School Wellness Champion: Francisco Cruz
Advocate, Nonprofit Program Director // New York City, Washington Heights
WHAT do you believe when it comes to schools supporting children’s health and well-being? How does this belief connect to your core values or life experiences? Has it changed over time - how and why?
Schools should support children's health and well-being because students are not solely defined by their academic performance. It is important that schools be committed to providing opportunities to discuss real-life scenarios related to health and wellness. It's vital that schools provide students with a platform to discuss what it means to navigate life as a teen, to understand the foundation of healthy relationships, decision-making, communication & advocacy, accessing resources, and the importance of reflection.
This belief connects to my own life experience because unfortunately, I never really got an effective health education during my time attending public schools in New York. I still remember getting a health class for one semester in my last semester of my senior year of high school, spending a few weeks on some health content, and then spending the rest of the semester watching movies. Had I not had the support system I had and made some slightly different decisions, my life could have been in a VERY different place.
After college, I taught as a 7th grade teacher and despite my school teaching health in 8th grade, the classes were divided by gender (binary specifically). While there, I remember spending so much time helping my students to understand what positive relationships look like, identifying toxic or harmful behaviors, and I found myself realizing the importance of educational systems valuing the development of the WHOLE child, and not just the development of their scores. Ultimately, I think schools need to invest in their students on all-fronts in order to help them develop as people.
WHY do you believe that school wellness needs to be a priority? WHY does it matter to you?
School wellness needs to be a priority because it is vital for staff and administrators to be motivated to support the health-promoting changes. It's important that all members of a school team are motivated by and supportive of the ways that schools invest in the physical, mental, and often overlooked, emotional well-being of their students. Schools need a way to hold themselves accountable to serve their students in all aspects of their development and not just an academic level.
School wellness matters to me because I value investing time and energy in the growth of their student body as individuals. It's important that schools foster safe learning environments, that they provide resources to promote wellness, opportunities for students to grow as people and to explore their identities, and for schools to support the students they serve in a way that is geared towards building resilience and life skills.
Describe a challenge or supportive experience (related to health and well-being) that you have seen a child/children encounter while in school.
When I was an educator, I saw students struggle with their gender identities and perceived gender roles and how that perception shapes their actions and communication. I've also seen students be both challenged by and supported by their peers and counselors through experiences that tested and stretched their mental and emotional well-being.
Describe an element of school wellness that you have advocated for. What successes and challenges did you face?
I've advocated for schools to prioritize health programming for 9th graders rather than relegating health to an elective or last-minute graduation requirement by partnering with them to serve their students with Peer Health Exchange's curriculum. I've fostered relationships, managed logistics for those partnerships, and worked closely with them to make sure that their students are able to engage with the curriculum. In doing so, high school partners are able to have their students engage with a skills-based curriculum that seeks to enhance their knowledge around identities, connecting them to youth-friendly and equitable health resources, reflecting on decision-making and the appropriate ways to communicate and advocate for themselves and others.
If you could talk to your legislators about school wellness what would you tell them? What would you ask them?
I would tell them that legislators need to be willing to invest in students as individuals on all fronts and on a systemic level. That we need to ensure that students have equitable access to health resources (physical, mental, emotional), are given the space to navigate and develop their identities in safe environments, are supported by their teachers and administrators from the top to bottom, and that we drive towards holding schools accountable to the development of their students as a whole.