School districts across the nation are devising ways to not only slim down their students, but to slim down their faculty and staff, too. The hope is that it will result in an environment in which fitness is “catching,” a schoolwide ethos of healthy diet and exercise and a healthier, cheaper-to-insure workforce.

Since 2004, most school districts have been required to develop wellness plans, though their commitment to implementing and evaluating them varies widely. But two Denver-area school districts – Douglas County and Cherry Creek – have been especially aggressive in creating workplace wellness programs for teachers and staff, to complement programs targeting children. It’s too soon to know whether this approach will ultimately prove effective, but healthy schools experts find such workplace wellness programs especially promising – if they last.

Cherry Creek to pilot ‘unprecedented’ program in five schools

Cherry Creek schools recently partnered with Kaiser-Permanente, which will provide funding to launch five worksite wellness pilot programs at five elementary schools. Schools were invited to apply to be a pilot site, and the winners haven’t yet been selected. But those who are chosen will each be given $10,000 to spend as the school sees fit to develop the wellness activities most appropriate for its teaching staff.

“It’s unprecedented for a school to receive money that goes to supporting staff in this way, especially when times are tight like they are now,” said Janise McNally, wellness coordinator for the district.

Schools will have freedom to design programs they believe will work best, but the district wants them to concentrate on one of more of the district’s goals: improving physical fitness and making healthy food choices; stress management and strengthening resiliency; and making environmental or structural changes to support physical activity.

“This is not just about bringing in a bunch of programs and classes, but about shifting our culture to be more supportive of fitness and wellness in general in our schools,” McNally said. “It will require the building’s leadership to be behind it full force.”

Throughout the district, staffers have been provided with pedometers and wellness officials are launching a “Flat 14er” challenge to get employees to begin walking more and tracking the steps they take every day, charting their progress online. The district’s second annual Family Wellness Summit is set for April.

“We know our adults are models for our kids,” McNally said. “We can’t expect our students to be well if our adults aren’t well. If our staff is stressed-out or not well, it’s more difficult for them to meet the needs of the students.”

Douglas County has already curtailed incentive programs

While Cherry Creek is just ramping up its workplace wellness program, Douglas County started strong two years ago but is already reassessing its efforts. At one point, two-thirds of all district employees were participating in some form of district-sponsored fitness program, fueled by prizes for the faithful and promises of financial incentives if they kept it up. But budget cuts forced the district to curtail most of the incentive programs and to drop its contract with Andrew Sykes, chairman of the Chicago-based Health at Work, a company that specializes in workplace wellness programs.

Last year, Douglas County teachers vied for prizes and financial incentives for participating in wellness programs. Those incentives have now been curtailed due to budget cutbacks.

“From our point of view, it looks like abandonment,” complained Sykes. “Douglas County was far ahead of the other school districts, but not now. And we’re only interested in working with clients who are seriously interested in working on wellness.”

Sean McGraw, executive director of the Douglas County Educational Foundation, a non-profit association developed 20 years ago to develop private resources to enrich education in the county, says health and wellness among school staff remain a high priority. The DCEF has now taken over the district’s workplace wellness program.

“We believe that modeling wellness for kids is huge. But budgets being what they are, we had to make decisions based on what was best for students in the classroom. We had to abandon the pedometer program because we ran into an incentive issue,” McGraw said. “But I believe health and fitness can’t be driven by a financial reward. Our pedometer program will have to change, but it’s just one of the many options people will have. But the options will have to be free or at low-cost to the district.”

The DCEF has hired Carla Sassano, a teacher on special assignment, to oversee workplace wellness. Sassano says she is preparing to roll out a whole series of classes – things like Zumba, strength and conditioning, boot camp, yoga, Pilates, and a combination of Pilates and yoga called Pi-Yo – geared to teachers, staff and parents. They will be scheduled for every day of the week at various schools around the county. Cost will be $5 per person per class.

Sassano also plans a healthy recipe exchange, a districtwide 5K and other motivational events.

“It’s a proven trickle-down effect,” said Sassano. “But if you don’t have buy-in from your administrators and teachers, there’s not going to be passion in teaching about the necessity of physical activity and nutrition. This is the whole lead-by-example thing. If the kids leave school but see their teachers staying for an exercise class, that’s their role model. And there’s no doubt in my mind that the healthier the staff is, the healthier our kids will be.”

Read about Denver’s SPARK program to get kids moving, Aurora’s Go, Slow, Whoa! approach to teaching kids to eat healthy foods, and an overview of childhood obesity in Colorado as part of this EdNews Parent healthy schools series.

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