Push on to make Nebraska schools healthier places

2014-07-22T21:00:00Z 2015-03-25T12:26:03Z Push on to make Nebraska schools healthier placesBy MARGARET REIST / Lincoln Journal Star JournalStar.com

The Nebraska Association of School Boards wants to help make the state’s students more fit.

They’ve enlisted the help of Dr. Bob Rauner, director of the Partnership for a Healthy Nebraska, who has spent the past five years crunching numbers at Lincoln Public Schools that show a direct correlation between fitness and student achievement.

Rauner and association officials hope to expand his work to districts across the state, assisting them in gathering fitness and student achievement data, then helping them start healthy practices, whether that’s building a walking track, making sure students get recess or starting a healthy breakfast program.

To do that, they’ve created an interlocal agency called the Nebraska Whole Child Project that will act as a clearinghouse for statewide fitness and student achievement data and a means of securing private donations. State law allows the creation of such agencies, which have their own boards of directors.

The idea for the Whole Child Project came from the school district association’s board, which had been discussing ways to create partnerships with the private sector and expand the notion of a school’s success beyond test scores, said John Spatz, executive director of the Nebraska Association of School Boards.

They’ve just incorporated, and board members from the Norris, Johnson County Central, Franklin and Wayne school districts held the first board meeting Tuesday.

“We’re excited about this,” Spatz said. “It’s new and a little bit different.”

They’ve been developing the idea for about two years, and 61 school districts and educational service units have signed on so far. It also is open to state colleges and universities.

The first step, Spatz said, is raising enough money to hire people to train interested school districts in how to collect the fitness data, administer the fitness test, then compile it along with test scores, obesity rates, poverty and other student demographics.

Rauner has done that at both LPS and Kearney, work that showed students who pass fitness tests are more than two times more likely to pass statewide reading and math tests — results that hold true across socio-economic lines.

That’s created some policy changes at LPS, which now requires all elementary schools to have recess and an activity break; and through work of advocates like LPS curriculum specialist Marybell Avery, schools have gotten federal grants to beef up their wellness programs.

“This is a way to have this happen across the state,” Rauner said. “It’s a unique way to approach this.”

Rauner said he would eventually like to include other measures of student well-being, such as Gallup’s “hope index.”

“It’s where the data collection could go that really excites me,” he said.

One of the benefits of creating the interlocal agency is that money the project provides to districts would not affect the state aid formula, Spatz said, and the organizational structure means the state could provide funding if legislators wanted to do so.

Once the agency secures private money, it will be able to provide the expertise in data collection that many smaller schools don’t have, Rauner said.

And having statistics that show school boards how fitness affects their students will be a powerful incentive for them to fund wellness programs, Spatz said, or to work with local government agencies to create community-based or after-school programs.

"We want our school board members to be community leaders," he said.

​Reach the writer at 402-473-7226 or mreist@journalstar.com.

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