A Report from
Our goal of providing students a competency in health during their years of formal education took an important first step June 15 at Georgetown University, at WholeHealthED 2018, our inaugural symposium for leaders in school wellness programs and healthcare services and programs devoted to improving kids’ health.
Among its unique aspects, this gathering was the first opportunity that wellness program developers, advocates and school coordinators have had to meet and consider the complementary goals and outcomes that their work has been delivering in U.S. elementary and secondary schools, some for many years. Very few have ever had the occasion to meet before. In the words of David Sobel of Antioch University New England, and a long-time leader in nature education for young children: “It was a great opportunity for me to talk to folks outside of the fields I normally operate in.”
The symposium agenda was designed in large part to make these introductions.
1. So school-based wellness specialists (teachers/coordinators and wellness program developers) could hear from each other, and
2. So that participants from traditional school health, children’s health, and pediatric medicine could observe the depth, scope and presence of wellness programs now in place on K-12 campuses.
This unprecedented mash-up (as it was called more than once) of wellness program advocates and school coordinators with school-based healthcare professionals and pediatricians created an opportunity to consider together how the demonstrated academic, health, emotional and social benefits of the former might augment and reinforce the programs of care and prevention of the latter.
Underwritten by the Marino Health Foundation , the symposium began with presentations from two Washington area schools that have significantly developed their wellness programs in recent years:
Seaton Elementary, a DC Public School: a Pre-K to 5 program that attained a national award in 2016 from America’s Healthiest Generation; created and managed by Bonnie Gallion, a whole health educator to the bone and an advisor to the project
McLean School, Potomac, MD: a K-12 independent school that has infused mindfulness across almost all of its routine learning activities. Led by Frankie Engelking, McLean has also attained national recognition.
The bulk of the day’s discussions took place around four major themes, discussed at separate tables, then reported out to all:
• The Status of K-12 Health Education and Health Programs
• The Status of K-12 Wellness Programs
• The Potential for Mutual Reinforcement Among These Programs
• The Day’s Summary: Moderated Group Q&A and Next Steps
Interspersed were several brief presentations by leaders from the wellness program areas (we refer to them as the “anchors of whole health education”: the school garden, food/nutrition, mindfulness, nature ed, and PE-strengthened cognition and movement).
- Nancy Easton, executive director and co-founder of Wellness in the Schools (WITS) in New York City. WITS brings nutrition and fitness programming to more than 100 schools every day, in New York City, New Jersey and other states. It is in its 13th year.
- Margaret Lamar, VP of Strategic Initiatives, Children & Nature Network (C&NN). Among other initiatives, Margaret directs the “Cities Connecting Children to Nature” initiative with the National League of Cities, which will be operating in 18 cities this year.
- Doug Kennedy, Ph.D. lead, Mindfulness in Education at the Bakkan Center for Spirituality & Healing at the University of Minnesota
- Darla Castelli, PhD: Dept. of Kinesiology and Education, University of Texas, Austin: She has a leading researcher and advocate for physical activity for kids for 25 years.
- David Sobel, M.Ed. Senior Education Faculty, Antioch University New England: A leading voice on place-based education and educating young children in nature.
A First Take on WholeHealthED
These presentations and group discussions created what we might call a first take at the conversations that will address the concept of whole health learning and education and its potential implementations. Despite meeting for the first time, and supporting kids’ health from very different perspectives, the participants enthusiastically dove in to the conversation and essentially created a common ground to work from.
A summary of comments made during the afternoon round-up Q&A session illustrates some of the the issues raised:
“There are other stakeholders who are not present in this conversation: funders, organizations with a passion for this sector, policy organizations.”
“(School decision makers) are not seeing this approach in a “solution-oriented” way.”
“We can assume that anyone in position of authority will be resistant to change.”
“Schools are fearful of failure and accountability around failed programs; they don’t have the space to take a risk.”
“(We should) think of ourselves as listeners and asset mappers in a community…let go of the “answer” and craft solutions with funders, municipal and corporate funders, etc. – caring what they care about.”
The Work Around
The commentary throughout the day was a helpful blend of enthusiasm, caution and calls to practicality, as in the last comment above. In her presentation Margaret Lamar of C&NN showed a slide of an expansive, fenced and probably baking empty school playground and commented that this represents the state of many urban low-income schools today. As part of C&NN’s efforts to scale green schoolyards across the U.S, Chicago’s Space to Grow program provides a prime example of how the school district’s limited resources can be augmented through creative partnerships.
Chicago municipal water entities were under pressure by the EPA to consider green infrastructure as a storm water management strategy, and through a partnership with the public schools, crafted a unique solution, ultimately leading to this restoration.
The water agency and school district partnership resulted in engaging outdoor learning (and playing) spaces that promote child, family and community health in several low-income communities. C&NN is working to inspire other partnerships and policies across the U.S. so that every child has access to green schoolyards in which to learn, play and be well.
A Missing Link?
In noting the inherent realities of advancing wellness innovations in the K-12 school complex, participant commentary highlighted a simple but determining factor that will continue to limit adoption of green schoolyards, gardens and other wellness programs, even with audacious workarounds like the one Margaret Lamar cited in Chicago (the following is my own assessment):
For state, county, and city education leaders there simply is no policy, academic mandate or incentive for adding wellness-focused education as a peer subject with math, science, and language arts.
Not yet. During our introduction to the day, I presented the data point I had come across several years ago that became an impetus for what has evolved into WholeHealthED. It’s the sphere on the right:
The question that occurred at that time and which remains:
Whose job is it to make sure this doesn’t happen?
The answer apparently: Everyone’s
Which is dangerously close to “No one’s.” The difficulties, complexities and costs of remaining healthy, compounded in too many communities wracked by debilitating social determinants, have led to the ghastly projections in the sphere on the right above.
Maybe there is a workaround.
The WholeHealthED proposition in essence asks society (via its public education and policy leadership) to add comprehensive knowledge and awareness of the health-influencing facts of life to the requirements of K-12 learning. And so to educate “everyone” where everyone is already being educated. If we are to fully prepare the coming generations for life in this century — one replete with health-related difficulties of all kinds, and shrink the projections in that sphere above, sustained education in health factors could be an essential complement to other community health and prevention initiatives.
The group discussed several potential follow-on projects that could advance the conversation but was in widest agreement on simply continuing to work together; for instance: “Hearing different perspectives is so valuable. Working together can provide speed.” “Working together lends credibility and can open doors.”
The WholeHealthED team will continue to develop its role as catalyst, clearinghouse, to reach out to those many others who might want to be in the room next year, to raise awareness of the combined efforts of all, and as curator of the work in the wellness fields and their integration with pediatric and community health innovators.
The comment that best captured the potential of a whole health learning experience was expressed beautifully by Erica Sibinga MD, Professor of Pediatrics at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine:
What’s great about this program is that it supports kids in their place of schooling every day. It’s the journey and the destination.”
This unique gathering serves as a first step on that journey, heading no doubt out onto unpredictable paths ahead, to a destination hopefully of significantly better health for adults who will have made that journey during their own school years.
We are deeply grateful to the participants who took the time to come to Georgetown, and to those unable to attend but who remain strong supporters of Whole Health Learning and Education.
 – In the 2000s, the Marino Health Foundation funded the Marino Center for Integrative Medicine in Cambridge, Mass., one of many integrative clinics around the country funded by philanthropy in that decade. The Center was subsequently acquired by Mount Auburn Hospital there.