Celebrating Ontario’s Healthy Schools! | Ophea.net

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Celebrating Ontario’s Healthy Schools!

Monday, June 3, 2019 - 13:30

Ophea’s Healthy Schools Certification helps everyone come together for the health of the school community

Hip hip, hurray! As Ophea’s Healthy Schools Certification approaches the end of another school year, there’s a lot to celebrate.

This year 274 schools have been certified as either Gold, Silver or Bronze Healthy Schools, representing 49 Ontario school boards.  The level of student engagement has far surpassed expectations, with some schools seeing as many as 40+ student leaders participating in their Healthy Schools team. Perhaps most importantly, however, all of the participating schools have gained a framework and valuable support to help them focus their efforts, and the effects—which include  healthier, safer, more inclusive school environments and improved student learning and well-being —are likely to be felt for years to come. 

Certification is a powerful approach to improving student health and well-being

Ophea has been working with provincial partners, school boards, and public health for well over ten years to champion the Healthy Schools approach, but Ophea’s Healthy Schools Certification (HS Certification), which was launched in September of 2015, aims to increase school community capacity in this area while celebrating and formally recognizing efforts across the province.

“Learning how schools are using the six-step Healthy Schools process to enhance and promote health and well-being, and formally recognizing schools for their achievements has been really exciting,” says Margaret Good, a past Ophea Healthy Schools & Communities Consultant. The six steps are:

  • Step 1: Establish your school team
  • Step 2: Assess your school community needs and assets
  • Step 3: Identify your priority health topic
  • Step 4: Develop an action plan
  • Step 5: Take action and monitor progress
  • Step 6: Celebrate and reflect

By completing the six-step process over the course of the school year, registered schools earn points and can apply to be certified as a Gold, Silver, or Bronze level Healthy School. Certification is based on a school’s ability to follow and complete the process, and not on the type or number of activities chosen. This way it can be tailored to meet the needs of each community and focuses on building a sustainable commitment to being a healthy school.

What do schools gain by participating?

“I’ve been passionate about this area for years,” says Victor Kass, a Health and Physical Education (H&PE) Teacher at Louise Arbour Secondary School in Brampton. “I just never knew how to go about addressing it—bringing it all together. When I heard about Ophea’s HS Certification, a light bulb went off in my head. It was exactly what I’d been looking for, and what I love about it is that it brings everything and everyone together within and outside of the school.”

When they register for HS Certification, schools gain access to an online step-by-step process, tools, and support for increasing student, staff, and community engagement. “Even if a school community already has things started, having those steps in place can help them to identify what they may have missed and what they can add to their programs and planning,” says Reid Linforth, a Core French teacher and the Healthy Schools and Workplaces Lead at Unionville Meadows Public School in Markham.  

Community partnerships are another key piece of the process, and the impacts of building these mutually beneficial relationships can be far reaching. “It’s really about bringing together important members of the community—as opposed to just students and teachers,” adds Kass.

Healthy Schools Certification connects to Ministry of Education priorities

HS Certification connects to the Ministry of Education’s Foundations for a Healthy School. This document was designed to help foster a learning environment that promotes and supports student well-being.

To support schools in addressing the priorities outlined in this document, each of the six steps of Ophea’s HS Certification is aligned with Foundations for a Healthy School.

“Student engagement is one of five areas in Foundations for a Healthy School and is emphasized throughout Ophea’s HS Certification,” Good points out. “Instead of just doing an activity, schools that follow the process are looking at ways to involve students. They’re encouraged to form a team with strong student representation and are awarded extra points if they have students in a leadership role.”

Likewise, the other four areas that contribute to a healthy school are addressed through Certification. These include curriculum, teaching and learning; school and classroom leadership; the social and physical environment; and, of course, home, school and community partnerships.

“Ophea’s HS Certification applies to the curriculum but extends out to the community as well,” says Hardev Sohi, a Public Health Nurse with Peel Public Health, who supported various schools through the process in the 2015/16 school year. “All of that contributes to that safe schools and communities piece.”

The program supports student learning in the H&PE curriculum

By reaching out to community partners, schools are also able to address the first fundamental principle on which the H&PE curriculum is based: H&PE programs are most effective when delivered in a healthy school and when students’ learning is supported by school staff, families, and communities. (To learn more about the H&PE curriculum’s fundamental principles, visit Ophea’s website for All About H&PE videos and posters that provide practical information on each principle.)

In Sohi’s work with schools she has noted that, once schools take the first step in reaching out to community partners, the impacts on the school community are significant. “It really helps them to build their capacity and to realize that by working together they’ll go further and have more resources to work with,” she says.

What’s more, when schools work with parents and community partners, students see the lessons they’re learning about living a healthy life (including physical activity, healthy eating, positive mental health, substance use, injury prevention, and growth and development) reflected in the community around them, which helps to solidify and amplify their learning both inside the classroom and when out in the community.

Healthy Schools Certification helps schools narrow their focus and increase their impact

Through Ophea’s HS Certification, schools also gain a focus and purposefulness that they may not otherwise have had or realized.

In step two (after a team that represents the school community has been assembled) they begin assessing their needs and assets. and from there, go on to select a priority health topic in step three. Schools can select from one of six areas that relate to the H&PE curriculum: physical activity; healthy eating; personal safety and injury prevention; growth and development; mental health; or substance use, addictions and related behaviours. 

