Local, state and federal education policies create important opportunities for promoting health and wellness, focusing on the whole child and giving all students an equitable chance at academic success.

Policy Is a Powerful Tool

The research is clear: healthier students are better learners. They miss fewer days of school, are better able to focus in class and are more ready to learn. Not only that, but long-term studies reveal they also grow into healthier and more productive adults.

Yet far too many students spend their days in schools that do not offer them adequate clean air and water, nutritious food, physical activity and the support of a school nurse. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the incidence of chronic diseases—including asthma, obesity and diabetes—has doubled among children over the past several decades. These conditions affect students’ ability to learn and succeed at school, and also affect their long-term health outcomes.

This challenge is especially critical in light of the nation’s vast disparities in health and education. Low-income students and students of color are at increased risk for health problems that impede learning. These students are also more likely to attend schools with unhealthy environments and limited health services. Unless we address these disparities in health status and school environments, efforts to close the education achievement gap will fall short.

Education policy can be a powerful tool for building school environments that support healthy learners. Policies at the national and state levels that determine funding and set priorities have a major impact on policies and practices across districts and in schools.

HSC works with partners to advocate for education policies that promote healthy schools, with good nutrition, physical activity, basic safety, clean air and water, access to care, and education about how to make healthy choices that allow students to thrive. Learn more about our work on education policy by clicking the tabs at the top of this page.

New Opportunities to Prioritize Health

In December 2015, the bipartisan Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), a major overhaul of federal education legislation, was signed into law. ESSA gives states and school districts significantly more authority and flexibility to create standards for accountability and regulate school performance, and specifically recognizes the need for schools to support the whole child. The law also provides opportunities and incentives for states to prioritize student health and wellness and to address health disparities in order to provide a well-rounded and equitable education program. These are grouped in several main areas.

Accountability Systems
Each state was required to create an accountability system for its state ESSA plan with at least four indicators of their choosing, including three academic indicators (for high schools this must include graduation rate), and one non-academic indicator such as chronic absenteeism. HSC worked with partners to encourage states to include health and wellness in their accountability systems. Ultimately, 36 states chose to include chronic absenteeism in their accountability systems, seven included measures related to physical education and/or fitness and six included school climate measures.

Needs Assessment and School Improvement
Persistently low-performing schools are required by ESSA to go through a needs assessment process to guide their school improvement planning process. Needs assessment provides an excellent opportunity to understand and address health and wellness issues that impact student learning. HSC is working directly with states to help them build health and wellness markers into their needs assessment process.

Funding for Health and Wellness
ESSA allows Title I funding to be used for health-related supports for low-income schools, such as school nurses or a physical education program. Student Support and Academic Enrichment Grants (Title IV, Part A of ESSA) can be used to promote student health wellness, including mental health services.

Professional Development
ESSA provides funding to support professional development for principals, teachers, early childhood educators and other school personnel, which can include health and wellness topics, including trauma-informed practices.

Supporting Health through Policy Implementation

Over the course of the next few years, states will be implementing the education plans they created to meet the new Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). HSC is committed to making sure that states understand the vital link between learning and health, and to helping them implement ESSA in a way that ensures schools have the tools to build a culture of health for students. Some of our major initiatives include:

  • HSC and Alliance for a Healthier Generation are partnering to work intensively with eight states to help them implement their ESSA plans in a way that supports health and wellness. For example, we are working with states to develop needs assessments that incorporate health and wellness.
  • In Illinois, HSC is working to ensure ESSA implementation supports the connection between health and learning. This includes incorporating health and wellness into needs assessments, school improvement programming and professional development.
  • HSC is launching a new National Coalition on Learning + Health that will bring together health, education and civil rights organizations to develop and advance a broad and inclusive agenda that links education and health so all students can learn and thrive. This coalition will build on and expand the important work of the National Collaborative on Education and Health.
  • HSC has released numerous resources to help states, school districts, school leaders, teachers and parents understand the link between learning and health and build effective policies and practices to create healthy schools. You can access these on the Resources tab and in our Resource Center.

Stay Connected!

Your voice matters in urging national, state and school leaders to prioritize the link between learning and health. We invite you to learn more and lend your voice to the dialogue about this issue:

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Education Resources

Access related resources below, or go to our main Resource Center to access resources across all of our program and policy areas.

ESSA Implementation: Key Opportunities to Support Health and Wellness

Implementation of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) provides a number of policy levers for promoting healthy schools and student wellness. This document summarizes Healthy Schools Campaign’s analysis of those opportunities.

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