The Other 60 Percent

Wellness efforts target school employees

Alongside the growing emphasis on student fitness and nutrition Colorado is seeing efforts to help teachers, principals and other district staff slim down, de-stress and take other steps to prevent health problems before they start.

The Sound Body Sound Mind fitness center at North High School in Denver. <em>Photo courtesy of Mary Lou Miller</em>

The Poudre School District in Fort Collins is planning to open a free health clinic for employees by next fall. Denver Public Schools recently hired a full-time staff wellness coordinator to help launch a new program that includes a comprehensive staff wellness website, a wellness contest and a series of health–focused seminars. In the Englewood schools, employees have access to free yoga and exercise classes, biometric screenings, flu shots and pedometers to track their daily steps.

All these efforts aim to encourage healthy habits in employees, giving them no- or low-cost fitness options, preventive care and health education opportunities at convenient times and locations. The hope is to create healthier employees, reduce absenteeism and contain health care costs.

“Healthier employees, happier employees, more productive employees. Those things all go hand in hand,” said Tiffany Breeding, the new staff wellness coordinator for DPS.

Worksite wellness has been around for years in corporate settings, but it hasn’t been a priority in many school districts. That’s changed over the last few years in part because an emphasis on improving student health also has raised awareness about the health of the adults.

“You can’t teach a child to be healthy if you’re not doing it yourself,” said Kate Logan, a fifth-grade teacher at Palmer Elementary School in Denver.

Logan started working out with personal trainers at one of the district’s eight “Sound Body Sound Mind” fitness centers last spring. These days, she’s aiming to lose 15 pounds and compete in an Olympic-length triathlon. Logan, who also has participated in a pedometer program and plans to check out the new staff wellness web site, said she thinks the district’s continued focus on employee wellness is a positive step.

“I think oftentimes it’s too easy to get caught up in our work…People can lose sight of themselves,” she said.

Wellness program vary

While many districts now offer at least some staff wellness activities, the size and scope range widely. Some districts provide a few on-site Zumba classes or designate an hour of staff-only time in the high school weight room. Others, often with grant funding or sponsorships from their health insurance companies, provide a wide array of highly-coordinated wellness activities.

Corina Lindley, senior community health manager for Kaiser Permanente, said the company is currently working to create more wellness opportunities for schools. She said many worksite wellness programs have catered to office workers who sit at desks all day, but teachers and other district staff don’t fit that profile and have different needs.

“We’re really pushing more energy into this,” she said.

Kaiser, which insures employees in 83 Colorado districts, has contributed funding for wellness efforts underway in DPS and Englewood. Cigna, which insures some DPS employees, has also provided funding for wellness projects in that district.

Lisa Walvoord, vice president for policy at LiveWell Colorado, said effective school district wellness programs require leadership, strong communication with district staff and ample opportunities for employees to participate. In addition, while a designated champion can often help launch wellness efforts, she said written policies establish long-term expectations.

LiveWell often focuses on small, low-cost wellness measures, such as better signage to encourage employees to use the stairs or healthy party policies for staff.

That said, Walvoord noted that the more comprehensive a wellness program is, the higher the impact.

Aiming high

Ashley Schwader, Poudre’s wellness coordinator, said she believes the planned staff clinic will be one of the first of its kind in the state.

“It’s definitely very innovative and new,” she said.

Schwader said the focus will be on ensuring the district’s 3,500 employees have timely access to health care with no associated costs, including no co-pays.

In the Englewood schools, staff wellness efforts have ramped up in the last couple years, said Dale Lumpa, who serves half-time as the district’s wellness coordinator and half-time as a physical education teacher at Charles Hay World School.

In addition to fitness classes and health screenings, the district has updated its wellness web page, created a staff newsletter and enlisted “super champions” to promote wellness activities and answer employee questions.

“We really want one of the best wellness programs in the country. That’s our goal,” said Lumpa.

Craig Ferguson, principal at Charles Hay, takes on-site yoga classes after school twice a week, and in January got one of the free biometric screenings offered at the school by Kaiser Permanente.

He said the district’s focus on wellness has permeated school culture. For example, instead of convening for happy hour cocktails on a recent Friday evening, school staff went to Jump Street and bounced around on trampolines. Another time, during a break from an all-day training, teachers played kickball outside.

Ferguson said it’s not just the fit and active employees who are getting involved.

“You definitely see teachers taking walks during lunch that may not have been doing that before.”

Ensuring staff participation in wellness activities is an even bigger challenge in the 14,000-employee Denver Public Schools, where “The you revolution” wellness program launched last month.

Breeding , the staff wellness coordinator, said she will be thrilled if 1,000 employees participate in the upcoming three-month wellness challenge, which will award employees points for activities ranging from running a 5K race to visiting their primary care doctors.

By the third year of the program, Breeding hopes to provide a full lineup of activities and see frequent use of the staff wellness portal. There, employees can fill out health screenings, use a nutrition tracking program, log steps tracked by pedometers, accrue points in wellness challenges, look up doctors and keep track of upcoming wellness classes and fitness activities.

At that point, she said she’ll ask, “Are we seeing outcomes and the needle moving on health care costs?”







Poverty in America

Memphis woman’s tragic death prompts reflection. Could vacant schools help in the fight against homelessness?

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Graves Elementary School in South Memphis has been boarded up since its closure in 2014. It's one of 10 vacant school buildings in the city.

