Cultures of wellness

Harbor View Elementary School students Sophia Bradford and Daimon Talbott get interviewed about the health programs at the school, filmed by Charleston County School District videographer Chris Metivier, on The Docs Adopt School Health Initiative.

A school health program involving the simple combination of a checklist, school wellness committees and relatively small, year-end incentive awards that started in Charleston is spreading across South Carolina.

And the program, officially known as “The Docs Adopt School Health Initiative,” is so successful in creating “wellness cultures” in schools that it seems poised to be a model for the nation.

It’s already being used outside the Palmetto State in the Pottstown School District in Pennsylvania.

For weeks, the six staffers of the MUSC Boeing Center for Children’s Wellness/The Lean Team, which developed the program in 2010 under the leadership of Dr. Janice Key, have been busy counting points from a checklist of nutrition and fitness activities, visiting top schools and planning for Wellness Achievement Celebrations.

Today, the first of those celebrations, the one for Charleston County School District, will be 4:30-6:30 p.m. at West Ashley High School. Like all of the celebrations, it is free and open to the public.

Among those celebrations are ones for Berkeley and Dorchester 2 county school districts, which are in their third year of participation, and schools which are ending their first school year of participation.

Those districts are Colleton, Bamberg 1 and 2 and Clarendon 2. Additionally, the center worked with and funded programs through McLeod Regional Medical Center in Florence and Palmetto Health in Columbia for the Florence 1 and Richland 2 school districts, respectively.

And in the coming school year, the program, with funding from the Duke Endowment, will spread to the Upstate school districts of Greenwood 50, Cherokee and Spartanburg 1 and perhaps other districts, the latter to be determined by the end of June.

The center has developed a “School Wellness Checklist” (which is actually copyrighted) running the gamut from food offered in the school and physical activities to staff wellness and efforts to establish a wellness culture on campus.

The checklist basically serves as a template or blueprint for school wellness committees, often consisting of a variety of staff, parents, students and other interested parties, to follow and use in school health plans.

The checklist encourages actions such as water drinking campaigns, healthy changes in school cafeterias, starting and maintaining school gardens, running and walking clubs, participating in fitness events and hosting other health-related activities.

At the end of the school year, the committee fills out the checklist where items are assigned a certain number of points. The center’s staff reviews the checklist, tallies points and sees if the school’s reach a minimum number of points for a $1,000 award, which can be used for equipment and initiatives for school wellness.

The top three schools in each district vie for a champions title and extra cash. They also are announced along with other awards for top wellness staffers at the year-end Wellness Achievement Celebrations, or WACs.

Money for the cash awards are put up by Boeing Company and other supporters. But considering the effort, more is obviously motivating schools to follow the checklist than a year-end award of $1,000.

“It’s not the money,” says Lara Latto, principal of the 640-student Harbor View Elementary School, which won for Charleston County in 2011-12 and has been a top three finalist the last three years. The school will find out today if it won this year.

“It’s the recognition that we’re doing the right thing for kids. ... I don’t think most parents do that (model wellness). Some children don’t get that, so that’s why it’s important for the schools to do it.”

The program’s first foray beyond Charleston County was pilot programs in Berkeley and Dorchester 2 county school districts in 2012-13.

In that first year, the program offered the pilot to 10 schools, but 12 participated. In a show of solidarity, the schools split the award money. Instead of 10 schools getting $1,000 each, they all opted for $833 awards.

In another sign of success, the 22-school Dorchester 2 district, which has a full-time, district-level wellness coordinator, Donna Williams, has had back-to-back school years with 100 percent participation.

“Dorchester 2 is still rocking,” says Carolyn Battaglia Lindstrom, the program coordinator who works directly with those districts, noting that all the schools created a school health plan and implement it.

Lindstrom adds that Berkeley made a quantum leap, going from 50 percent participation in 2013-14 to 90 percent, 37 of 41 schools, this year. She says it may have partly to do with a strategy change.

“We had been more focused on training the PE teachers and talking to the nurses individually. Then we decided to pull all the wellness leaders together for beginning of the year training,” she says.

Last year, the Docs Adopt program was recognized by state officials as one of the programs to use in the South Carolina Obesity Action Plan, 2014-19.

Last year, the program solicited “requests for proposals” to be a part of the program and got nearly a dozen.

“Expansion is really important to us because we were getting such great results from Charleston, which was our home pilot district,” says Lucie Maguire Kramer, a registered dietitian nutritionist and program coordinator with the MUSC Boeing center.

That expansion for the 2014-15 school year started with the hiring of a new staffer, Ellen Munson, to work closely with smaller, more rural districts along the I-95 corridor. Kramer says the expansion has been “interesting” but “gone really well.”

“There have been some challenges because we’re learning what it’s like to start up in districts with different personalities, which is so true about school districts. They are like different families,” says Kramer. “We learned a lot of lessons and came across problems that don’t happen in Charleston.”

Munson says the ones with both the highest level of readiness and need were selected and that out of those districts of Colleton, Bamberg 1 and 2 and Clarendon, only one school of the total 20 schools did not score enough points to receive a wellness prize.

“We had great success this year,” says Munson. “They made a lot of changes, considering that those schools have not done a lot for wellness over the years.”

But, Munson admits, while the wellness committee leaders were ready to make some changes, “not everybody was on board in the schools.”

“Some folks are ready for nutrition but not necessarily for physical activity, or vice versa,” says Munson. “Over time, it’s making one change at a time.”

Munson adds some efforts to get the ball rolling had broad support, such as campaigns to encourage drinking water, wellness-themed art projects and, for staff, stress management efforts.

Dave Spurlock, the physical education and health director for Charleston County School District, has played a key role in helping making the Docs Adopt program successful and knew the challenges of tailoring the program to different districts.

“When it begins to go into more rural, underserved areas, is it going to have the effect that we think it’s going to have there? Health, many times in areas like that, is not a priority and now it’s going to be on a priority from cradle through all of school,” says Spurlock.

Reach David Quick at 937-5516.