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Committing to health in school improvement plans

A couple years ago, Sally Hensley, principal of Gunnison Elementary School, was talking to another principal in the district about the one of those tedious but necessary tasks: drafting the annual school improvement plan.

The plans are a dizzying maze of student test results followed by strategies and goals for how to improve those results. They can run upwards of 40 pages.

Hensley and her colleague were mulling over how to include what they saw as critical variables in the education equation in their plans: health, wellness and safety.

“Well, why don’t we just add a goal?” the two concluded.

It sounds simple enough, but the plans, which are mandated by a 2009 state law, were designed as part of an accountability system that looks primarily at student achievement, achievement growth, and college or job readiness. There are no check boxes or charts that look at whether students ate a healthy breakfast, received recess, suffer from depression or have too many untreated cavities to concentrate.

In addition, some district administrators say there have been mixed messages from the Colorado Department of Education about whether health goals belong in the plans, formally called “Unified Improvement Plans” or “UIPs”. Both schools and districts must submit the plans to CDE every year.

Bridget Beatty, coordinator of Health Strategies for Denver Public Schools, said her team is interested in seeing schools incorporate such goals in their plans, but the state’s message to principals has not encouraged such additions.

Lisa Medler, executive director of improvement planning at CDE, said schools and districts are welcome to include health, wellness or safety in their UIPs.

“From our perspective, we think it’s fine,” she said.

She cautioned that UIPs are supposed to be focused plans with a small number of key goals, which means not every initiative can or should be captured in the plan.

“The UIPs are not the be-all, end-all for what’s going on in these schools,” said Medler.

Emily O’Winter, the healthy schools coordinator in the Jefferson County district, said including health goals in the UIPs can feel like a stretch to educators. That’s partly because the state doesn’t expect it and also because the plans follow a very specific sequence requiring that goals address the “root causes” of achievement problems.

“There’s certain ways to fit health and wellness in the state version,” she said. “For schools to tie it to health, they have to go out on a limb.”

Medler said that even though there’s no designated box or explicit directions for health-related goals, the UIP process is flexible and allows administrators to choose the appropriate goals for their school or district.

Though, she added, “to be fair, it’s not like we’re emphasizing it in trainings.”

Why health?

Hensley and the small band of administrators that have incorporated health goals in their UIPs believe the plans are an appropriate place for health data and goals.

“We don’t just do reading and math in this school,” she said. “If we’re going to use the UIP as a working document…then we have to use it fully.”

How to find UIPs online

  • Go to SchoolView
  • Click on the “School Performance” graphic (in green, second from the left)
  • Scroll down to the heading “Performance Framework Reports and Improvement Plans”.
  • Click on the desired district name in the “District” box to the left, then the desired school in the “School” box in the middle.
  • In the “Report” box on the right, click on “Improvement Plan” under “School” or “District”, depending on which UIP you want to see.

Archuleta Superintendent Linda Reed, who began incorporating health into her district’s Unified Improvement Plan last year, also highlighted the disconnect between the typically academic focus of many UIPs and the broader mission of schools.

“We look at the whole child, yet when we look at [unified improvement] plans we look at only achievement or growth data,” she said.

Reed learned about the possibility of including health goals in her UIP during a discussion with a staff member from the Legacy Foundation, a key advocate for the approach. After that conversation, Reed added an improvement strategy to her plan that included nutrition and comprehensive health, among other things. More specifically, it called for the establishment of a student wellness team, health training for teachers and training for nutrition staff on preparing more fresh meals.

While some of these initiatives were already underway because of various grants the district had received, Reed believed their inclusion in the UIP was worthwhile “because it gets measured and it gets done.”

An addendum to the “What’s measured matters” theory may be that what matters doesn’t tend to fall victim to the budget axe. It was a thought that crossed Hensley’s mind when she began including health goals in her UIP, right around the time a nearby district eliminated physical education and music.

“I felt like if we’re including health and wellness in the UIP, it makes it harder to cut programs,” she said.

A small club

There’s no official count of Colorado schools or districts that include health and wellness in their UIPs, but it appears to be a handful — a large one if you consider schools that touch on the related factors of school safety, climate or culture.

