It's back to school for tens of thousands of students and faculty in the Charleston area next week, and while it will take a few days or weeks to settle in, it's not too soon for school leaders to think about wellness.

The Wellness Checklist

The MUSC Boeing Center for Children's Wellness checklist provides points for certain goals accomplished toward a year-end cash award.

The checklist can serve as a blueprint for a school wellness.

Here are a few of its features:

1. Having a wellness committee and plan: First and foremost, the checklist seeks to have schools establish or continue a school wellness committee, ideally with a mix of representation that includes physician, a food services manager, parents, teachers and others. And the committee should adopt a wellness plan specific to the school.

2. Replacing unhealthy foods: Nutrition guidelines range from the cafeteria removing the deep fryer and "promoting and providing" two locally-grown fruits and vegetables daily every month to creating non-food reward policies to replacing fundraisers featuring unhealthy food with healthy food and starting a school garden.

3. Promoting physical activity: Among checklist items to promote physical activity is holding regular "mini-exercise breaks" during classes, making sure all students get the minimum requirements of 60- or 90- minutes per week, establishing a non-competitive running or walking club, participating in designated bike or walk to school days and using the FitnessGram assessment program.

4. Managing stress: Stress often leads to unhealthy habits but the checklist seeks to find ways to manage stress, particularly among faculty, by providing yoga and meditation classes, creating a "quiet space" for de-stressing and making massages accessible and affordable to staff.

5. Creating a 'wellness culture': The checklist encourages creating a culture of wellness in school by having a morning announcement on wellness at least once a week, creating a student health club, designating a room for breast feeding or pumping for staff and parents, holding fresh vegetable "tastings" at PTA meetings and offering healthy cooking seminars to parents.

Source: The MUSC Boeing Center for Children's Wellness' "School Wellness Checklist"

Thanks to the MUSC Boeing Center for Children's Wellness, that task has been lessened and, in fact, is fairly simple and nearly free.

Since the 2010-11 school year, the center has been working with schools to establish wellness committees and been successful in making an array of campuses healthier places to learn and work.

The initiative, which uses $1,000 year-end awards as carrots (not hot dogs or donuts!) to help motivate schools, has spread from the Charleston County School District to the Berkeley and Dorchester 2 districts. This year it expands to Bamberg, Clarendon and Colleton counties, as well as Pottstown School District in Pennsylvania.

Blueprint for success

A cornerstone of the center's program is providing schools with a "Wellness Checklist," which actually is a blueprint for overall school health.

The five-page template details a flexible strategy for accomplishing goals in nutrition, physical activity, stress management and establishing a "wellness culture."

The checklist is based on general "best practices" identified by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Institutes of Medicine and was honed, in part, by MUSC pediatrician Dr. Janice Key for the Charleston area, according to Lucie Maguire Kramer, a register dietitian who works for the MUSC Boeing center.

"We see it (the checklist) as a planning tool," says Kramer. "It's a guide to make policies and environmental changes in a school that will affect everyone in the facility."

But it is not a stagnant document. After every school year, the center's staff and local wellness experts assess the success of the checklist and make tweaks.

"From year-to-year, this is a living, breathing document," says Kramer, noting that changes also incorporate new regulations and technologies.

New this year

Kramer says among the changes to this year's checklist is an effort to get schools to go "above and beyond" the new USDA "Smart Snacks" regulations, which provide parameters for healthier snacks during the school day but not after hours, such as during after-school activities, tutoring sessions and PTA meetings.

That makes the schools vulnerable to food vendors that offer unhealthy food at those times.

The checklist provides extra points toward the school's year-end award by adopting a smart-snacks policy around the clock.

Also new is adding points for the use of FitnessGram, a software program that gives physical education teachers the ability to assess and report individual student's health to parents and tell them what they can do, in an appropriate and sensitive manner.

While efforts by the state-wide Eat Smart Move More are still underway to get the state to improve "shared-use agreements" of school fitness facilities (such as tracks) with communities, the center's checklist is trying to provide incentives via points to do so.

While many dread the return to school, Kramer seemed excited about expanding the program to four new counties, about the changes and the possibilities for continuing to make positive changes in schools.

"None of this is mandatory. It's all voluntary and we're creating changes without spending a lot of money," says Kramer.

Reach David Quick at 937-5516.