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.
Speak Up about Providence’s Next Superintendent of Schools
What characteristics do you think the next Superintendent of the Providence Public Schools needs to possess to address our school system’s opportunities and challenges? As part of the process for identifying a permanent hire for the superintendent post, the public is invited to participate in a survey that aims to gather public opinion on that topic. The survey is accessible online at www.providenceri.com/schools/superintendent-criteria.
The Time to Choose Schools is Fast Approaching
Even though it seems like the school year just started, it’s high season for figuring out where your kids will enroll next year. Keep your eyes open for independent schools’ open houses happening this month. Charter schools will also start having open houses and information sessions, and East Side middle and elementary public schools will be offering tours in December and January. Whether you and your children are looking for new options or dealing with a transition from elementary or middle school, now is the time to start keeping track of visits, applications and deadlines. While most schools’ websites will offer information, always call the school to find out about options, and don’t be shy about requesting a tour if one doesn’t appear to be offered.
Providence FAFSA Victory Celebrated at the White House
In October, a team from Providence joined an event at the White House that focused on the work of First Lady Michelle Obama’s Reach Higher Initiative, devoted to fostering partnerships that positively impact college access for underserved students. The Providence team, which included the Annenberg Institute for School Reform at Brown University’s District & Systems Transformation Co-Director Angela Romans, Danielle Parrillo from the Providence Public School District, Maria Carvalho from the College Crusade and Michael Joyce from Rhode Island’s Division of Higher Education, represented the Children and Youth Cabinet (CYC), a citywide initiative based at Annenberg. In 2014, the CYC aimed to increase the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) completion rates in Providence from 67% to 73% among all graduating seniors by June 2015. The CYC and its partners led an effort to collect this data and find out which students were on track to complete the form and to provide supports for students and families to finish the form. A FAFSA completion challenge pitted Providence high schools against one another to determine the highest completion rate. The outcome? The citywide goal was exceeded, with 74% completion, and the winner of the challenge, Mt. Pleasant High School, achieved 83% completion, up from one of the lowest to the second highest in the district.