Aside from Gunnison Elementary and the Archuleta district, these include Place Bridge Academy in Denver, Gunnison Middle School and Colorado Springs District 11. Reed said the three schools in her district will be adding health-related goals to their UIPs starting this year. All told, CDE receives nearly 2,000 UIPs from schools and districts each year.

An example from Gunnison Elementary’s 2012-13 UIP

  • Major Improvement Strategy #3: Continued focus on promotion of a safe, healthy and collaborative school community
  • Root Cause Addressed: A key component of increased student achievement and growth is a safe and positive school climate where parents and community members are engaged and involved. We implemented this safe school initiative several years ago and continue to prioritize activities that promote a safe and secure physical space, positive social and emotional development, active and healthy students and teachers, and involved, informed families and community members.
  • Examples of “Action Steps” for this improvement strategy:
    1. Establish a health leadership team.
    2. Increase attendance at Wednesday wellness programs for staff.
    3. Promote “Jammin’ Minutes” movement in the classroom.
    4. Increase nutritional value of school meals.
    5. Collaborate with local farm-to-school program.
    6. Explore strategies to educate families on health topics.

A 2012 survey of secondary school principals by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that only about 10 percent of principals reported including goals related to school food and health services in their plans, while 42 percent reported including goals related to healthy and safe school environments in their plans.

However, only 187 Colorado principals, and none at the elementary level, responding to survey, so it’s unclear if the results can be generalized to the state. Overall, Colorado was in the quartile of states where principals least frequently reported including health-related goals in their improvement plans.

Amy Dillon, a school health specialist at the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, said the only way to determine the true number of schools or districts that include health goals in their UIPs is to read through the plans one by one and do a manual tally. Medler said switching over to an electronic format with the power to mine such data  is a high priority for her department.

In Jeffco, the largest district in the state, schools don’t include health goals in their UIPs, but they are asked to turn in a supplement to the district each year that lists health, safety and parent involvement goals. It’s a remnant of the district’s former school improvement process, which was in place before the 2009 law requiring UIPs took effect.

O’Winter said while the health goals may not get sent to the state, there is accountability around them. Not only are principals required to share the goals with their school community, they are considered during principals’ performance evaluations.

At Jeffco’s Ryan Elementary, parent Nicole Croy is on the five-member Wellness Team that drafts the health goals that appear in the supplement. Last year, the goal to increase healthy foods at classroom parties prompted the creation of a new policy requiring 70 percent of party offerings to be healthy snacks. This year, the goal is boosting participation in the “Healthy Hawk High Five” incentive program, which rewards students for healthy behaviors, such as staying active at recess, bringing healthy snacks and washing their hands.

Croy, whose daughter is a fourth-grader at Ryan, said writing the goals into the supplement “brings some validity to the goal and also to the group and what we’re trying to achieve.”

Does it work?

Principals and other administrators who include health goals in their UIPs are uniformly enthusiastic about the practice. Several talked about how it helps focus and strengthen what they’re already doing. Others said the health goals, which are often informed by data just like the academic goals in UIPs, can help establish a roadmap for schools.

“It holds us accountable for what we’re doing,” said Brenda Kazin, principal of Place Bridge Academy, a Pre-K-8 magnet school for refugee students. “By using the data, we’ll know we’re going in the right direction,”

Kazin, who said Place Bridge began including health-related goals in its plan last year, called the decision a “no-brainer.” She said the school, which educates many students who may have experienced or witnessed horrible things in their home countries, considered mental and physical health services an integral part of the school’s mission from its opening six years ago.

Kazin and Annette Garcia, the school’s health education coordinator, said even in schools without such visible health needs as Place Bridge, students may well have unmet health or mental health needs that could be addressed through UIP health goals. That said, Garcia said it comes down to a philosophical question: “How much should schools take on in terms of physical and emotional support?”

Dillon, who sometimes fields questions from schools about how to incorporate health into their improvement plans, said the state and the Legacy Foundation are in a learning stage right now and are working to collect feedback from front-runner schools and districts.

The UIPs are relatively new, she noted, and some schools and districts are still getting used to the state’s template. Dillon said she doesn’t want to confuse or overburden schools by asking them to include health goals in UIPs.

“Is including health and wellness as a goal in the UIP or as an action step, does that really then increase the level of accountability on health and wellness?” she asked. “We’re determining if that’s the best strategy.”