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Log in to Witsby: ASCD’s Next-Generation Professional Learning and Credentialing Platform
March 1, 2000
Vol. 57
No. 6

Shaping Health Policies

Students learn best in a school that promotes their physical and psychosocial health as a matter of established policy.

Imagine a public high school where students who need lunch money or a toothbrush can visit the principal's office and help themselves, repaying the money when they can. Imagine that the restrooms are not only clean but also decorated with plants and murals. Imagine that students stack books outside their lockers without worrying about theft or vandalism. This school actually exists, and despite its location in an impoverished neighborhood in Washington, D.C., every graduating senior goes to college.
Murals and lunch money alone won't get students to college; this school, Benjamin Banneker Academic High School, also has committed, talented educators who ensure that students are academically successful. Still, school environments play an essential role in helping students focus on learning.
And policies play a central role in shaping school environments. School environments that support the physical and psychosocial well-being of students—and staff—don't just happen. They need the backing of carefully crafted policies outlining the school district's goals and its plans to meet those goals. How can K–12 educators ensure that their districts adopt and maintain policies that support a healthy school environment?
A good starting point is to find out what policies the local board has in place and what state-level policies drive local actions. Most school boards compile their policies in a district policy manual, and many post policies on their Web site. The district might group school environment issues into one policy, or, more commonly, into separate policies that address such topics as tobacco-free schools, playground equipment, sexual harassment, and student support services. The district might also cover school environment issues as part of a policy for comprehensive or coordinated school health.

Policies on the Physical Environment

When we think of a healthy school environment, we often think first of the physical surroundings—buildings that are safe, attractive, and well maintained. Indeed, healthy air and water quality, clean and freshly painted rooms and halls, and hazard-free work and play areas are essential to student learning. These environments support learning directly and indirectly. For example, common sense—as well as a growing body of research—tells us that well-lighted, properly ventilated classrooms allow students to read and concentrate; adequate hand-washing facilities improve attendance by reducing the spread of germs; and well-maintained playgrounds reduce injuries that take students out of class.
In addition, schools with healthy physical environments carry the message that students are valued. When students have adequate classroom space, when roofs are in good repair and restrooms are well maintained, students know that adults respect them. The school's physical environment can, therefore, enhance students' sense of well-being and connectedness to school.
Why do schools need policies behind their supportive physical environments? Wouldn't a bucket of paint and a ventilating system tune-up accomplish more without an accompanying stack of paperwork? Policies can establish the physical school environment as a priority, even during times of budget cuts or changes in leadership. Policies that convey what the school board and community want should guide budgetary decisions and help make the physical environment a priority for which the board and staff are accountable.

Policies on the Psychosocial Environment

As important as the physical environment are the messages conveyed by policies that address the needs of the people in the building and their relationships to one another. These messages make up the psychosocial environment of a school.

Equal Opportunities

In a psychosocially healthy school environment, all students have equal access to every aspect of school life. When academic and extracurricular opportunities are open to everyone, when students are assured that they are free from harassment and discrimination, and when they receive the support services they need, students focus better on learning.
A thoughtful policy analysis will consider the various needs and cultures in a school, with attention to input from youth. Title IX has helped give girls the same access to athletic opportunities that their male classmates enjoy—although pockets of slow progress still exist—and legislation on special education is improving opportunities for students with disabilities. In Massachusetts and Seattle, Washington, comprehensive "Safe Schools" programs address the needs of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender students to ensure that school is a safe and accepting place for everyone. These programs include classroom-based education, staff training, and student support services.
Although many caring teachers and administrators try to create these learning opportunities on their own, policy goes a long way toward ensuring protections and supports for everyone. Policy also determines priorities for staff development, such as helping educators deal more effectively with aspects of diversity that make them uncomfortable. In addition, a consistently enforced, established policy protects the school district in legal challenges.

Valued Teachers

In a psychosocially healthy school, district administrators respect and value teachers as professionals. They seek teachers' expertise when making decisions that affect their schools, students, and jobs. Teachers receive needed resources and support, including professional development opportunities. The effects resonate throughout the school because well-supported teachers are the keystone of efforts to strengthen student achievement. These teachers are more likely to model positive strategies for communication and conflict resolution.
Policy commits the district to ensuring professional treatment for all teachers, regardless of changes in schools or administration. It also recognizes teacher support as an ongoing need, not something that teachers can get from a single workshop or program.

Family and Community Engagement

A school environment that welcomes families enhances communication between home and school. This information exchange maximizes learning by building on a child's strengths. It also helps identify challenges affecting a student's ability to participate in the full range of opportunities at school. Building a school environment that is sensitive to family needs may require adjustments, such as communicating in the parents' home language, rethinking the times for family meetings, and providing child care during these meetings.
Healthy school environments also integrate the school into the larger community. Through service-learning and school-to-work initiatives, students experience how their learning applies to real-world situations. Community members volunteer in schools and attend school cultural events and athletics, where they view schools and youth in a positive light.
Policy conveys the district's commitment to institutionalize family and community engagement as part of everyday school life. Also, these types of activities—whether service-learning projects or creative parent-involvement strategies—foster thinking that is different from the academic standards–based mindset of some decision makers. Policy frames this new thinking by clarifying the role of outside-the-box initiatives in promoting student achievement.

