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Foundation Awards DU $5.1 Million in Grants to Tackle Health and Wellness Challenges

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Tamara Chapman

Senior Managing Editor

A Morgridge College of Education center will partner with rural school districts to foster improvements

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Rural Colorado's challenges

School districts in rural areas face a multitude of health and wellness challenges.

Just like their urban counterparts, school districts in rural Colorado confront plenty of daunting health and wellness challenges — everything from hungry children to students stressed by family turmoil and economic instability.

But unlike their urban peers, rural districts typically confront their challenges under the radar. For all their assets (think close-knit communities where everyone knows everyone’s name), rural districts often are hampered by tiny staffs, minimal support and scant access to resources.

The Center for Rural School Health & Education (CRSHE) at the University of Denver’s Morgridge College of Education aims to help change that. Armed with two recent grants totaling $5.1 million from the Colorado Health Foundation, the CRSHE will spend the next two years equipping 27 high-poverty rural school districts with the support, evidence-based resources and professional development essential to fostering student health and wellness.  

The largest of the awards, the $4.9 million Make It Happen grant, aims to increase healthy eating and physical activity among high-poverty students and school staff, while the second funds what is known as the Resiliency Project, an effort to promote youth mental health and resiliency. Together, the grants tackle problems that undermine student learning and achievement, not to mention school performance.

Elaine Belansky

“The big problem that we’re trying to address is the length of time it takes for rural schools to learn about and implement the latest best practices known to support students’ health. There are some really big inequities among rural youth compared to urban,” says Elaine Belansky, director of the CRSHE and a research associate professor at the Morgridge College. “We know, for example, that suicide and depression rates are higher among rural kids, and we know that obesity levels are higher. And there’s also indication that some educational outcomes aren’t as good for rural kids.”

This is true even though rural districts operate with some advantages that aren’t necessarily characteristic of their city counterparts. “People in rural communities care about each other in ways that often outperform what we see in urban areas,” Belansky explains. “Adults know most children in their community and vice versa. There is a culture of taking care of each other and pooling resources so that they stretch farther.”  

Over the life of the grants, CRSHE will dispense about 80% of the CHF funds directly to districts in the San Luis Valley and in southeast Colorado. In turn, Belansky says, the districts will use these funds to implement comprehensive health and wellness plans customized for their campuses and particular needs.

Among other things, the new funds may be used for training staff, paying wellness coordinators, purchasing equipment for physical activity, creating better nutrition programs through kitchen improvements or cooking classes, and developing tools for program evaluation.

As Belansky sees it, this help can’t come soon enough.

“You should hear the stories I’m hearing about kids — and from kids,” Belansky says. “I spoke to one girl in the San Luis Valley; she was 13 or 14 at the time. She was telling me about how her mother was a nurse in the local hospital. Mom started stealing pain meds from patients. She soon became very, very addicted. And this little girl was depending on her mom for food, for being clean and being fed, and getting to school.”

At best, the girl’s mother was inattentive and negligent. At worst, she was endangering her child’s health and future.

“This little girl was literally starving. She told me she was eating her fingernails. Or going to school and taking food out of trash cans because she was so starved,” Belansky recalls. Not surprisingly, the girl performed poorly in her classes and tested her teachers’ patience with unruly behavior. Unfortunately, she went years without getting the help she needed.

That story is just one among many. Lauren Sheldrake, grants manager and health and wellness coordinator for the Creede School District, notes that demand for comprehensive wellness programs is on the rise — among students, school staffs and all the families concerned. In the Creede district alone, she says, “The number of students reporting needs in the area of mental health has grown from five to 22 students and from zero staff members to 10 in the last year.”

Dramatic escalations like this loom large in Belansky’s motivation to help rural school districts tackle their challenges. It’s in part why CRHSE’s technical assistance team — made up of Morgridge College faculty, staff and students — will offer in-person assistance to superintendents and wellness coordinators.

“We’ll go out to those 27 districts — we’ll be going five times over the next two years — to check in with them to see how they are doing with implementing their plan, what kinds of support they need, what barriers they are running into, how we can help them troubleshoot,” Belansky says.

CRSHE also will lend its administrative expertise to the professionals spearheading the health and wellness initiatives in their districts. Many of them lack the time and staff to comply with grant requirements, so CRSHE’s assistance is likely to expedite results.

“We’ll take a lot of the pressure off those districts by helping them financially manage their grants,” Belansky says.

Just as important, the CRSHE team will connect the districts to evidence-based curricula suitable for their needs. If nutrient-poor diets are an issue, CRSHE can recommend a curriculum with demonstrated results in increasing healthy eating. If high-risk sexual behavior among students is a concern, the center can point educators to comprehensive sexual-health education programs with an impressive track record in postponing initiation of sex. And finally, the CRSHE team can help the districts implement the curricula effectively and in alignment with Colorado’s standards. As Belansky says, “Teachers need training in how to administer curricula effectively. Just curricula on its own is not enough.”

In Creede, Sheldrake says, CRSHE’s work is already helping the district tackle its challenges and increase the mental health training it offers staff, faculty and even parents. “This has helped to increase awareness and to destigmatize mental health in our school,” she says. 

Karen Riley, dean of the Morgridge College of Education, considers CRSHE’s efforts and the CHF funding pivotal to reducing disparity in rural Colorado. “I think this is truly a transformative project and exactly the type of work that we envisioned when we created CRSHE,” she says. “We have a commitment to engaging purposefully with our community partners to affect deep and sustainable impact and share Dr. Belansky’s passion for maximizing multidisciplinary approaches to improve the lives of rural residents in Colorado.”

As Belansky sees it, helping rural Colorado’s schools and students will help their communities as a whole. “We’re trying to lift everyone up,” she says.