Doing Better: How School Leadership is Making Student Health and Well-Being a Priority

04/23/2015 12:39 pm ET | Updated Jun 23, 2015

The role that schools must play in the lives of students is complex and ever-expanding. To ensure that students are ready and able to achieve academically, schools must be poised to meet the myriad health, emotional and social needs that can negatively impact students' academic achievement if they go unmet. Too many of our children are overweight and undernourished; uninsured or underinsured; or miss too many school days because of asthma. Far too many of them are victims of adverse childhood experiences, and if they are black and brown, they are disproportionately suspended from school, missing valuable learning time.

I am elated that we, as a country, are beginning to examine policies that encourage healthy and safe environments, as we did with smoking and seat belts. But I still hear a lot of this: All children should do well in school, and they do better when they are eating healthy and exercising; those who don't must unlearn their bad behaviors. It is easy to get caught up in short-sighted deductive reasoning, offering a simplistic conclusion devoid of any analysis of the systems that cause children to eat unhealthy foods and have limited access to physical activity. Rather, these are indicators of a greater systemic problem that must be addressed simultaneously as healthy food options and opportunities for physical activity are made available. Every institution in every community has a role to play in the development of environmental solutions and policy change, including public schools.

Children who are most susceptible to not having their health and mental health needs met are the ones who most need supportive systems that foster change. A January 2015 study by the Southern Education Foundation based on data from the National Center for Education Statistics revealed that for the first time in this country, poor children are the new majority in public schools. We (school people) are not equipped to solve serious social and economic problems and cannot erase early trauma or deficits children may bring to school. But school people can change schools. From the moment a child crosses the threshold of the schoolhouse, he or she is in a special place -- a place where good things should happen not by chance but by design.

Schools and school system leaders have a unique opportunity to create environments that promote health and wellness--essentially the difference between telling children that they should not drink sodas and actually removing sodas from school vending machines. Public schools have taken a beating on the issue of creating healthy environments for children. But as battered as we might be, our mission and work are central to the future of children's lives. Schools can and are doing better. Here are just a few examples:

  • I was part of a parent focus group in Detroit Public Schools six years ago. There were no major grocery stores within the city limits. One parent said if she wanted to buy fruit for her children other than the overripe apples and bananas offered in the corner store, she had to catch three buses and walk two blocks. Today, under the leadership of Superintendent Karen Ridgeway, the district offers universal free healthy breakfast and lunch, afterschool and summer feeding programs, supper programs, community gardens and a farm-to-school program that provides fresh regional fruits and vegetables for school meals.
  • Jeffrey Smith, superintendent of the Balsz School District in Arizona, is so committed to health - through both nutrition and physical activity -- he lengthened the school year by 20 days, providing more time for physical education and other programs that might otherwise be eliminated.
  • Tom Shelton, superintendent of Lexington Schools in Kentucky, requires that all schools in his districts have fitness clubs.
  • Alberto Carvalho, superintendent of Miami-Dade County Public Schools, has signed up all 350 schools for the Let's Move! Active Schools campaign, making it the largest urban school district to do so.
  • In several school districts, like Clarke County Public Schools in Georgia, Marple-Newtown Public Schools in Pennsylvania, and Chicago Public Schools, superintendents Phil Lanoue, Merle Horowitz, and Barbara Byrd-Bennett, respectively, have included health, mental health, wellness and safety to their strategic plans and/or school district missions and are intent on implementing practices and policies that promote children's health and safety, social and emotional development.

Superintendents cannot singlehandedly improve the health of every student, but they are the first step in changing the trajectory of health for all students in their districts. Removing and eliminating health-related barriers to learning in schools will improve academic outcomes for students and provide them with more opportunities for college, career and the future. While the challenge is significant, I am buoyed by the work of innovative school leaders who are spearheading the changes needed for our children to be healthy and successful.

This blog post is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post and Action for Healthy Kids, in conjunction with Every Kid Healthy Week taking place in schools nationwide, April 19-25, 2015. For more information about Every Kid Healthy, email