Coordinated School Health Programs

A healthy school environment is part of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's model for a coordinated school health program. The other seven components address counseling and psychological services, family involvement, food services, health education, health services, physical education, and staff wellness. [See Marx and Northrup, p. 22.] Clearly, the components overlap. One way to contribute to a healthy school environment, then, is to ensure that the school meets students' nonacademic needs through all components of a coordinated school health program.
When all components are in place—when students eat a good breakfast, have access to health (including mental health) services, and receive an education that prepares them to make healthful choices—students are better able to focus on learning. When students receive consistent health-promoting messages from all aspects of the school environment—in class; in the food choices offered; in the opportunities for daily physical activity; in the clear enforcement of policies that prohibit tobacco, alcohol, and other drugs—they believe that the school values them and is committed to their healthy development.
Policy is essential for the coordination of a school health program—for the integration of a healthy school environment with a school's other health-related goals that helps it become an institutionalized part of the school culture.
Policy Resources for School Health

Policy Resources for School Health

Fetro, J. V. (1998). Step by Step to Health-Promoting Schools. Santa Cruz, Calif.: ETR Associates. Includes tools for working with school leaders and communities to strengthen coordinated school health programs.

How Your Agency Can Bring HIV/STD Services to Schools: A Primer and Resource Guide. (1995). Los Angeles, Calif.: Los Angeles County Adolescent HIV Consortium, Division of Adolescent Medicine, Children's Hospital. Describes various roles in school policy decisions.

Marx, E., and Wooley, S. F., with D. Northrop. (1998). Health Is Academic: A Guide to Coordinated School Health Programs. New York: Teachers College Press. Discusses strategies for gaining district-level support for school health.

National School Boards Association, School Health Promotions, Alexandria, Virginia. Provides training, technical assistance, and resources on school health issues. Web site: www.nsba.org/schoolhealth ; e-mail: schoolhealth@nsba.org; phone: (703) 838-6722. Publishes the following resources:

  • School Health: Helping Children Learn (1991): Describes the link between school health and learning, with detailed examples.

  • Your Healthy School Environment: Balancing Your District's Ecosystems (Issue Brief 10, 1992)

    and Evaluating the Health of Your School Environment (Issue Brief 16, 1992): Discuss school environment issues from the perspective of school board members.


Strengthening School Health Policies

After reviewing existing policies, K–12 educators might conclude that their district's policies are already excellent—they may just need more publicity or more effective implementation. Or they might find gaps. For instance, a district might agree that schools should welcome family involvement, but existing policy might not support creative ways to reach the growing number of parents who do not speak English as a first language. Or the district might support a safe learning environment for everyone but not address how to achieve this goal for sexual-minority students. The educator's task is to determine what recommendations would improve the policies.
Before presenting recommendations on school environment issues, consider how to link suggested policy revisions with the district's mission, goals, and budget—its stated priorities. Monitoring the interests and priorities of board members is a good way to enlist their support. For example, local, state, and national attention to standardized tests has focused many districts on increasing academic achievement. Efforts to improve the school environment by hiring a social worker, beginning a family outreach program, or increasing professional development for teachers may be more successful if they emphasize the potential for strengthening student achievement. A conflict-resolution program that increases student attendance and the amount of class time available for student learning might also be a cost-effective strategy for improving achievement.
Another important step is to identify, early in the process, community advocates who share the goal of improving the school environment. Know which key communicators—parents, community leaders, or school staff who can influence the board or individual board members—support school health policies. At the same time, identify those key communicators who may not support the proposal, acknowledge their points of view, and seek areas of agreement.
Consider possible challenges to the recommendations or the need to wait until the next phase of the budget cycle when the district considers spending ideas. Also, be aware of unintended consequences of policy recommendations. For example, an effort to increase student safety and improve student nutrition may lead to a policy recommendation that students not leave the building for lunch. An unintended consequence may be an overcrowded cafeteria or a lunch period that begins at 10:30 in the morning.
Always identify choices. Maybe a suggested "safer schools" policy could be adopted first for elementary schools and later for middle and high schools. If money is not available for a full-time nurse at every school, suggest hiring a part-time nurse. Remember that success can be measured incrementally; change does not have to happen all at once.
Working through the system is the best way to present information and recommendations. School boards often have advisory committees for school health, school improvement, district-wide planning, and curriculums. Committee members may include school staff, community members, and representatives of other agencies, such as the local health department or volunteer organizations that support school health policies. Using appropriate channels expedites getting information to the right people and conveys it with greater authority. Knowing which community leaders are likely to be supportive and influential is useful. These are people who can speak at a board meeting or have other ways of communicating with board members.
When suggesting policy changes or ways to improve how policy is publicized or implemented, respect efforts already in place. Board members are more likely to consider changes when they know that the community recognizes and values their efforts to balance multiple—and often competing—priorities.
Finally, understand limitations. For example, administrative protocols may limit direct communication between staff and board members on school-related topics. Also recognize that not all efforts will succeed on the first try. But even raising awareness of policy's role in healthy school environments should be considered a success—and can make recommendations easier to implement in the future.
Policy is the framework on which the various aspects of a healthy school environment take shape and gather strength to become an institutionalized part of the school culture. When practitioners take steps to understand and influence policy, they help ensure that policies remain relevant to the day-to-day activities of the classroom and the school. Bridging policy and practice may not be easy, but it is essential in creating healthy school environments that support improved educational and health outcomes.

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