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Transforming Communities Initiative: Using Local School Wellness Councils to Improve Student Health

School districts across the county are adopting policies to improve health and wellness among their students; in reality, the implementation of such policies is often challenging. Each school setting serves different populations, has different needs and resources, and requires an individualized action plan to address its school’s health priorities. One way to support school district-wide wellness policies is through local school wellness councils (LSWCs) that work at the school building or campus level. These councils, typically comprised of faculty, parents, students, and administrators, focus on implementing programs, policies, and practices to improve physical activity, nutrition, and the health of students.

In Montgomery County, Maryland, Montgomery County Public Schools (MCPS) uses LSWCs to improve the health and wellness of its students. MCPS is the largest school system in Maryland and the 14th largest in the United States. It covers 497 square miles and has a total Kindergarten–12th grade population of 161,936 students. MCPS has 133 elementary schools, 40 middle schools, and 25 high schools. In 2017, MCPS implemented a school district-wide policy requiring all schools to develop a local school wellness council. While some schools already had informal wellness teams prior to MCPS policy adoption, strategic and coordinated efforts were required to achieve school district-wide implementation.

MCPS’s LSWC initiative illustrates a system-level strategy to improve health and wellness for students. The newly created LSWCs have the potential to become vehicles for school-level implementation of district-wide wellness policies and regulations. Capacity of LSWC team members is being developed, and schools are making strides to develop action plans that will target the unique concerns and needs of their schools. While the outcomes of these LSWCs have not yet been measured, MCPS has made a promising and important step toward improving nutrition and physical activity for its students.

Trinity Health, through its Transforming Communities Initiative (TCI), has provided the resources needed to take LSWC adoption to scale in the county. In partnership with the Institute for Public Health Innovation (IPHI) which received the TCI grant to promote policy, systems, and environmental changes in the county to address childhood obesity, MCPS is currently engaged in an LSWC pilot program. A total of 14 pilot schools identified a wellness champion to lead the LSWC, received training and technical assistance, and conducted a health and wellness needs assessment of their school environment. Community Science serves as the local evaluator for the TCI and is working with IPHI and MCPS to evaluate the LSWC strategy. By the end of the school year, the LSWCs will have developed an action plan based on the needs assessment to improve physical activity opportunities and nutrition within the school and started implementation on prioritized activities. MCPS also encourages schools to use the LSWC to help them become compliant with MCPS health and wellness regulations and ensure that health and wellness are included in each school’s School Improvement Plan (SIP).

Community Science will use data from the Maryland Wellness Policies and Practices Survey conducted by University of Maryland (measuring health and wellness policies and practices in each school building), Youth Risk and Behavior Survey data for Montgomery County (measuring healthy eating, physical activity, and body mass index of students), surveys with LSWCs (measuring the functioning, successes, and achievements of the LSWCs), and interviews with key stakeholders involved in the planning and oversight of this effort (measuring the overall, collaborative process to plan, implement, and maintain LSWCs in the county) to conduct a process and outcome evaluation of the LSWC strategy.

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