The Student Body

Jennifer Quigley-Harris, Providence Public Schools’ Wellness Coordinator, makes it her mission to promote student wellness

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Students spend six or more hours in school for half of the days of the year. Except for their own homes, most children are at school more frequently than anywhere else. Students breathe, eat, move around, challenge their immune systems and manage their emotions while at school. Under the care of school nurses, many students take medication and receive other medical treatment. Routine dental health, vision and hearing screenings take place in schools.

All of this and more transpires during days that are often highly scheduled to advance students academically. Because we measure and hold schools accountable for indicators of academic achievement, those are the outcomes that we monitor, discuss and publicize. This focus persuades us to believe that academic advancement is the sole purpose of school. But, of course, it’s not. Students need to be physically healthy and mentally prepared to attend school and to learn effectively. These factors are especially critical in Providence, which is intensely focused on reducing ongoing chronic absenteeism.

As Rhode Island Kids Count reported this year, more than one in five children in our state live in poverty. In Providence, 40% of children live below the poverty level. Living in poverty is correlated with chronic health conditions, including mental and emotional disorders, asthma and Type 2 diabetes, that lead to missed school days and diminished academic outcomes.

In order to understand the ways our schools are supporting and improving children’s health and wellness, I talked with Jennifer Quigley-Harris, Providence Public Schools’ Wellness Coordinator. After years of working in the field of wellness communication and education, Quigley-Harris – a parent of two children in the Providence Public Schools – joined the district earlier this year as its first Wellness Coordinator. Her mission is to communicate and implement the district’s Wellness Policy, which was updated in 2013 in response to comply with the 2010 federal Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act.

This legislation includes the federal School Lunch Program, which provides nutrition guidelines and food subsidies that aid the 80% of Providence’s public school children who receive free or reduced price school meals.

The current version of Providence’s Wellness Policy also reflects Rhode Island’s requirements for the school food programs, which Quigley-Harris described as being at a health-promoting level that exceeds the federal guidelines. These requirements affect all food served in schools, including classroom celebrations and vending machines. In elementary school classrooms in Providence, students eat – and according to Quigley-Harris, really enjoy – daily fruit and vegetable snacks that include such palate-expanding offerings as starfruit, honeydew melon, jicama, pineapple and locally grown squash. These snacks, which are part of the United States Department of Agriculture’s Supplemental Nutrition Program, do more than satiate mid-morning hunger. They help establish healthy eating as a lifelong habit.

For Quigley-Harris, it’s about more than food. The Providence Wellness Policy requires adherence to state-mandated levels of physical education and goes further, requiring a minimal daily recess in elementary schools of 10-15 minutes. Quigley-Harris emphasized, “Kids need at least that much recess, but it isn’t the only time kids should move around.” She works with educators and school leaders to add physical activity breaks between and during classes, a practice that she sees growing within the district. Afterschool activities are also part of the physical activity initiative, and this school year has seen a large leap forward with an expanded range of middle school sports. More than 300 students have signed up for the newly added fall soccer and track and field teams.

Our talk shifted to what Quigley-Harris and the district’s Wellness Committee, which meets to support and expand the Wellness Policy, are considering next. I asked about mental health and social-emotional supports in our schools. Quigley-Harris has these critical needs on her radar, and hopes to start collaborating with existing district policies and initiatives to create better conditions and supports for children to negotiate conflict and manage their emotions. Absent of clear-cut state and federal regulations, such as those that exist for nutrition, the impetus for such policies and practices is less clear. Nevertheless, we need to advocate at the state level for the implementation of restorative discipline policies, mindfulness programs, conflict resolution skill-building and other supports.

Right now, even though there’s more to do, it’s worth noting that we’re on the right track. Our city’s schools have established a meaningful commitment to young people’s health and wellness, and Quigley-Harris’ focus ensures Providence will support the need and right of all young people have to exercise their minds and their bodies, eat healthy food and make the most of their expanding minds.

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