Impact Rural

Colorado Health Foundation Awards Center for Rural School Health & Education $5.1M to Address Health and Wellness Challenges

Just like their urban counterparts, school districts in rural Colorado confront 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 with fewer resources. For all their assets (think close-knit communities where everyone knows everyone’s name), rural districts often are hampered by limited access to resources, insufficient budgets and tiny staffs where people wear multiple hats.

The Center for Rural School Health & Education (CRSHE) at the Morgridge College of Education (MCE) aims to change that. Thanks to two grants totaling $5.1 million from the Colorado Health Foundation (CHF), CRSHE will spend the next two years supporting 27 high-poverty rural school districts in their efforts to foster student and staff 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 award funds the Resiliency Project, an effort to promote youth mental health and resiliency. Together, the grants address problems that undermine student learning and achievement, not to mention school performance.

“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 Dr. Elaine Belansky, director of CRSHE and a research associate professor at MCE. “We know, for example, that suicide and depression rates are higher among rural youth, and we know that obesity levels are higher. And there’s also indication that some educational outcomes aren’t as good for rural students.”

Despite these challenges, Belansky is quick to point out several community assets. “People in rural communities care deeply about each other,” she 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 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.

Among other things, the new funds may be used for paying wellness coordinators, hosting staff wellness initiatives, purchasing equipment for physical activity, providing cooking classes and offering after-school activities.

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

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 staff 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 address their challenges. It’s in part why CRSHE’s technical assistance team — made up of MCE faculty, staff and students — will offer one-on-one assistance to superintendents and wellness coordinators.

“We’ll have several touch points with each of the 27 districts to check in with them to see how they are doing with implementing their plan, find out what support they need, help them troubleshoot barriers and link them to other schools implementing similar initiatives. We’ll also 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 health curricula suitable for their needs. Carla Loecke, CRSHE’s director of curriculum and training, developed a user-friendly process for school wellness teams to select health education curriculum. Ben Ingman, the Make it Happen co-project leader says, “Teachers are best positioned to deliver a curriculum if they have training and support on its delivery.” 

In Creede, Sheldrake says CRSHE’s work is already helping the district address its challenges to improve the health of students and staff, “This has helped to increase awareness and to destigmatize mental health in our school.” 

Dr. Karen Riley, dean of MCE, considers CRSHE’s efforts 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.

In 2018, CRSHE launched ECHO-DU – a virtual, professional development platform to increase workforce capacity in Colorado and across the country. Through the ECHO-DU program, professionals come together to discuss complex topics during a series of video conference sessions, called an ECHO. ECHOs create a safe and supportive space for professionals to learn together and share their challenges. Participants also benefit from a team of experts who share resources and the latest best practices on specific topics.

As part of the Make It Happen grant, CRSHE is utilizing ECHO-DU to support the 27 school districts in implementing their health and wellness plans. The first series, held from January through March 2020, was aimed at supporting district wellness coordinators in their efforts to spearhead implementation of their comprehensive health and wellness plans. After the ECHO series concluded, wellness coordinators shared their takeaways. 

One wellness coordinator said, “I just really appreciate the chance to network with other wellness coordinators that share similar demographics, successes and challenges. This is the best kind of professional development.” Another stated, “This series has been an excellent sharing resource. It helps to see what communities with similar demographics are doing and to learn from their experiences.”

As Belansky sees it, helping rural Colorado’s schools and students will help their communities as a whole. “I appreciate the ongoing support of the Colorado Health Foundation and their commitment to rural communities. Every child deserves the best opportunities possible, no matter their zip code. I’m continually impressed by the hard work I see rural superintendents, principals, teachers and staff put in on a daily basis to ensure their students have a high-quality experience. With this funding, I’m hopeful that our partnership with rural schools will lead to continued positive health and education outcomes.”

Learn more about ECHO-DU

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