Already at the center of community life, Kansas schools can also play a key role in improving local health. In places such as Galena, an effort to foster healthier school environments is benefiting not just students but also local residents. But making the push requires leadership and the ability to navigate competing values and perspectives.
It’s Friday night in a small town. Where do you go for fun? In many Kansas towns, it’s the school. From football games to plays, schools are the social hub for residents, particularly in towns that no longer have a movie theater or a dance hall.
“In a small town, schools are the heart of the community,” says Brian Smith, superintendent of schools for Galena, which hugs the state line in far southeast Kansas, a few miles from Joplin, Missouri.
Increasingly those same schools are taking steps to become the center for something else – health. By taking the lead on policies and practices to create healthier school environments, districts are providing benefits not only to their students but to the community at large.
“School meal patterns became political, and I had not even considered that,” Johnson says.
The shift toward better health, though, doesn’t come without building trust within a community. In some cases, it also involves working through tough leadership challenges and taking on risks. After all, the value of promoting good health can sometimes come into conflict with other values, such as autonomy and independence.
For instance, when Cheryl Johnson, the director of the Child Nutrition and Wellness Team at the state Department of Education, began working to implement new federal guidelines released in 2012 for school meal menus – known as “meal patterns” – and “smart snacks,” she found herself in the midst of a challenge.
The update required that schoolchildren be served more fruits, vegetables and whole grains, and fewer sugary snacks such as doughnuts and pop. Not everyone was happy about the changes.
Students from Wallace County High School in the western Kansas town of Sharon Springs released a parody music video on YouTube, “We Are Hungry,” complaining that they weren’t getting as much food in their lunches. Other critics said local schools, not the federal government, should decide what kids can eat.
“School meal patterns became political, and I had not even considered that,” Johnson says.
‘IT JUST MAKES SENSE’
In Galena, the school district plays an especially vital role because it’s already home to a store of crucial community resources.
All four of Galena’s schools share a modest campus in the middle of town on the historic route of U.S. 66 (at 11 miles, Kansas has the shortest segment of the Mother Road of any state). About 820 students attend Galena schools, and the town’s population hovers just below 3,000. With a median household income of less than $40,000, about two out of every three kids qualify for free or reduced-price lunches.
Poverty is entrenched in the region’s culture, Smith says. Like most educators, he knows that hungry kids don’t learn as well as healthy kids. And he knows that poverty is one of the biggest risks to health.
Inspired in part by a fellowship in 2012 and 2013 with the Kansas Health Foundation, Smith set his sights beyond the classroom door to improve the health not just of his students but of the entire community. And he’s leveraging the resources of the schools to do it.
“It just makes sense that the schools are the leader on the issue,” Smith says. “I realized we can do so much more here. We have these facilities we use for students – we might as well find ways to enhance our community with those things.”
It’s an approach that Smith has built upon over time. For several years, Smith – a member of the Oral Health Kansas board of directors – has brought the organization’s mobile dental clinics to campus for families who weren’t getting regular dental care.
In 2013, local voters approved a $7.5 million bond issue to upgrade the fitness facilities at Galena High School. A year later, the school opened its new gymnasium and community fitness center, plus locker rooms, a concession area and new lighting for the walking track so it could stay open 24 hours a day.
Local residents can use the fitness center before and after school hours and on Saturdays. Smith also launched a running and walking group that meets every week at the track.
‘LEADING THE WAY’
Smith’s approach is in line with the Whole School, Whole Community, Whole Child (WSCC) model promoted by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which holds that learning and health are interrelated: “The focus of the WSCC
model is … directed at the whole school, with the school in turn drawing its resources and influences from the whole community and serving to address the needs of the whole child.”
Closer to home, the Healthy Kansas Schools initiative also promotes school health policies and programs that improve health behaviors, such as getting regular exercise and not smoking. Its philosophy is that “better students help create healthy communities.”
Healthy Kansas Schools is the major project of Johnson’s child nutrition and wellness team at the state education department. She and Smith were members of the same Kansas Health Foundation fellows class, which focused on leadership and improving access to and consumption of healthful food in local communities. As part of the fellowship, they learned the Kansas Leadership Center’s principles and competencies and are, in addition to being Kansas Health Foundation fellows, Kansas Leadership Center alumni.
Johnson says she is seeing an increased focus on the dividends of promoting health in schools. “What has started in the schools is starting to become more prevalent out in the community,” Johnson says.
“I do feel like schools are kind of leading the way right now,” Johnson says. “It’s helpful when the rest of the community comes on board. Even in restaurants, we’re seeing things like more whole grain bread items, sweet potato fries or romaine lettuce instead of iceberg. People are starting to want that.”
In Galena, the meal program expanded to include breakfast prior to Smith becoming superintendent in 2004, when he was principal. Later, it began serving both breakfast and lunch year-round. Now, the district even sends buses around the town’s 13 square miles to pick up kids for meals during the summer.
Smith says the high level of trust that the school district has built up with the community has allowed it to be proactive, and he is always looking to do more. But in other districts, some efforts to benefit the health of children and the community can prompt questions about what the schools should be doing and what should
be the responsibility of parents.
Yet increasing participation in the school breakfast program is a goal of Johnson’s team, in large part because providing the meal can contribute to a better environment for learning. To foster that, schools are even experimenting with providing multiple opportunities for kids to get breakfast, such as allowing them to eat in the classroom or offering grab-and-go items for a “second chance” breakfast after first period for kids who don’t feel like eating when they get up.
“We know that kids who eat breakfast do better academically,” Johnson says. “They miss less school, and they have fewer referrals to the office for behavior.”
