Lompoc Unified School District Superintendent Trevor McDonald introduces the panel on Wellness and Student Achievement.

Lompoc Unified School District Superintendent Trevor McDonald opens the panel on Wellness and Student Achievement.

During the second panel of the 2014 School Wellness Summit, a Superintendent, an Assistant Superintendent, and two Principals discussed the impact of wellness policies on student achievement.

Trevor McDonald, Superintendent of Lompoc Unified School District, opened the session with a reminder that leadership does not have to come from the Superintendent’s office, but it certainly helps. Even so, he noted that everyone in the room is a leader by virtue of their actions to build cultures of health and wellness at their campuses and districts. McDonald explained that with all the challenges he faced as a new Superintendent, he had to choose his battles, or “decide what hills we are willing to die on.”

In his case, it was Breakfast in the Classroom. “When a student is healthy in all aspects, education becomes easier and more enjoyable. It is like Maslow’s Hierarchy…we must be healthy to focus on other things.” But as anyone who follows the topic knows, there are a lot of problems and a lot of resistance when implementing Breakfast in the classroom. “Yes there are problems, but we’re not going to let kids go hungry because there are problems. This is the right thing to do, and a hill we’re willing to die on.”

McDonald did not “battle” with teachers and custodians and parents, because he considered the health of his students as non-negotiable, a done deal. “Someone who wanted to end the program said, ‘You’re not listening!’ I said, ‘I told you that in September.’”  He was not going to listen to why he should not feed hungry children.

Panelists Bridget Baublits, Emilio Handall, and Jamie Persoon.

Panelists Bridget Baublits, Emilio Handall, and Jamie Persoon.

All around the country we see a rising passion for better nutrition and more activity at schools, based largely on the confluence of academic research and personal experience, as illustrated by panelist Bridget Baublits, Principal of Los Olivos Elementary School. Baublits instituted Recess Before Lunch three years ago, after reviewing a 2006 journal article that listed benefits observed in districts that implemented the schedule change. The journal cited increased consumption of fruits, vegetables, and milk, less overall food waste, decreases in playground discipline issues, decreases in visits to the nurse’s office, and increased instruction time because students returned to class calmer and ready to learn.

“The health and wellness of children directly impacts their performance in school, their ability to focus and therefore achieve.” – Bridget Baublits

Baublits phased the program in over two years, and she and her team have witnessed on their own campus the benefits described in the journal article. “We’ve seen decreased waste, fewer discipline issues, and teachers find students more relaxed after lunch; they don’t have to spend ten to fifteen minutes quieting the class. And the kids are much more social at lunch. They have time to eat, share, and enjoy one another’s company.” This last observation matters, because interpersonal skills are extremely important to success in school, business, and life, but overbooked schedules and high-tech distractions reduce our opportunities to practice these skills.

Like McDonald, Baublits is very matter-of-fact about doing the right thing, regardless of obstacles: “My goal as an educator is to create a healthy environment for my students to have the basic building blocks of health and wellness, so they can perform at their ability levels and not be hindered due to lack of nourishment.”

Assistant Superintendents Sid Haro and Emilio Handall co-hosted the 2014 School Wellness Summit.

Assistant Superintendents Sid Haro and Emilio Handall co-hosted the 2014 School Wellness Summit.

Summit co-host Emilio Handall, Assistant Superintendent of Elementary Education for the Santa Barbara Unified School District, walked the audience through some of the challenges faced by a large district implementing Breakfast in the Classroom. He explained that in “Provision 2” schools, those that offer free school meals to all students because of high low-income enrollment, Breakfast in the Classroom has thrived with little debate and high participation. “Our team understood that this is something we should do, so we focused on HOW.”

Different demographics, however, created different challenges. At non Provision 2 schools, pushback from site leaders, parents, and staff extinguished any chance of the program surviving. The district currently offers Breakfast in the Classroom in four sites only. Breakfast in the Classroom always generates controversy, as we noted in this earlier story. The challenges are real, but so are the benefits.

According to Jamie Persoon, Principal of Canalino Elementary in the Carpinteria Unified School District, “If you want to know the culture of a school, go to the playground and cafeteria.” She was explaining that “classified” employees (such as instructional aides), as opposed to “certificated” employees like teachers, are the eyes, ears, and pulse of the school, and they are very involved in health and wellness related activities.

Persoon includes the traditionally overlooked instructional aides in professional development opportunities, and paid close attention when they – and teachers – began asking what could be done about the scourge of Cheetos, Doughnuts, and “Fruit” rollups sending children’s blood sugar careening from hyperactive highs to dozing-at-the-desk lows.

Canalino Elementary School Principal Jamie Persoon fields a question from the audience.

Canalino Elementary School Principal Jamie Persoon fields a question from the audience.

In 2013, Persoon and her team crafted a Wellness vision statement anchored in their belief in serving the “whole child.” “Academic mastery of standards is our ultimate goal, but cannot be achieved without nurturing social, emotional, physical, and cognitive wellbeing.” Wellness has been a particular focus, based on staff observations that students’ unhealthy habits lead to low energy levels, short attention spans, and limited focus.

Persoon takes a long view based on modeling and communication, with adults at the school encouraged to model good choices in nutrition and activity, and active engagement of parent groups to help them understand and help implement the district’s Wellness Policy. To that end, the school sent a single page executive summary of the Wellness Policy, in English and Spanish, to students’ homes. We highly encourage the creation and distribution of Wellness Policy synopses, as many families and staff remain unaware of these policies.

Congresswoman Lois Capps joined the panel to express her support for programs like Breakfast in the Classroom.

Congresswoman Lois Capps joined the panel to express her support for programs like Breakfast in the Classroom.

After the panel fielded questions from the audience, Congresswoman Lois Capps was invited to the lectern. The congresswoman reminded the audience that “If you send a school nurse to Congress, you’re going to get some strong biases toward supporting children and health.” Capps praised the attendees for their innovation and commitment to children’s health, and added support for McDonald and Handall’s efforts to implement Breakfast in the Classroom. “I know all the obstacles to Breakfast in the Classroom, but how can you learn on an empty stomach?”

Few would disagree with that last question, but many disagree that it is the school/taxpayers’ responsibility to provide healthy food for hungry children. History shows there are times when society MUST intervene – in its own best interests. Yes, feeding one’s children is a parent’s responsibility, but asking schools to leave children hungry and uneducated to teach their parents a lesson is a morally and socially suspect position, particularly when there is funding available and a system in place to prepare and deliver the meals.

In Part 4 of this series, we’ll learn what happened at the post-lunch discussion tables, which featured topics like “Professionalizing Food Service Workers” and “Managing Communications on Health & Wellness Topics.”

Dean Zatkowsky is Communications Manager at the Orfalea Foundation.