School Wellness Champion: Wendy Cooper
Founder & President of Healthy Highway // Oswego County
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?
I believe that we all have the innate right to be healthy and if we don’t have a healthy child in front of us to learn, where are we going? As a physical education teacher, I was always looked at - not just me but the arts, music teachers – were always called “special area” teachers. We were not respected as classroom teachers. But yet to me, we were the most important. If children aren’t healthy they can’t learn.
There is so much emphasis on the core standards, but I would like that to change to focusing on core-values - sharing, kindness, teamwork, camaraderie, and cooperation.
I remember one Kindergarten class. They were so excited that they had gotten 3’s on their rubric instead of “we were helping each other.” I wish they had said they were excited because they had been playing. Where are the kitchen play sets in the Kindergarten rooms anymore? There is no time for play, unstructured play... and that has been a huge change. We have lost the fun, laughter, creativity, and excitement to learn... that isn’t there anymore.
I would like to see the health of the teachers addressed too, since when I look at my friends who are still teaching I see the stress they’re going through. I was lucky to be able to take children for a walk. We would walk and I would look at the leaves with them – this is the spring green color of the crayon in your crayon box. They’d run to any of the soccer goal nets, and would all lay down on the grass and look at the sky. At the beginning of my classes, I got to talk to the kids as kids. Now, we’re missing all that.
I have witnessed an increase in the lack of appreciation, respect and value of education and teachers. I’m sorry to say what I would often hear from parents is, “well he doesn’t do this at home.” There’s no respect for the teachers because the children are not getting that from their home lives. Teachers are a great model. We used to do an activity in the cafeteria where the manager would list what foods were at lunch, like Mr. Smith’s favorite carrots, Ms. Jones’ favorite soup, and as soon as the kids knew that, they would order it. If we could go back to things like that - core values - that would make a huge difference.
WHY do you believe that school wellness needs to be a priority? WHY does it matter to you?
Three years ago, Oswego County Health Department reached out because their legislators were saying, “we need to do something, we’re in trouble.” Oswego is rated 60 out of 62 counties in New York in childhood obesity, poverty, suicide, addiction. Every time I hear about stories of suicides, the suicides of our young ones, my first response is, “why? What was so awful?” My other response is that I feel like we failed them. Why didn’t we see this? Why is this happening? In addition, so many of these children are going home on the weekends with no food. The county is in desperate need for health and school wellness. Now that I have this information, I want to do more.
Is the school you work in a “healthy school”? What are some of its successes and challenges?
Oswego is a very poor, and high-poverty county. The biggest challenge is finding funding to help support education initiatives such as mine. The second largest challenge is education of all community members – families, local businesses, and leaders. After the completion of the first year of the Healthy Highway initiative, we have laid the foundation for celebrating healthy choices in all areas of the student’s lives, and now look forward to expanding the program to be school wide.
I started the Healthy Highway program to address these health issues. It was first implemented in 2 schools, data was collected in partnership with SUNY Oswego and we were able to show increased knowledge of healthy choices, as well as behaviors in the cafeteria. The next year, I was approached again by the Oswego Health Department and hospital, and was told that we need to start making a difference. Oswego has now been implementing Healthy Highway into all 24 elementary schools in the county. This has been a huge initiative undertaking with a lot of challenges, from collecting data, pictures and stories and creating new policies and a whole new atmosphere.
Describe a challenge or supportive experience (related to health and well-being) that you have seen a child/children encounter while in school.
In Oswego, the Healthy Highway program has been empowering families and children. There are many examples... one Kindergarden teacher started having water instead of juice for a snack and then all the Kindergarden classes changed their policy to water! At another event, a mom who recognized me from Healthy Highway, told me her 9 year old son made a decision to stop drinking chocolate milk after seeing how much sugar was in it!
We hear these stories again and again. Another mom who was taking a bunch of kids to soccer practices went to a drive through, and the kids said to the mom, “these are red light foods!” In another instance, around Christmas time, a mother wanted to make cookies for Santa, however, her three year old boy expressed his concern that if Santa ate all the cookies he would not be strong enough to do all the walking he has to do to visit all the children at Christmas! He knew that Santa should have “green light” choices to be healthy and strong to do his job.
Describe an element of school wellness that you have advocated for. What successes and challenges did you face?
I have always been a member of the Association for Health, Physical Education, Recreation, and Dance (AHPERD) and advocated for all schools to have a wellness policy, which meant a wellness team was to be put into place. At first, there were really no guidelines and little accountability. Because of these two factors, there was not much support in trying new initiatives. I was always an advocate for more activity, whether through recess, classroom activity breaks, or additional PE time. This became more difficult as more and more emphasis was placed on rubric scores and core standards.
If you could talk to your legislators about school wellness what would you tell them? What would you ask them?
I would tell them to actually get into the schools! I would then tell them that we need funding to provide programs for these children and families and hopefully, they’ll realize that we need to fuel the future. These kids are our future and we have to help them now. To me, we can’t wait any longer. We have to commit to the health of our children.