School Wellness in a Rural Community

A superintendent’s ownership for promoting the health and wellness of his students and staff in central Maine by Richard A. Abramson

The list of issues confronting education leaders today seems to be growing longer, with school wellness being pushed to the forefront by the surge in childhood obesity rates.

Whether walking the halls of our schools or the local shopping mall, it’s easy to see why our society needs to adopt healthier lifestyles. That’s why more community leaders, parents and government officials now are looking to schools to play a greater role in advancing the wellness of our children. While many of us, perhaps all of us, acknowledge the problem of obesity and understand that healthy kids learn better, finding the time and resources to make a meaningful impact on school wellness is anything but easy.

The good news is it can be done and indeed must be done if students are to achieve their full potential in life.

In my experience, three key ingredients are needed to create an effective school wellness environment: personal commitment, community partners and creativity. Using this formula, the Maranacook Area Schools in central Maine have improved physical activity and nutritional opportunities for students at each of our six school campuses.

Personal Commitment
Since the national school wellness mandate went into effect last year, virtually every public school in the nation has had to make wellness a higher priority. The days of school wellness being the exclusive province of the school nurse or health and physical education teachers are long gone.

Rather, creating schools that promote good health requires cooperation from the entire educational community, from the top down.

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That means first and foremost that as superintendents — the leaders and public face of our school districts — we set an example so everyone around us takes wellness seriously. Forgive the cliché, but we have to walk the talk, just as we do when advancing any other organizational priority or goal.

Why am I so passionate about fitness and wellness? The answer is rooted in my personal health experiences. When my daughter was born in 1976, I vowed, with my wife’s encouragement, to stop smoking and get back into shape. I started out slowly, first by walking and then working up to fun runs and road races. As corny as it may sound, I kicked my smoking habit by getting hooked on something else, taking care of myself, and it really has affected my life and career.

I even left the classroom and school administration for six years to become executive director of our local YMCA. As it turns out, that career detour was a good move, allowing me to further hone the leadership and management skills I now use as a district superintendent in an environment in which wellness was the primary focus.

Although I’m not pounding the pavement and wearing out running shoes as I used to, personal wellness remains part of my value system and is cemented firmly into my daily routine. I start every day with some physical activity, whether walking, swimming, bicycling or kayaking. Beyond the physical benefits, these activities provide uninterrupted thinking time that gets me mentally prepared for the day ahead.

Partnership Payoffs
Over the last several years we have institutionalized school wellness in Maranacook, which simply means that we provide highly individualized attention to the health and fitness needs of every student. Each child is different, so naturally his or her abilities and interests will range widely. Creating a rich wellness environment requires that we provide a robust variety of opportunities for students. To accomplish this takes time, cooperation and money, which is why the superintendent must be integral to the process.

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Frankly, Maranacook already was ahead of the curve on wellness before I arrived in 2001. A school district wellness team had been in place since the mid-’80s and taken strides to provide healthy snack and beverage options as well as increased opportunities for physical activity. The team kept current on the latest school wellness developments by attending the state’s annual health promotion conferences and boasted an award-winning, student-based health center.

My chief contributions have been exhibiting personal enthusiasm, along with a knack for locating resources. For example, about five years ago, our female students’ physical fitness scores started to plummet. Faced with limited resources, I turned to fellow districts, educational associations, government agencies, community organizations or corporations that could lend a hand, whether by offering guidance, providing goods or services or supporting us financially.

One of our first supporters, Anthem Blue Cross/Blue Shield, was receptive to developing and implementing a pilot program known as the Anthem Rewards Program for students in our schools. We jumped at the chance.

The Anthem Rewards Program, for students in grades 8-12, school staff, school board members and town employees, rewards individuals with program points when they engage in 30 minutes or more of physical activity per day. Participants accumulate points that can be used to purchase fitness-friendly rewards such as water bottles, gym bags, clothing, pedometers, first-aid kits and smoothie makers. The kids loved it, especially the idea of being able to convert their physical activity into a form of currency.

Our success with the program landed me on a national panel at the Healthy Schools Summit in 2005, hosted by Action for Healthy Kids in Washington, D.C. To say it was a powerful experience would be an understatement. Physicians, lawmakers, CEOs of major corporations and other officials had gathered to hear what I and school leaders around the country had learned through our experiences with school wellness and its impact on student success and well-being. What a great moment of vindication and pride — and an excellent way to target new potential partners!

