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Spreading wellness to charter schools

At Global Village Academy in Northglenn, students study Spanish, Russian and Mandarin Chinese starting in kindergarten. The focus on foreign language is a major draw for families, but it also means that things like physical education and other health matters sometimes get short shrift.

Principal Lisa Pond, who started the job earlier this summer, could tell students weren’t moving enough at school as soon as she looked at the daily schedule. The schools’ language immersion model, which ensures students are proficient in two foreign languages by eighth grade, has also meant “we minimize the amount of time they’re out of the classroom.”

“It’s a challenge…to make sure we’re providing the specials, the physical activity kids need, and the nutrition,” she said.

Pond hopes an effort launched this summer by the Colorado League of Charter Schools will help the 771-student school tackle such issues. Global Village Academy, which will serve grades K-6 next year, is one of eight charter schools across the state that has been invited to join the League’s newly-formed Wellness Advisor Collaborative. The collaborative is one component of the league’s larger “Building Healthy Charter Schools Initiative,” which is funded with a three-year $705,000 grant from the Colorado Health Foundation.

In addition to the collaborative, the initiative aims to create service collaboratives that will allow several charter schools to share nursing or mental health staff. That process, which already exists among some schools that have joined forces on their own, is just getting underway.

The initiative will also focus on making health and wellness resources more widely available to the state’s nearly 200 charter schools and changing policy to make it easier for charter schools to embrace healthy practices.

Nuts and bolts

The Wellness Advisor Collaborative, which will unfold over three years, will allow participating schools to work with two wellness advisors to conduct needs assessments, create wellness policies, access health resources and promote wellness activities. The advisors will visit each school approximately once a month.

Rainey Wikstrom, a longtime healthy school advocate and one of the wellness advisors, said the schools’ needs vary, with some having strong practices in one area of school health and weak ones in another. One common denominator is the lack of a wellness policy.

In that regard, the schools seem “to be far behind the baseline of a lot of public schools…They are working in a bit of a vacuum,” she said.

Isolation aside, Wikstrom said the desire to incorporate health and wellness is there.

“They want to be in the mix and they want to be promoting that,” she said.

Pond said the collaborative represents a great opportunity to educate both parents and staff on wellness topics.

“They will come in and educate our wellness team and our wellness team will spread it throughout the school.”

In pursuit of lasting change

Making sure that healthy changes stick is also important to Sonya Hemmen, head of school at Carbondale’s Ross Montessori School, another school selected for the collaborative. She said it’s particularly easy at charter schools for programs and practices to come and go as staff turns over.

“I’m hoping to prevent amnesia at our school and have things stay whether the faces and names change.” she said.

Hemmen said that while Carbondale is already a physically active community and the school itself recently started a garden and caters organic lunches three times a week, there’s still room for improvement.

She believes the collaborative can help the school educate students about healthy habits in an objective way. Currently, she feels that some parents, whether hard-core soda-drinkers or over-the-top health nuts, are too extreme.

“I don’t know that it sets [kids] up for long-term healthy habits,” she said.

With the collaborative’s help, Hemmen hopes the school’s focus will “be more about balance and less about extremes.”

A diverse group

In addition to Global Village Academy and Ross Montessori, the schools invited to participate include Chavez-Huerta K-12 Preparatory Academy in Pueblo, Carbondale Community Charter School, Indian Peaks Charter School in Granby, Sims-Fayola International Academy in Denver, Platte River Academy in Highlands Ranch, and Eagle County Charter Academy in Edwards.

A second application window will likely open this fall, allowing a handful of additional schools to join the effort in 2014-15. All participating schools will pay about $4,000 a year to participate.

Organizers say they intentionally chose a diverse cross-section of schools, covering a range of sizes, geographic locations, programs and grades served. Lindsey Friedman, health and wellness program manager for the League, said in addition to helping participating schools become healthier over the next three years, the collaborative will allow the league to study “what levers create the most change.”

The goal, she said, is to “figure out what changes are the most sustainable and scalable throughout Colorado.”

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