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Comments at Building A Healthier Future Summit

The conference was held November 29 and 30 in Washington, DC. It was sponsored by the Partnership For A Healthier America and I spoke in the Healthy Schools strand on behalf of the Alliance For A Healthier Generation. 

I am John Skretta, Norris superintendent.  To give you some idea of our context so you know where I'm coming from, we are a district of over 2,000 students in southeast Nebraska just south of our capitol city, Lincoln.  We are a consolidated district that draws from numerous surrounding small towns, and we are growing in student enrollment every year.  We are a combination rural and suburban district.

Our demographics are that we have 15% free and reduced lunch participation and we have 10% special education. Like a lot of schools, we have seen an increase in those numbers in recent years.

To our district, in the context of our discussion today, one of the most important thing for schools to do is realize that students' health and also the wellbeing of staff members are in fact logical precursors to high academic achievement.  These things are not separate from a quality educational experience that assures excellent academic outcomes.  They are in fact central tenets of a positive learning experience. 

At Norris , we believe sound nutrition, quality health education, routine opportunities for physical activity, and embracing the importance of physical education are all a part of how we do business, they are part of the fabric of our being.  We believe affirming that only fosters better success in the rigorous core areas of math, science and English.

We didn't achieve that level of integration and cohesiveness unilaterally, we have only been able to do that because of commitments from partners internal and external, like Shannon Vogler, our Alliance Relationship Manager in Nebraska. You don't achieve anything systemically as a unilateral effort or a top-down dictate. This isn't about compliance or policy dictates, it's about reaching critical mass consensus within a school community to propel positive change forward. 

So when we got tired of playing cat and mouse with repeated go-rounds from snack vendors on stocking too many products of minimal nutritional value AKA junk food, we had a parent help guide us in finding great values to purchase our own vending machines.  And we use the Alliance Product Calculator to help make some of those product selections that comprise our inventory.

When we needed help to acquire milk machines so that we could offer students healthier beverage alternatives, our friends in the farming community and with Prairieland Dairy stepped up and we sell a machine full of skim and 1% daily as a great student consumption option for kids.

When we needed help with health alignment k-8, we were able to bring out the Alliance's Kathy Wilbur all the way from Maine to help us with the HECAT and now we have a well-articulated health sequences in no small measure because of her content expertise.

When we needed to reseed our cross-country course or get rock on the trail for our Elementary walking path, a Board member who works in construction stepped up to make it possible.

It started all the way at the beginning in the 05-06 school year when the state legislature (in response to federal requirements) dictated that schools adopt policies for student health by the summer of 06.  When we adopted our student health policy, we had leadership from within with a school board member whose training and background is as an RN, and we hired a nutritionist from our district and had student and parent volunteers  providing sound recommendations.  So it had a chance right away to be a dynamic document, not a dead-on-arrival dust-gatherer like so many policies that exist in name and number only.

When we wanted to integrate our School Wellness Council with school improvement, we knew we weren't alone and wouldn't be declared to be inhabiting the lunatic fringe, because we have had partners in the Kearney and Lincoln districts who were already finding correlations between BMI and fitness test results with scores and grades. And we had the courage to push forward because our state Board of Education and our state department of Ed have adopted a state level Coordinated School Health policy. So now we are examining risk and protective factor data along with Fitnessgram results when we are talking about state test results and other achievement indicators. 

When we wanted to integrate daily fresh fruit and vegetable snacks in the Elementary, we got tips and strategies from parents who serve as early childhood care providers and preschool educators.  

And when we wanted to offer a fun family fitness activity that promoted the crazy concept of mothers and fathers being active together with their children, we worked with Angry Cow Adventures and other local health and fitness vendors like NE Surf Company to sponsor an annual outdoor adventure race at a state park in our district. 

We believe our results academically bear out the importance of a balanced curricular approach. We don't relegate any subject area to marginalized status, we value how the holistic educational experience enhances and complements results across the board.  We are into curricular integration and we make an earnest commitment to the success of every individual learner on our campus. 

We have the highest ACT scores we have had in 5 years with a 23.7 average, we have a 99% graduation rate, and when computing mandatory state rest results across all grades tested- three through eight and eleven, we have among the best cumulative percent proficient scores in reading and math in the state.

We believe schools should embrace this coordinated curricular approach as instrumental, not an optional or peripheral endeavor. 

Our mission is clear, and unlike what one might commonly encounter, we consider mission first and we believe ours is memorably succinct, not rhetorically cluttered. We guarantee quality learning experiences so that every individual learner thrives as a productive, lifelong citizen.

If the things we are doing as a school district are contributing factors in a cultural epidemic that results in reduced life expectancies for our students, how can we claim we are fulfilling our mission!? We cannot. 

So we are striving to fulfill our mission. Like many Alliance partner schools, we have a long way to go and lots of room for further improvement, but we are committed to this journey and believe that through the power of public and private partnerships, we will continue to succeed and help students flourish.


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