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?”







How I Help

Why this high school counselor asks students, ‘What do you wish your parents knew?’

Today, we launch a new series called “How I Help,” which features school counselors, social workers and psychologists across Colorado. It is a companion to our popular “How I Teach” and “How I Lead” series.

Through “How I Help,” we hope to give readers a glimpse into the professional lives of school staff members who often work behind the scenes but nevertheless have a big impact on the day-to-day lives of students.

Our first “How I Help” features Cassie Poncelow, a counselor at Poudre High School in Fort Collins. She was the 2016 Colorado School Counselor of the Year and is one of six finalists for the 2018 National School Counselor of the Year award.

Poncelow talked to Chalkbeat about how she creates a legacy of caring, what teens want their parents to know and why peer-to-peer mentoring is better than a social-emotional curriculum taught by adults.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.

Why did you become a school counselor?
I was incredibly fortunate to have many powerful educators shape my life in my time as a student, but none did more so than my school counselors. My counselor from high school remains a dear friend and mentor. I knew that I wanted to be a part of what is happening in education and loved the diversity of the school counselor job. They get to collaborate with so many different stakeholders, get to know students in really cool ways and be involved with so many aspects of making change.

Cassie Poncelow

Tell us about an effort or initiative you spearheaded at your school that you’re particularly proud of.
Three years ago, we noticed that students were dropping out continuously because they were short on graduation credits and tired of taking the same classes over and over again. I worked with a team to create Opportunities Unlimited, which is a dropout recovery program for students ages 17-21 that is focused on GED completion and concurrent enrollment opportunities. A fifth cohort started this fall and the program has graduated 26 students in two years.

Is there a tool, curriculum or program you couldn’t live without in your job?
Our Ambassadors program is in many ways the backbone of our climate and culture at Poudre High School. This program trains 50 upperclassmen to mentor freshmen through a year-long curriculum that includes topics like stress management, suicide prevention and sexual assault. This mentoring model means that every freshman has an ambassador that is connecting with them for almost three hours each month. The ambassadors deliver comprehensive, peer-to-peer education that is far beyond and better than any social-emotional learning curriculum that counselors could facilitate. As the co-leader for this program, I also couldn’t live without the hope that this crew gives me. They are the best part of my job.

What’s the biggest misconception you’ve encountered about your role in the school(s) where you work?
I am grateful to work in a place and with people who see the vital role of school counselors and are eager to partner with them. In my time at Poudre High School we have added two new school counseling positions, further demonstrating our school’s belief in the work we do. I have worked at schools in the past that created a lot of systemic barriers to accessing school counselors and I think this was based on a misconception that we were a more frivolous part of services for students.

You spend lots of time with students. Knowing what you know, what advice would you give to parents?
I often ask my students, “What do you wish your parents knew?” What I hear consistently is a plea for them to remember what it was like to be 16: How painful and awkward it was, how boys were all the rage and not getting invited somewhere really was the actual worst.

So, I advise parents to remember that. And remember that a lot of what they dealt with at 16 is even more complicated by the world our kids are experiencing. Social media wasn’t a reality when they were kids and our current students have never known a world where mass shootings haven’t happened often. I know it’s no, “I walked uphill both ways without shoes in the snow,” but this is a scary time to be student — different, but equally hard. Our kids need us to hear them in that. And believe that they can change it.

Tell us about a time when you managed to connect with a challenging student or a student facing a difficult situation. How did you do it?
At my core, I think we all thrive on authentic relationships and I do whatever I can to create these with my students. I want each of my students to feel like I am truly in their corner and a champion not only of what they do but more so of who they are. I hope to not only live this, but to model it for my students in ways that inspire them to do the same.

This semester I have a freshman boy who was consistently skipping class (who knew gas station tacos were such a draw?) and failing multiple classes. His “consequence” is that he has to spend a period working on missing work in my office. I also have a slew of seniors who have made my office their home during this fifth hour, many who are excellent students and are just looking for a place to study. They have taken this freshman under their wing and are committed to his success far beyond what I could ever be. They are constantly asking about his upcoming exams, what he needs help with and celebrating his rising grades with him. I think I have built really authentic relationships with these upperclassmen who then remember what it means to feel connected and cared for and are passionate about showing this student just that. I often stress “legacy” to my students and this seems like a clear picture of that.

