Program adds wellness component to qualifying schools


Michigan K-12 schools are invited to apply for an innovative and collaborative program intended to empower school leaders to take the first step toward building healthy school environments.

Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan announced earlier this month the launch of a new school-based program supporting childhood wellness — Step Up for School Wellness —as the latest addition to its Building Healthy Communities initiative after partnering with a number of public and private organizations to develop the innovative program.

The program is designed for K-12 schools across the state and provides financial support to fund staff, training, equipment, materials and other resources for participating schools to develop, implement and sustain various wellness program options. Schools that participate can receive more than $1,000 in funding to assess their current health environment and incorporate new wellness programs customized to meet their specific needs.

Shannon Carney Oleksyk, registered dietician and healthy living advisor at BCBSM, said the program is designed to create healthy school environments to help prevent childhood obesity and provides an opportunity for schools in the state to apply for the program.

“We have realized right now there is a need for schools to really take those first steps to improve their school environment, and that is why we are offering this opportunity,” said Oleksyk. “This new opportunity is for schools that maybe have never had any health or wellness in their school, or never have received grant or program funding, or maybe they have a couple of health champions that are eager to implement some new, fun changes for their health or their students and staff.”

While all public, charter and private nonprofit K-12 schools in Michigan are eligible to apply for the program, Building Healthy Communities: Step Up for School Wellness is especially intended to reach new schools to support them as they take initial steps toward creating healthy school environments.

“Many programs around the state have a requirement for free and reduced-price lunch percentages, but Building Healthy Communities does not. It does not matter geographically where the building is located across the state, and you don’t have to have any experience doing other grants or other types of program implementation,” said Oleksyk.

“The only real requirement we have is it is not for schools that have previously participated in this program.”

The program has five action steps: build or re-energize a school health team; assess the school health environment; gather tools and take action; evaluate and sustain; and share successes and plan for the future. Each school applying to participate in the program can choose two specific components out of seven core options within the two focus areas of physical activity and physical education, and healthy eating and nutrition education.

The physical activity components are classroom physical activity breaks, active recess and quality physical education. The nutrition focus area includes breakfast in the classroom, smarter lunchrooms, healthy parties and celebrations, and nutrition education.

“These components have been proven to be successful in Michigan schools, and the new program allows school buildings that are applying to personalize the program,” said Oleksyk.

“It is designed to be a ‘menu’ approach. It can be the one they have the most support for, the one they feel is achievable, the right step for the school, hits a need they have, something the school staff has recognized for a long time, or something parents are demanding.”

Interested schools can fill out an online application that requires information about the school, the two component choices and specific questions based on the identified core options.

BCBSM is hosting informational webinars at 10 a.m. and 3 p.m., Sept. 15, for schools interested in learning more about the program and how to apply. All applications are due by 5 p.m., Sept. 30, through online submission. The selected schools will be announced in October.

“We are really hoping we have an excellent turnout from across the state. It is very hard to determine the exact number because there is a lot of diversity and different combinations that can be chosen, so it depends on what schools choose,” Oleksyk said, in reference to the number of schools that can be selected to participate. “We are hoping at minimum to reach 70 schools, but depending on the combination, it could be much larger than that.”

Participating schools will receive $500 allocated toward substitute teacher pay to allow staff to participate in completing the Healthy School Action Tools assessment and develop an action plan. They also will receive an additional $500 to implement the action plan items identified to improve the health environment for students and staff.

“Through the assessment process, which can really have long-term sustainable benefits for a school building when schools assess their own environment, it can be really powerful,” said Oleksyk. “You get parents involved, you get administrators involved, and schools can do some amazing things, often at low to no cost, or often at the demand of students, which is really neat.”

The schools also will receive financial support based on the selected components, since each option has a unique set of resources associated with it, according to Oleksyk. For example, the classroom physical activity breaks component gives schools a year-long free access to the online interactive GoNoodle Plus program. The breakfast in the classroom component includes up to a $2,000 value in equipment to carry out daily breakfast service in the classroom.

“I see it really creating a school environment that supports the healthy lessons they are learning. It sets kids up for success,” said Oleksyk. “The program looks at improving health, allowing them to achieve their full academic potential by making sure they are not only well nourished, but also that they move their bodies to then be able to sit still and be ready to learn in a classroom.”

BCBSM partnered with the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, Michigan Department of Education, Michigan State University Extension, Michigan Team Nutrition, Michigan Fitness Foundation, United Dairy Industry of Michigan and Action for Healthy Kids to create the new program.

Brian Whiston, state superintendent at the Michigan Department of Education, said the program is designed to be a resource for schools interested in improving the health and academic growth of their students.

“The connection between good health and academic success is proven, and we are proud to support a program that will help move the needle on both,” he said.

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