basketball on the school’s recently renovated schoolyard. Taschaunda Hall and Karonda Locust are going through the school’s current school improvement plan, circling specific points and brainstorming ideas for the next plan.
Taschaunda and Karonda, who are sisters, are both very active in the school community, serving on multiple committees, including the Local School Council, an elected group that provides governance for the school. The school improvement plan they’re working on sets up the priorities, goals and action plan for a school. Including health and wellness in this plan—such as setting a goal of meeting Chicago Public Schools (CPS)’ Healthy CPS certification, which measures a school’s implementation of the district’s wellness policies—is one of the most effective ways to ensure a school is addressing the whole child and meeting the health and wellness needs of its students.
Healthy Schools Campaign (HSC) is supporting schools across the district, including Cather, as they incorporate health and wellness goals in their school improvement plans and work toward becoming Healthy CPS certified. “Becoming Healthy CPS certified is a way to document a school’s commitment to the health and wellness of its students,” says Kenneth Varner, the community engagement coordinator at HSC. “We provide assistance navigating the certification process so schools can complete the annual survey successfully and be on the path to earning the Healthy CPS certification.”
Kenneth has been working closely with Cather, including parents Karonda and Taschaunda, and Principal Wanda Carey. Principal Carey has been working hard on school wellness for years and was awarded the Deborah Reese Memorial Award for leadership in school wellness in 2016.
Cather was a pilot school for the district’s 30-20-10 physical activity program that required 30 minutes of daily physical education, 20 minutes of daily recess and 10 minutes of daily physical activity in classrooms. While many schools worked up to the full 30 minutes a day over several years, Cather went all in year one—and hasn’t looked back since.
In 2015, Cather received a new Space to Grow schoolyard, which supports Cather’s work on recess among other things. The schoolyard has provided basketball space, a track, play equipment, gardens and an outdoor classroom. Space to Grow is an innovative partnership led by HSC and Openlands to transform Chicago schoolyards into centers for outdoor learning, play and engagement with nature, while also addressing neighborhood flooding issues. Space to Grow is supported by capital funding and expertise from CPS, the Chicago Department of Water Management and the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago.
The new schoolyard has truly transformed the space into a community asset. The space played host to a basketball tournament and a family reunion this past summer, and Karonda’s 5-year-old daughter learned to ride her bike on the new schoolyard. Several parents use the track to exercise during the week, and Karonda is looking into starting a walking club at the school.
The sisters are excited to update the school improvement plan with even more health and wellness elements, as well as weaving in resources from other groups and working with local businesses. “The school is just one building, but we’re still one community,” says Karonda.