What is the hardest part of your job?
Kid stuff is hard. I hurt for kids a lot, as I think all educators do. They live lives far beyond our walls and far beyond what we could imagine and ever control. That’s the hardest. Close second would be trying to operate in a system that seems to be driven by folks who aren’t doing the work. I recognize that there are so many moving pieces and would love to have some of the actual “decision-makers” come spend the day in our role and better understand the work we do.

Tell us about a memorable time — good or bad — when contact with a student’s family changed your perspective or approach.
A year ago, I had a student who was really struggling with some significant mental health issues. I knew that we needed to bring in a parent but the girl was very anxious about this idea, to the point where she had literally crumpled up on my office floor. After calling her mom to meet with us, I joined her on the floor of my office to talk more. Her mom walked in shortly after, assessed the scene and sat right down on the floor with us, despite the chair-filled room. This move shifted everything and I was so grateful for her wisdom to be where her kid was at. It was a good reminder to me to do that always: be where kids are at.

You spend your days trying to help students and staff with any number of things. How do you wind down after a stressful day?
A lot of my unwinding still includes my students as I announce volleyball games or attend other sporting events or performances. I love these opportunities because they let me see my kids in a different light and remind me how awesome they are. I also spend as much time outside as possible, whether it’s going for a quick hike with my pup or a bike ride. Beyond traveling and reading, I cheer hard for the CSU Rams! Go State!

Big money

Millions in grant dollars will bring more counselors to Indiana’s underserved students

KIPP Indy was one of several schools in the county to receive a counseling grant.

Scores of Indiana schools were awarded private grants that will allow them to bolster counseling services for students, many of whom are lacking help for an increasing portfolio of problems, including fallout from the state’s drug epidemic and basic needs like advice on college applications.

The $26.4 million in grants, decided last month, include six for Marion County districts and charter schools. They were awarded by Lilly Endowment, a prominent Indianapolis-based philanthropy founded by key players in the pharmaceutical giant Eli Lilly.

The grants went to 52 school districts and five charter schools, covering about a third of the state’s counties. Based on enrollment, they ranged from about $68,000 to almost $3 million.

Lilly began its push to help schools build better counseling programs last year.

“The response from school corporations and charter schools far exceeded the Endowment’s expectations,” said Sara B. Cobb, the Endowment’s vice president for education. “We believe that this response demonstrates a growing awareness that enhanced and expanded counseling programs are urgently needed to address the academic, college, career, and social and emotional counseling needs of Indiana’s K-12 students.”

As Chalkbeat previously reported, school counselors have been stretched exceedingly thin in recent years, both in Indiana and across the country. On average, each Hoosier counselor is responsible for 630 students, making Indiana 45th out of 50 states and the District of Columbia for counselor-to-student ratios. The American School Counselor Association recommends a ratio of no higher than one counselor for every 250 students.

So far, state-led efforts to expand counseling have fallen short; a bill proposed in 2015 to require a counselor in every school was withdrawn for further study, and the issue hasn’t resurfaced significantly in the legislature since. At the time, cost was the sticking point.

Schools and districts had to apply for the grants and show how they would use the money. Lilly reported that mental health and business partnerships, mentoring programs, improving curriculum and adding in more training for staff were all strategies that grant-winners have proposed.

Initially, 254 districts and charter schools applied, many pointing out how Indiana’s recent opioid crisis has increased social and emotional challenges for students. Counselors have to juggle those serious needs with college and career advising and, increasingly, responsibilities that have nothing to do with counseling, such as overseeing standardized tests.

Because of the level of interest, Lilly is planning a second round of grants, which would total up to $10 million.

“Because the implementation grant process was so competitive, the Endowment had to decline several proposals that had many promising features,” Cobb said. “We believe that with a few enhancements, many of these proposals will be very competitive in the second round of the Counseling Initiative.”

These are the districts and schools in Marion County that received counseling grants. (Find the full list here.)

  • Indianapolis Public Schools: $2,871,400
  • KIPP Indianapolis: $100,000
  • Lawrence Township: $1,527,400
  • Pike Township: $1,114,700
  • Neighborhood Charter Network: $68,312
  • Southeast Neighborhood School of Excellence: $99,870

IPS said in a news release that it planned to use the grant money to build counseling centers in each of the district’s high schools, which would begin operating in 2018 after IPS transitions to four high schools. Superintendent Lewis Ferebee said counselors are “critical” for students as they prepare to graduate high school and pursue higher education and careers.

“We’re thrilled that the students and families we serve will benefit from this gift,” Ferebee said.