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VIDEO: Children's health and wellness with Karen Connell

Often in life there are people who fly below the radar, yet whose achievements play a driving force in our lives. Karen Connell, supervisor for the health and wellness team at the Colorado Department of Education, is one of those people.

Connell has worked for the state for 20 years, but she’s decided it’s time to retire. This is her last week at work. Over the years, she has made significant contributions to the growing movement of health and wellness for Colorado’s children. EdNews Parent had a chance to sit down with her and discuss some of her achievements, where she thinks children’s wellness is headed, and what parents can do to get more involved in their own children’s health and wellness goals.

Q. What are some of the valuable lessons you have learned working at the CDE?

A. My biggest lesson has been that every single school district cares about the health of their kids. No matter where I have visited around the state, there are at least a few people in every single school building who are passionate about health and wellness and want to take on tough issues, whether it be a food service person, a P.E. teacher, a counselor, a secretary, or the principal. It’s different in every single building, but there are always a couple of individuals who will take the health message and carry it through the building.

Q. What are a few of the biggest successes and milestones you have been a part of at the CDE that furthered children’s health and wellness?

A. Recently, we’ve just held a Healthy Schools Summit where we had over 300 teachers, parents, and administrators come together to celebrate the healthiest schools in the state. We had identified those schools because we had just launched a Healthy Schools Report Card where any school can log in online and give themselves a score to see how healthy they are. With our first try at it this fall, we identified 15 schools that scored higher than all the rest and recognized them last month. We plan to do that every year and we are hoping that by the end of this year we will have enough schools log in and score high enough that we can send at least 100 schools a beautiful banner to hang in front or inside their school that says they are a Healthy School Champion.

I’ve also worked hard to make sure there is a homeless education liaison in every school district. Some other successes I’ve contributed to have included getting health education programs into 22 school districts, building 250 coordinated school health teams to help move wellness policies forward, raising over $9 million in federal and private money for the CDE to increase health and wellness for Colorado students, training over 10,000 school and community members in best practices and policies for health and wellness, and increasing state interagency collaboration by 80 percent on school health professional development by sharing funding and combined resources.

Q. What have been some of the most challenging things you have had to tackle with health and wellness in Colorado?

A. There is never enough money to go around. But we have had some great partners with the Colorado Health Foundation, the Centers for Disease Control, and even our own state Legislature has started contributing money for both health education and coordinated school health. While we can always use more money, we have a good foundation here in Colorado to start to show how important health is to the overall education of kids.

Another issue is a lot of times there’s just simply not enough time in the school day for enough health education – for P.E. So what we’ve learned to do is try and look to community partners and parents who can help with after-school programs, weekend activities, and other way kids can become healthy and fit without taking up too much of the school day.

Q. Would you say then that success for health and wellness for children is largely dependent on collaboration by parents, teachers and the community?

A. It is definitely a collaborative effort at the school level and at the state level. We have developed lots of great partners at the state level that work together and plan together. We have very strong ties with the state department of health and we work together to try and coordinate as much as we can to get resources out to schools and to make sure that it is done in a seamless way so we don’t have 25 people knocking on school’s doors with their own particular program, or flyer, or activity.

Q. What is the most important aspect to success with children’s wellness and health?

A. I would have to say support. We have been blessed here in Colorado with support from the Commissioner of Education, the state Board of Education, and the state Legislature. Recently, we just had new health standards passed, so along with math, social studies, and science, we now have health education standards, and that is huge.

Q. What direction do you see children’s health and wellness in Colorado headed?

A. It can only get better. We have huge momentum here in Colorado. There’s already so much awareness here and it’s great living in such a physically active state with lots of sunny days and an environment that promotes getting outside and enjoying some physical activity.

Q. How could parents get more involved and active in promoting their children’s health and wellness?

A. Talk with the people at the schools and see what is going on already and try and get involved. If there isn’t much going on – then maybe the parents would really like to take the lead and seek out new activities or after- school programs, or a possible policy change that could happen at the school level. For example, parents could address the type of food students bring to school parties. I think it’s important for parents to let their wishes be known at the school because when schools and parents work together, more can happen for the better.

Q. Do you have any tips for parents looking to encourage health and wellness in the home that might carry over to life at school?

A. There is now a national guideline stating that kids should have at least 30 minutes of activity (90 minutes for older children) per day. That is something parents can really encourage at home by pushing their children to get up off the couch. Parents should encourage physical activities the whole family can enjoy, like going on a bike ride or going for a hike. Parents should also set a good example by eating healthy food at home and sending healthy food to school with their kids.

Q. I know you must be excited about retirement as well. What are you most excited for?

A. I think sleep. (Laughing). But also I want to travel and hang out at the library and do some reading that I enjoy. I really like mysteries and am excited to check out some new books now that I will have more free time.

Connell started her career with the CDE, working with the high-risk intervention unit and later on prevention initiatives before becoming a part of the health and wellness campaign. In the latter role, she initiated, designed, created, and re-framed programs that have pushed and expanded the established boundaries of the CDE. She has focused on comprehensive health education, homeless education, school Medicaid, expelled and at-risk services, coordinated school health youth risk behavior surveys, student wellness programs, healthy schools trainings, the creation of comprehensive health education standards, and implementation of the Healthy School Champion Score Card. She pushed for passage of the Colorado Comprehensive Health Education Act of 1990, House Bill 1224 for student wellness programs and the state board resolution for healthy and fit students.

About our First Person series:

First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others trying to improve public education. Read our submission guidelines here.

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