Children in rural America face a unique set of health and education disparities.  In comparison to urban students, rural youth demonstrate higher levels of mortality; suicide; obesity; tobacco, alcohol, and illegal substance use; drinking and driving; teen births; and carrying weapons. They also have lower rates of school readiness, proficiency on standardized tests, and math performance.

Tailored solutions are needed to address these challenges particularly since more than half of US school districts are located in rural settings. These and other challenges fueled MCE’s decision to launch the Center for Rural School Health & Education to be led by rural expert, Elaine Belansky, PhD.

Belansky is a community-based participatory researcher who has been working in rural, low-income schools for 19 years.  She studies how universities and communities can work together to make schools healthy places. Her team developed a strategic planning process called “Assess. Identify. Make it Happen.” (AIM) which helps schools implement school-based environment and policy changes that support physical activity, healthy eating, mental health, and school engagement and decrease bullying, high risk sexual behavior, and drug use. Currently, her team is partnering with rural schools in Colorado to create comprehensive health and wellness plans that ensure students are healthy, safe, engaged, supported and challenged.

Belansky has received over $13 million in grants from the CDC, NIH, Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and The Colorado Health Foundation. She will begin her duties at Morgridge College May 1. Her six-person team will join her June 1. The research team includes:

  • Shannon Allen – Research Faculty
  • Ben Ingman – Research Faculty
  • Shirley Berg – Business Manager and AIM Facilitator
  • Jerry Jones – AIM Facilitator and Community Coordinator
  • Carla Loecke – Director of Curriculum and Training
  • Susan Portner – AIM Facilitator

The team of rural experts will engage rural school and community partners in Colorado and beyond to identify and address the most pressing issues facing rural education. The goal of the Center for Rural School Health & Education is to be the catalyst for achieving health and academic equity in rural communities across the nation.

nick cutforthDr. Nick Cutforth, Department Chair and Professor of Research Methods and Statistics, is helping to improve physical education practices in underserved, rural, and low-income Colorado schools through a community-engaged research project, Healthy Eaters, Lifelong Movers (HELM). Obesity has been identified as the biggest health threat to U.S. children according to the Institute of Medicine. Alongside Dr. Elaine Belansky from the University of Colorado’s School of Public Health, Dr. Cutforth aims to turn this around with HELM, partnering with K-12 schools to implement evidence-based, school-level environment and policy changes. HELM has two proven approaches: AIM (Assess, Investigate, Make it Happen), which promotes healthy eating and physical activity in students; and the Physical Education Academy, a professional development program for teachers that increases the quality of physical education. Initially funded by the Colorado Health Foundation in 2010, HELM provides participating schools with the training, equipment, and monetary resources needed to implement healthy changes.

While AIM encourages healthy behavior for the entire day, the Physical Education Academy focuses on P.E. class and introduces teachers to the SPARK program, an evidenced-based P.E. curriculum, which involves teaching traditional games and sports in innovative ways, and more small-sized games and activities that cater to the individualized abilities of students. “We’ve introduced a new kind of P.E.,” says Dr. Cutforth, “which engages all the children, not just the athletes.” As a result P.E. classes provide more opportunities to increase moderate to vigorous physical activity (MVPA) among students.

Currently in his fifth year with the project, Dr. Cutforth’s work has shown significant improvements in the quality of physical education programs and teachers’ instructional practices. For example, in the 17 San Luis Valley elementary schools that participated in the P.E. Academy, the quantity of MVPA in P.E. class increased from 51.1% to 67.3% over a two-year intervention period, resulting in approximately 14.6 additional hours of physical activity over a school year. He says, “PE teachers are disguising fitness in the form of fun activities, so the kids are much more engaged, and the teachers are spending less time on classroom management.”

In 2013, HELM was refunded by the Colorado Health Foundation and has expanded to schools in southeast Colorado. HELM’s reach now extends to more than 15,000 kids in some of the poorest counties in the state.


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