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Words of Wisdom from Chicago on Teaching to the Needs of the Total Child

Barbara Byrd-Bennett is the Chicago Schools CEO and oversees the daily education of hundreds of thousands of PK-12 Chicago children. Talk about a demanding gig! But she came well prepared as a former Sup of the Cleveland and New York City metropolitan districts.

Dr. Byrd-Bennett spoke to a Superintendents' meeting I attended recently, addressing our group on connecting health and achievement. She said that "We won't have children who are truly ready to learn and becoming college and career-ready and all those things that superintendents and school boards like to talk about unless we prioritize their health."

She added, "You can just go around saying your mission statement, but you must actually force the issue." Don't be afraid to ask: Are we doing what we profess to be doing for kids? Put another way, are we actualizing the mission?

Dr. Byrd-Bennett knows "People respect what you inspect." What is happening on a daily basis at the classroom level? Let's check and let's be visible leaders.

She insists that "Conversations must be coupled with measurable outcomes." Dr. Byrd-Bennett emphasized that monitoring performance and measuring outcomes are how we recognize when progress is being made and when we need to retool to get the desired results.

On measurability:

Some of the tools that CPS uses include KPIs or Key Performance Indicators. CPS also annually administers a culture, climate and student perceptions survey that elicits strident input. It is called My Voice, My School.

Every adult an educator: Dr. Byrd-Bennett also emphasized that we must value and leverage the capacity of every adult, very staff member. She specifically addressed the changing and expanding role of school nurses as well as other staff. She promotes the idea that we do the "culture shift" and help all adults in schools understand the power of being healthy role models for children.

Dr. Stephanie Whyte complemented Dr. Byrd-Bennett's comments and extended on these as she spoke about her work as the CPS Child Health Officer. Her job: "We remove health-related barriers to learning." She added, "This is mission-driven work for us." Under her team's leadership, Chicago Public Schools has re-instituted recess in schools and brought PE classes back to the 11th and 12th grade. She noted, "It enhances core achievement. Gym is not just a space. PE is a class."

Dr. Whyte emphasized that principals are the leaders of learning and "Mini-CEOs" of their buildings, so programs and support need to be capable of being tailored to their local building and neighborhood needs. "How 'Plug and Play' can we make it?" is a question that drives their process to make for ease of implementation of health initiatives.  "This then becomes something tangible and sets the guidance and tenets - so then the technical assistance can actually address the particular needs of the school," she explained.

Dr. Whyte commented on nutritional regs: "These Smart Snacks standards allow us to take a stance. We understand there may be a need to give a little or have a little wiggle room politically, but it may also be better to just stand strong and come out swinging."

AASA attendees were provided the tool kits as one of the technical resources distributed to registrants.

Dr. Byrd-Bennett addressed an AASA Total Child workshop which I was invited to that was hosted at the CPS offices on the 17th floor of their Clark Street building May 6th. The event was sponsored by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and Leadership for Healthy Communities. I felt the most profound message that Dr. Byrd-Bennett and her team exhibited is resilience. The Chicago system is enormous and faces immense challenges and myriad demands. But the CEO and her team are undaunted: "It's tough, but we're pretty tough," she said.

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