“It really narrowed our focus,” says Kerry Carlyle, Vice Principal of Little Falls Public School in St. Marys. Her school chose mental health. “It allowed us to drill deep and focus on one area, and that trickled down into all other areas of our healthy school.”

Selecting the health topic as a team—and with input from the larger school community—is also a great way to generate excitement and increase buy-in.

“Teachers always want to improve student well-being and engagement, but we all have different ideas of how that should be done,” says Linforth. “Having many teachers in on the selection process helped us to narrow our scope and focus our intentions.”

At Linforth’s school, part of the selection process also involved student leaders creating and circulating a survey to gather feedback from their peers from all grades. “When students are part of the selection process—and not just the recipients—they’re more engaged, and therefore the activities and plans are likely to be much more effective,” he says.

Of course, having a priority area doesn’t mean that activities need to be limited by that focus. In fact, it can be a wonderful way to demonstrate the interconnectedness of health topics to students. “In one K-6 school in the north, the priority area was mental health,” Good recounts. “One activity they had was a Feel Well Be Well day. Grade 6 student leaders led activities that modeled stress management.” These activities touched on physical activity, healthy eating, and more. “There was a yoga centre, an art wall and they served soothing smoothies. They integrated it all.”

With imagination and initiative, exciting things are bound to happen!

Once the priority health topic has been selected, the fun really begins. The Healthy Schools team begins to develop an action plan, take action, and monitor their progress along the way.

At Unionville Meadows Public School, student leadership was front and centre when planning activities. “One of the most exciting initiatives for me was Carnaval,” Linforth says, of their version of the French Canadian winter festival. “A group of eleven grade seven students planned an entire outdoor activity day for grades one to five. With the exception of some weather set-backs, it was a complete success and almost exclusively student-driven.”  

The school also had a group of grade 4 students lead a nutrition workshop for kindergarten students, showing them how to make smoothies, while a group of grade 5 students ran an “I Walk Wednesdays” program. Students approached a local custom printing business and asked if they would donate stickers that said “I ♥ walking.” “The grade fives came early on Wednesday mornings to distribute them to students who had walked,” says Linforth. “All of this was their idea... their initiative.”

At Louise Arbour Secondary, one of the proudest moments involved hosting an Olympics Fun Night at the Brampton Soccer Center. They worked with the municipal parks and recreation department and trained 20 student volunteers to run the event. Some of those students greeted members of the community at the door while others ran the activity stations (all variations on Olympic events) and still others circulated with a survey to gather feedback. “The amount of fun we had and the number of people who came out—it was just so rewarding,” says Kass.  

Meanwhile, at Little Falls Public School, the school community worked towards raising money for a big goal: creating their own wellness space called “The Nest” to support their priority area of mental health. “There will be mindfulness space and comfortable seating and lighting. We’re working with a therapist to determine what’s best to go in there,” says Carlyle. 

To reach this goal, the school tied in physical activity by partnering with the St. Mary’s Lincoln Junior Hockey Team. They began with a road hockey tournament where team members came out to referee and built up to participation at a big game. “The plan was to gain a voice in the community and use it to end the stigma against mental illness,” says Carlyle. The kids made placards with positive slogans about mental health on the back which they raised for everyone to see when the team scored. “It was the biggest turnout the team had ever had,” Carlyle adds. The hockey team donated 50% of ticket earnings from the day to the school’s wellness space initiative, and a recently received mental health and wellness grant made up the rest of the funds.

Carlyle will never forget the day she got to tell the students they’d raised enough money to build The Nest. “They were so empowered. When you can inspire students to believe that they can make such a difference...” She laughs. “Yeah, you’re having a good day.”

How can you get involved?

Educators or administrators who are interested in participating in Ophea’s HS Certification are encouraged to start by referencing the Guidebook found in the Healthy Schools section of the Ophea website. Registration for the 2019/20 school year will open in September.

“I would recommend that every school in Ontario go through the process,” says Carlyle. “A lot of schools are already doing a lot of great things, but this framework helps you connect it to the bigger picture.”

“It may seem like extra work at first,” says Linforth, “but there are resources and tools that become available and support that wouldn’t otherwise be there—or, at least, it wouldn’t be all in one place.” He also notes, in addition to helping his school connect to the community around them, the program has also helped them to connect to a larger community of schools across Ontario. “All of the schools involved in Ophea’s HS Certification are involved in a conversation—either directly or indirectly,” he explains. Likewise, schools who join can count Ophea as one of their community partners. “They’re always right there with support and reminders,” says Carlyle, “not to mention encouragement.”

“It’s important to note,” Good adds, “Ophea continues to support all schools in creating a healthy school environment that supports the well-being of students and staff. Certification is for the ones who really want to emphasize it and appreciate the structure.”

Celebration and sustainability are key

The final step in the six-step process (reflect and celebrate) is one of the most important for ongoing success, and although they’re each hoping to be able to celebrate receiving Gold, Silver or Bronze status, participating schools recognize that there’s much more at stake. “It’s all about setting up a process that will continue from year to year,” says Linforth.

Creating a school culture that values student health is the real reward. “It really fosters a holistic approach to learning... and it’s that long-term thinking that’s really clear when schools use the Healthy Schools approach,” says Sohi.

After all, students who grow up in schools and communities where health and well-being are valued are much more likely to carry those values on with them through life, creating healthier communities not just for themselves, but for the next generation—and that’s worth a whole chorus of cheers.