HEARING DIFFERENT VOICES
Because the pursuit of healthier schools can sometimes come into conflict with other values, it’s important that school officials have the leadership skills that allow them to effectively navigate those situations.
When school-menu changes became a political issue in the fall of 2012, Johnson said, she was grateful to be involved in her health foundation fellowship at the time. Several of the leadership concepts she learned during the fellowship helped her to weather the controversy she faced.
Johnson realized that her team could have done a better job of engaging unusual voices by collaborating with other stakeholders – from county extension agents to teachers. She also found that her message was better received when she spoke from the heart about how child nutrition is essential to the common good of all Kansans. And she was encouraged by the concept that she had to do what was necessary, not just what was comfortable, to accomplish the task.
“There were times I really needed to have that – the support of the other people in the leadership program back there, encouraging me to stay the course, saying, ‘You know it’s not easy.’”
When the team recently revised the state’s wellness policies for schools, Johnson says, the process was more collaborative. As a result, they had much more buy-in. In the past, only school officials were included in that conversation. This time, Johnson’s team went to people in the food and beverage industry, child care providers, fundraisers, health-based nonprofits and everyday residents for their input, culminating in a wellness policy summit.
“There were times I really needed to have
that – the support of the other people in the leadership program back there, encouraging me to stay the course,
saying, ‘You know it’s not easy.’”
“Hearing all those different voices was important,” she says, “so that when we did end up with the final draft and took it to the State Board of Education, we had no dissent, no public outcry. The board just made a motion and passed it.”
Other schools are embracing the new nutrition model as well. In the past few years several Kansas schools have earned cash awards of $500 and up through the HealthierUS School Challenge, a U.S. Department of Agriculture program that aims at ensuring that students have access to healthier food in school and are engaged in regular physical activity.
FOCUS ON FITNESS
Because school nutrition is largely handled at the federal level, there’s not much room to innovate locally. With physical fitness, it’s a different story. This is where Smith focused his efforts to improve the health and wellness of people in Cherokee County.
Smith is a runner. Running a marathon was one of his bucket list goals when he was diagnosed with lymphoma about 14 years ago. After successful treatment, he finished his first half-marathon in 2004. He completed his first marathon in 2010. Now his races of choice are 50- to 100-mile endurance events.
As a beginner, Smith said, he took his encouragement from a community of runners. Now, he hopes to pay that benefit forward through the Galena Fitness Club. The group started meeting last spring on Tuesday evenings at the high school track (or in the new gym when the weather is bad). About 20 people showed up for the first meeting, more than Smith had hoped for.
“People want to belong. It’s just our nature,” he says. “When we make groups and teams, they feel as though they belong to something. If you’re on your own, it’s difficult to be successful.”
Smith has been leading the runners in the group, while his wife, Marcia, has worked with the walkers. Everyone’s goals are different. Some members just want to get into better shape. Others want to run a 5K. Ultimately, he wants the charter members to become leaders for the next round of newcomers and continue to expand the group through that mentorship.
It’s no accident that the group meets on Tuesdays. Another group from Joplin had been meeting to run at the Galena track on the same night. Smith wanted their schedules to overlap. “I like to take people that I get into the movement and connect them to the Joplin groups. Then from that point I’ll recycle a new group, and those people will go out on their own.”
Inside the school, locals are taking advantage of the community fitness center. Caleb Williamson, the center’s director, says about 200 people set up free memberships, including school staff members and local residents. One older man started coming soon after the opening in October 2014 to walk on the treadmill. Williamson says by April, the man had logged more than 180 miles.
“We had another walker who pulled a board member aside to say, ‘Don’t take this away. I really like it,’” Williamson says. “I think they realize it’s an opportunity not every town has.”
There are two private gyms in the county, Williamson says – including the one he used to work at in nearby Riverton. But they’re not free. Smith says people who have access to other facilities aren’t the people he’s trying to reach.
“People with resources always find some way to exercise,” Smith says.
In her home district, Johnson says community health nights have become a popular event staged at Topeka Seaman High School. The event started 20 years ago as a fitness night. Students lead exercise classes, and instructors from other programs, such as yoga and Zumba, are invited to showcase what they do. People can walk the track or the gym perimeter. And there are booths with information about nutrition, school nurses, smoking cessation and more. Sometimes the sheriff’s department brings its DUI simulator.
“It’s kind of a mini-health fair each month, and it’s an opportunity to exercise as a community for two hours,” Johnson says.
The state’s nutrition team also offers $250 subgrants to schools and child care centers that want to host their own Family Fun, Food and Fitness events.
‘THEY DESERVE MORE’
In Galena, Smith wants to see more than people just exercising. He sees the schools as a beacon to lead the community out of its depression – the economic kind that has plagued the region at the macro level, and the individual kind that results from living in poverty. He doesn’t want people to feel left behind any longer.
“We want to help people understand that they deserve more,” Smith says. “When we opened the fitness center, they didn’t think they deserved something that nice. They were really moved by it.”
Smith has also opened school facilities to outside organizations that help bring visitors to Galena, such as sports tournaments. He’s encouraged by other signs of economic growth, such as a medical group that relocated to Galena from Joplin, improving his community’s access to health care.
And others are starting to follow Galena’s lead. The school district in nearby Riverton passed a bond issue in 2015. One of its features was a fitness room at the high school.
“When you start things in your area, people start asking, ‘Why not us, too?’” Smith says. “All you have to do is throw the first rock out there, and it will make ripples.”
This article was originally published in the Winter 2016 issue of The Journal, a publication of the Kansas Leadership Center. To learn more about KLC, visit http://kansasleadershipcenter.org. For a subscription to the printed edition of The Journal, visit klcjr.nl/amzsubscribe