The death of a Memphis woman sleeping on a bench across from City Hall in frigid temperatures unleashed a furor of frustration this week across social media.

As Memphians speculated how someone could freeze to death in such a public place, some pointed to limited public transportation, one of the nation’s highest poverty rates, and entry fees to homeless shelters. The discussion yielded one intriguing suggestion:

About 650 Memphis students were considered homeless during the 2015-16 school year, meaning their families either were on the streets, living in cars or motels, or doubling up with friends and relatives.

At the same time, Shelby County Schools has an adequate supply of buildings. The district had 10 vacant structures last fall after shuttering more than 20 schools since 2012, with more closures expected in the next few years.

But what would need to happen for schools to become a tool against homelessness? Some cities already have already begun to tap that inventory.

Shelby County Schools has been eager to get out of the real estate business, though it’s not exactly giving away its aging buildings. In 2016, Superintendent Dorsey Hopson said the school system should “repurpose some of these buildings and … anchor some of these communities and rebuild and refurbish these communities instead of tearing stuff down.” The conversation was part of Memphis 3.0, the city’s first strategic plan since 1981 to guide growth for years to come.

District policy allows for “adaptive reuse” to lease vacant buildings for community development including affordable housing, community centers, libraries, community gardens, or businesses. A change requires a community needs assessment and input from neighborhood leaders and organizations before the school board can vote on a recommendation.

But proposals to transform schools into housing haven’t emerged in Memphis.

The Memphis Housing Authority, which oversees federal dollars for housing development, has a two-year exclusive right to purchase two former schools near downtown. But talk has focused on using that space for an early childhood center, not housing, according to High Ground News.

Under state law, districts must give charter schools, which are privately managed but publicly funded, serious consideration to take over a closed building.

That has happened for some Memphis schools, but high maintenance costs for the old buildings are a major deterrent. They also present a significant challenge for any entity looking to convert a structure into a homeless shelter or affordable housing.

Of the district’s 10 empty school buildings, most have a relatively low “facility condition index,” or FCI rate, which measures the maintenance and repair costs against the current replacement cost. The higher the number, the less cost-effective.

*as of October 2017

The idea to turn vacant school buildings into livable space is not new. Across the nation, some communities have found workable solutions to address the excess real estate.

In Philadelphia, a nonprofit organization transformed an empty four-story elementary school that was frequented by trespassers and drug users into housing for 37 homeless veterans and low-income seniors. The $14 million project, led by Help USA, took advantage of federal dollars set aside to house homeless veterans.

Last summer, leaders in Daytona Beach, Florida, pitched in $3.5 million in public funds to help a local nonprofit convert an elementary school into a homeless shelter. Despite pushback from neighborhood residents, the plan secured a unanimous vote from its county council.

In Denver, school officials proposed turning an elementary school into affordable housing for teachers to combat expensive living costs and rapid gentrification. That idea is still up in the air, with some residents lobbying to reopen the building as a school.

Detroit is riddled with empty school buildings. Developers there are buying up properties to repurpose for residential use as they wait to see what the market will bear. The city’s private Catholic schools have seen more success in transforming old buildings into apartments, luxury condominiums, or a boutique office building because they are smaller, easier to renovate, and don’t have the same deed restrictions as public schools.

The same appears to be true in Baltimore, where a nonprofit group converted a 25,000-square-foot Catholic school into housing for women and children. The $6 million project, completed last month, uses federal housing vouchers to subsidize rent.

In Memphis, the community is still assessing what resources need to be tapped in response to this week’s tragic death.

“Simply dismissing this as a tragedy will only allow us to continue to absolve ourselves from the apathy and selfishness that allow people to go unseen,” said the Rev. Lisa Anderson, a Cumberland Presbyterian pastor who is executive director of the city’s Room in the Inn ministry.

academic insurance

Children’s Health Insurance Program is on the brink. Here’s why that matters for education

The fate of the Children’s Health Insurance Program is in Congress’s hands — and children’s education, not just their health, may be at stake.

Congress passed a temporary extension of funding for of CHIP in December, through some states will run out of money shortly. The end of the program would come with obvious potential consequences, as CHIP, which covers approximately 9 million children, gives participants more access to health and dental care.

There may also be a less obvious result: Research has found that access to health insurance helps kids perform better on tests and stay in school longer.

A 2016 study, published in the peer-reviewed Journal of Human Resources, found that expanding Medicaid in the 1980s and 1990s increased students’ likelihood of completing high school and college.

“Our results indicate that the long-run benefits of public health insurance are substantial,” the researchers wrote.

Similarly, an earlier paper shows that broadening access to Medicaid or CHIP led to increases in student achievement.

“We find evidence that test scores in reading, but not math, increased for those children affected at birth by the increase in health insurance eligibility,” researchers Phillip Levine and Diane Whitmore Schanzenbach wrote.

In short, research suggests that when kids are healthier, they do better in school. That’s in line with common sense, as well as studies showing that children benefit academically when their families have access to direct anti-poverty programs like the earned income tax credit or cash benefits.

(Even if CHIP ends, affected children might still have access to subsidized insurance through the Affordable Care Act or other means. The Congressional Budget Office estimates that will be more costly in the long run.)

Congress appears likely to vote on a bill this week that includes a six-year CHIP extension, as as well as a temporary spending measure to avoid a federal government shutdown.