From the first day of kindergarten to the day a student walks across the stage at high school graduation, teachers and school administrators work diligently to prepare each child for a bright future. However, a child's classroom performance is contingent on their mental, physical, and behavioral health; many factors can affect a child's ability to fulfill their potential. Did the child eat breakfast? Did they get enough sleep? Are they fighting a cold?
Our sponsorship of the School Health Model for Academics Reaching All and Transforming Lives (SMART) health centers in K-12 schools is one way we can impact youth health and wellness.
Each center is staffed with an Advanced Practice Registered Nurse (APRN), under the leadership of a collaborating physician, mental health professional, a patient services representative, and a clinic utilization manager. The model ensures students have access to preventative and primary healthcare, including free screenings and regular treatment. The SMART model has helped reduce absenteeism by as much as 55 to 70 percent and has garnered nearly universal participation for services including preventative check-ups. This means students are more alert and engaged in class.
To learn more, we spoke with Jami Leveen, Director of Communications and Strategic Partnerships, and Angila Faison, Director of Community Engagement in Chicago where we provide food and nutrition services to Chicago Public Schools, about how this unique student health initiative works in practice.
Building a collaborative model
This model for proactive, integrative student health services began at schools initially in Chicago, IL, then expanded to Pickens County, AL, as a collaboration between CVS Health, Ginn Group Consulting, SMART’s Multi-Cultural Partner, the Hispanic Heritage Foundation, and has been successfully delivered by SMART Medical Provider Partners, Heartland Health Centers and Pickens County Primary Care.
We joined the effort in 2018, providing our comprehensive nutrition curriculum to the coalition to incorporate into the existing efforts. "We've brought our strategic expertise in food and nutrition, which complements existing efforts beyond medical care to include nutrition education and wellness," Leveen says.
Our nutrition curriculum, created as part of the Healthy for Life® initiative with the American Heart Association, is part of our commitment to improve Americans' health. The content and resources have proven effective in over 300 community organizations in 50 U.S. cities. By integrating the curriculum into the school environment through the SMART model, students and their parents have access to nutrition information and hands-on activities that underscore the importance of discovering, choosing and preparing healthy food at school and at home.
Getting SMART: Bringing nutrition education to school
Walk into a SMART center, and you'll find three to four brightly colored exam rooms decorated with engaging informational graphics. You'll also see our menu board mirroring the ones in the school's cafeteria. The clinical professionals in SMART centers reference these to educate students about how good nutrition is intertwined in holistic health.
SMART centers in Chicago elementary schools, for instance, began seeing an influx of children complaining of headaches after second or third period. "Nine times out of ten it was because they hadn't eaten," Faison says. "So the clinicians would correlate the importance of making sure you don't skip breakfast with a conversation about what would be on the school breakfast menu for the next couple of days.” The result: centers have seen fewer kids return with the same symptoms which means more time in the classroom.
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Leveen’s experience at SMART locations in Pickens County, AL was similar. “The team on the ground said they see kids every day who are underperforming, not feeling well, and tired because they’re not eating enough,” she says. “The doctors and nurses talk to the students about the importance of nutrition, and kids share that information back at home. In some cases, these health evaluations have uncovered additional challenges these students are facing, and SMART centers can help connect the students’ families with additional resources.”
SMART centers have become integrated into the fabric of the school and have expanded the students’ support networks. “Kids know that there’s somebody who cares about them in the school, and I think the SMART team has done a good job of establishing that in all the locations,” Faison says. “In all three of the SMART centers I’ve been to, there’s been a billboard area where kids had left messages and thank you notes that talked about how great SMART was.” Many nurses and physicians at the SMART centers say certain kids come to the SMART center just to check-in, see the staff, or tell them about the "A" they got on a test.
Feeding the whole community’s potential
But SMART centers don’t only serve students — parents and teachers can take advantage of the resource as well. “Teachers, parents and the community have found this resource very helpful, and it’s had a positive impact,” Faison says. Staff on the ground at Chicago SMART centers reported that parents and teachers find our Ask the Dietician handouts and recipe handouts particularly useful, and that every quarter the centers exhaust their supply.
Parents and teachers have welcomed the SMART staff wholeheartedly as an integral part of the schools’ communities. Faison reported that during parent report card pickup day at Sullivan High School in Chicago, the SMART center hosted a sampling event — and she watched parents and teachers greet the SMART staff by name. Chicago schools are thinking about ways to further nutrition education for parents, possibly to include health and wellness workshops, cooking demonstrations, and/or dietician talks. While our access to students is at the school level, we want to inspire healthy habits for the whole family.