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Over time, we have forged additional partnerships with a wide range of organizations, including the Readfield Recreation Committee, the Barbara Bush Children’s Hospital at Maine Medical Center, Kennebec Valley YMCA, Friends of Cobbossee Watershed, Bicycle Coalition of Maine, Camp KV for Kids, six area summer camps and four other school districts.

We also have received various grants, including an AmeriCorps grant for a Vista Volunteer, and are awaiting a Safe Routes to School grant. These and other partnerships have helped us advance our objective of providing a rich, diverse slate of wellness opportunities for our students.

My Discoveries
I’ve discovered a few key steps to creating strong, beneficial partnerships. First, we must become our school district’s biggest cheerleader by talking to as many people as possible about what our district is trying to accomplish.

Second, we must be flexible. Partnerships are all about collaboration, and potential partners may have some good ideas of their own on how they can assist us.

Finally, keeping the lines of communication open is an imperative in any lasting relationship. Our partners want the partnership to work out, too, so we have to keep them informed about positive developments as well as any difficulties.

And we must never forget that success breeds success. Once the word gets out that your district is looking for help to promote school wellness, don’t be surprised to find potential partners knocking on your door.

Individual Preferences
Fortunately, our district has been very successful in implementing a wide range of school wellness initiatives. (These can be found on our district website and on Maine’s Coordinating School Health Programs website.) And yet, while fortunate in garnering support for our programs, we have dealt with our share of obstacles as well.

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Several years ago, a few staff members, students and parents felt as though our wellness programs went too far and intruded into their personal lives. They felt that what they eat and how frequently they engage in physical activity should be their own responsibility, not the district’s. We listened carefully to their concerns and assured everyone our goal was to be supportive, not directive, in promoting wellness activities, especially during out-of-school hours.

More importantly, we used this opportunity to underscore our belief that schools do indeed have a duty to impart knowledge and reinforce behaviors that lead to lifelong healthy habits. The complaints all but disappeared when both teachers and students actually began participating in the programs and then began to feel more focused and relaxed during the day.

Another challenging issue was our rural geography. Many roads in Kennebec County are not safe for biking or walking, and state-of-the-art gyms and fitness facilities are simply too far away for some families to visit routinely. As a matter of fact, most of Kennebec County is listed as rural with very low population densities and many miles of unimproved roads.

But we took stock of what we did have, including a worn-out old running track, some unused space on our campuses and 17 lakes and ponds throughout the region. The first thing we did was ask the community to help us rebuild the track. Not only did they respond positively, community leaders surprised us by taking on the track renovation project all at once rather than phasing improvements over time. The beautiful new track now serves not only our students but also the community at large.

We converted some empty building space into additional gym and fitness areas for students and staff. We also implemented a swimming assessment program for 5th graders and provided a copy of results to parents, along with summer swimming opportunities.

Creating healthy school environments takes work. Cultivating partnerships, writing grants and providing training on new programs are time-consuming but necessary steps toward institutionalizing wellness. But the benefits are well worth the effort. In our school district, we have reduced student absenteeism. We’ve empowered students to take responsibility for their health and created an atmosphere in which students and staff genuinely enjoy coming to school.

Untapped Options
The world beyond our offices and schools is finally paying attention to school wellness so it behooves us to strike while the iron is hot. As district and community leaders, superintendents are in a unique position to influence hundreds, even thousands, of students, educators and administrators. We can use our position as role models to inspire others to make wellness a priority.

Additional Resources

The AASA website includes links to valuable resources on school wellness, such as a policy guide for school leaders, School Policy and Practice: Taking on Childhood Obesity.

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Untapped resources exist all around us. Willing partners will come to the table and help us, if we just invite them. Look around and you likely will find underused facilities and other resources in your district that can be adapted creatively to address the wellness needs of your students, faculty and community.

Though not without its challenges, taking the issue of school wellness off the to-do list and putting it to work for your district is a smart investment. Students and staff will develop more energy and focus, leading to more positive learning environments and higher-performing schools.

Rich Abramson is superintendent of the Maranacook Area Schools Union 42 in Readfield, Maine. E-mail: rich_abramson@maranacook.org