School Wellness Champion: Luis Torres
Principal // New york city, Bronx
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?
If we're going to talk about achieving true equity, then the conditions outside the school have to match the standards within the school. For a long time, I believed that by what I was doing in school I was going to fix the community. I came to realize that no, I have to implement not only whole child education, but whole community education, which is a shift I had to make the last two years. I'm now spending a lot more energy figuring out how to fix and solve the problems of the community around the school so that the standards outside the school match the standards inside the school. If not, I continue to struggle with this cycle of failure that exists where I teach the children at school but then they go back home and learn everything that I taught them not to do. We have great healthy habits here- no soda- but then the first thing [students] do when they leave the school is go grab a soda and a bag of chips.
WHY do you believe that school wellness needs to be a priority? WHY does it matter to you?
… I realized early on that for a lot of these families education is a fifth priority. It's food, shelter, safety, health, and then it's education… if we do not focus on the health and wellness of the children and the families, we can never get to the academics. Unless we work with the mental health of a child, he's not going to focus in the classroom. If a child is sick, they're not coming into the school. If a child has an ear infection, they can't hear language, they can't develop the language in their head, and they're not going to learn. So I've come to realize that unless we fix the children health-wise, they're not going to perform at their best academically. It's the same reason why I strongly feel unless we feed the community they're not going to perform at their [best] ... A child who's hungry is not going to read a book. A mom who has no milk in the fridge is not worried about making sure Mikey goes to school tomorrow, or has somewhere to sleep.
… I started a community school model because I realized that if we left it just like a regular public school, we would never be successful. That's when I expanded the services of the health clinics; it's now like a hospital. I have a nurse, dentist, ophthalmologist, doctor full time on staff.
Is the school you work in a “healthy school”? What are some of its successes and challenges?
… Every possible award that can be given to a school for health and wellness we've been able to achieve at this point. The school is functioning…[as] a healthy environment for children. We partner with Wellness in the Schools. We have the modified menu, so we do vegetarian meals, we do other types of meals. We have no chocolate milk in the school. We're a no sugar beverage zone through the health department.
… We grow vegetables here at the school… We're doing running programs and we partner with a lot of different organizations. Basically, what we're trying to do is create opportunities for physical activities and health initiatives to happen outside of the regular school day… I do that because… I'm truly committed to the community, and my family understands that so they're supportive of that. But how many other people in this city are you going to get to do that?
One of the major things I haven't been able to achieve because of timing and not having the resources that I need is getting more of the community engaged in physical activity. When I have the children here in the school, we have control. I have control. I can do different things with the children in the building and with the parents to some degree, but there needs to be more physical activity. I think a lot of it is because we're limited in the resources that we have. There's really no true community center that we have, and I think that's one of the drawbacks. When you look at healthy communities, you'll find a YMCA. You'll find one of these major health facilities in the neighborhood. Here, you don't see that. Access to resources, access to sports programs…There's nothing here, unless the school is open.
You could be doing all the amazing stuff that I'm doing and all the great work that I'm doing, but if my students are not passing the exam at 90% rate or whatever it is, I'm not going to get a bonus. I'm not getting incentives to do this work. If you don't have a leader like myself who wants to come in and do this work, [it won’t happen]. I'm here six days a week. Sadly, I don't get paid for six days a week… I'm here on a Saturday making sure there's a soccer program, making sure all these things are happening.
Describe a challenge or supportive experience (related to health and well-being) that you have seen a child/children encounter while in school.
One of the issues that we have is that when the school's closed, there's no physical activity for the children. Creating a baseball or soccer program on the weekends will be very important for us to develop the healthy habits that they need to move forward… Having resources and access to those resources is crucial. If we had a strong baseball program in the community and children were able to then compete for scholarships, there's more of an incentive to do those sports and physical activities if you know it's going to lead to entrance into a specialized school or entrance into college with a scholarship. What happens is… certain communities control those scholarships, and they have those programs.
… Only the schools that are the highest academically performing get recognized. So there's the Blue Ribbon schools. There's no real incentive for me to be doing this work… From the state and the city level… If you're high performing academically, your school gets bonuses. The staff gets bonuses. Doesn't matter what you do around health… [At] the school where my son goes, which is a totally different neighborhood, the principal gets a bonus, the teachers get a bonus, the school is recognized, constantly getting more and more resources. That right there is part of the problem.
Some of it is racial, some of it is equity, some of it is control. It's the same idea when you think about prisons; do you want to end crime? If you end crime, a lot of people will be out of jobs and a lot of people lose money… Companies buy products that are made from prisons. When you start to dig deeper and you start to look at all the systemic things that are out there, and honestly I don't even see it as a race thing. I see it more as a economic thing. You could be a poor white person and still have the same issues as a poor Hispanic or black person. To me, the problem is that there are people who control different communities, control different things. …[we] have one community center that can service two hundred children, and you have 30 thousand people on top of each other. Service two hundred children. That's where it becomes about equity.
There's a lot of money invested in people not being healthy. It's sad, but that's the reality…
If you could talk to your legislators about school wellness what would you tell them? What would you ask them?
The first thing we have to do is look for those schools that are doing the work. I would say examples of excellence doing the work. Platinum awards schools. And just don't give them a banner or plaque. Use them to do workshops. Use them to be sites where other schools can come and visit. Talk to the leaders of those schools and figure out what they are doing that could be replicated in other locations. Support those schools. Don't target them because academically they may not be where they need to be… what happens is the way the system is created, those schools that have a health focus, if they're not performing academically, get targeted for closure when they're doing great work. But instead of them being incentivized or respected and promoted, they're attacked. There has to be a shift. There has to be more recognition, celebration for those schools that are doing the hard work and there should be a monetary bonus for schools like that.