School principals believe in wellness. Bloomington’s District 87 has a wellness plan, wellness teams, even wellness champions, for its 5,400 students. But finding time in the school day to get students moving more, eating better, and focusing on their mental health is a tough assignment.
Illinois State Associate Professor Dr. Emily Jones spoke with Dr. Diane Wolf ’89, ’92, M.S. ’95, Ed.D. ’15, then with the Regional Office of Education, a few years ago at an event hosted by the Center for Civic Engagement.
“We started chatting about wellness policies and fitness,” said Jones, director of the physical education teacher education (PETE) program in the School of Kinesiology and Recreation (KNR). “I told her I would love to connect with local school districts. I wanted to see how we could start building a more two-way partnership, strengthening our community schools from the perspective of wellness and physical activity.”
When Jones followed up with an email to Wolf, an automated reply bounced back that she had accepted a position as assistant superintendent of District 87 in Bloomington. Jones contacted Wolf in her new role and learned that she and Caroline Bubulka ’13, M.S. ’15, head of the district’s nutrition program, were preparing for an evaluation by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which provides funding for food services. Jones said Illinois State could help with that project too.
“That’s a task that takes a lot of time and energy. We had the expertise so we could come alongside them in the evaluation.”
And that’s how the D87 Strengthening School Wellness Environment Project began in fall 2019. Joining Jones were Drs. Andrew Eberline and Tyler Kybartas, assistant professors in KNR; Megan Weemer, assistant professor in the Department of Health Sciences; and Dr. Joseph Lee, an assistant professor at the University of Colorado.
The research team sought to gain firsthand, in-depth information on physical activity, nutrition, and wellness in each of the district’s nine schools. Site visits provided data, and focus groups and interviews were held with school staff, after-school program staff, parents, and the community. The coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic foiled the researchers’ plans last spring to return to the schools to collect student data on physical activity, fitness, nutrition, and social/emotional needs and well-being. Nevertheless, the team delivered a report to the school district last summer over Zoom.
“Before the call was finished, they were building some strategic goals,” Jones said.
Each school received an individualized profile, as well as a district assessment. Jones was surprised by what principals listed as their top priority. “They said physical activity and nutrition are great, but what my students need are resilience, strategies to manage their anxiety, and their ability to persist.”
Based on that feedback, the research has been expanded to include social and emotional wellness. Eberline emphasized the partnership aspect.
“It feels like a true partnership. They would say, ‘This is lacking,’ and we would ask how we could respond to that.”
During the interviews, school staff identified possible resources near their neighborhood schools, including parks, businesses and nonprofits. One example was Green Top Grocery, a local food cooperative, which has provided snacks to children on their way to and from school.
Jones pulled in Illinois State Geography Professor Dr. John Kostelnick, who created an interactive color-coded District 87 Wellness Assets Map, along with KNR graduate student Tammy Stauffer. She moved to Bloomington-Normal from Kansas, and as director of operations for a local youth soccer club, found the mapping experience helpful.
“It was quite interesting inputting that data and seeing the maps and what was deemed an asset,” she said. “Being new to the area, it also allowed me to learn more about the community. Some of my kids could benefit from this.”
Part of asset mapping is looking for ways organizations, such as health care and fitness facilities, could be partners in programming. The map also illustrated which schools have access to fewer resources.
“This is another interesting layer,” Jones said. “It helped us visualize and showcase areas where resources are not as accessible for students and families.”
One of those resources that was lacking is food.
“It’s important to know we have families who struggle with food insecurity in our community,” Jones said. “Schools provide so much—breakfast, lunch, and snacks. Making sure that it’s healthy and presented in a way that’s appealing and attractive is an outstanding testament to the commitment that District 87 has to the wellness of kids. That really jumped out. The traditional school lunch lady persona is not what you see in these professionals in our schools. They are very tuned into providing access to fresh fruits and vegetables and well-prepared meals.”
On a site visit, Eberline noticed staff wheeling a cart around with snacks, so if a student was hungry, that wouldn’t be a barrier to learning.
“Little things like that are big things,” he said.
Teachers were identified as the most important assets for students. Eberline was impressed by their involvement beyond the school day. Time and again the researchers saw how teachers were stepping up and doing what’s best for students across the district. However, the demands of keeping up with students’ needs sometimes came at the expense of their own well-being.
“They’re so good at what they do that they overwork themselves and they don’t step away,” Jones said. “Sometimes the trauma that happens in kids’ lives comes into the classroom, and the secondary trauma is the emotional baggage the teacher takes on. You start to love and invest in the people you work with and their trauma becomes our trauma.”
In the past, the district has reached out to Illinois State for mental health support for teachers. A principal worked with Jim Almeda ’93, M.S. ’02, coordinator of assessment and well-being initiatives in the University’s Health Promotion and Wellness office, to teach an after-school mindfulness course. He also presented on how teachers could use mindfulness in their classrooms.
Another area that jumped out was the need to support students’ mental and emotional health and well-being. That’s when the team pulled in Weemer, who helped broaden the concept of wellness to include social and emotional learning.
“That appealed in a big way to a lot of the schools,” Jones said.
Each school is in the process of turning the reports into actionable plans. The latter could lead to opportunities for Illinois State students to help the school districts by offering health and wellness seminars or volunteering to staff school health fairs and carnivals, freeing teachers to interact with families. Jones will wait for the schools to initiate the next steps.
“We didn’t jump in and tell them what they needed to do,” she said. “We’re interested in walking alongside them when they say they are interested in moving forward. Our hope is that we can serve as links to people and programs on campus or in the community.”
Wolf said the research has helped the district expand its Wellness Task Force, identify wellness champions in the schools, and hold conversations about health and PE curriculum.
“Dr. Jones’ work has been extremely helpful to District 87,” she said. “She has been able to take our vision of wellness for our families, students, and staff and really analyze what is needed for our diverse community. Bloomington Public Schools is fortunate to have ISU as a research partner, and this is one example of the good work of academics in McLean County.”