I never would have imagined eight years ago that my school system in Montgomery County, Maryland, would develop a comprehensive, system-wide initiative that unified all offices in the district to focus on the health and well-being of our students.
Our work to serve the whole child was happening, but through separate offices and services to students and families — and at that time, reading and math scores seemed to be the priority.
However, thanks to the vision of our superintendent and support of all the school system offices working in collaboration, Montgomery County Public Schools (MCPS) has mobilized toward serving the whole child as a way to address the achievement gap and enhance the overall wellness of our students.
Change Begins With Advocacy
Advocacy, like good teaching and instruction, is not a one size fits all. There are many ways to be an advocate for health and physical education — such as attending SHAPE America’s SPEAK Out! Day or writing letters to your congressional representatives and local school board officials.
Advocacy also means building relationships in your school building, so you don’t have assemblies interrupting instruction in health and physical education class instruction.
And, it’s important to foster and leverage the relationships from the central or district office level so everyone works smarter, not harder, to achieve the goal of serving all students through social and emotional learning, general health, and well-being.
It’s up to us as health and physical educators to do this work. That’s because although research shows the many benefits of physical activity, the data alone is never enough to gain the health education, physical education, and wellness that our students need. It’s never that simple, due to competing demands for instructional time and testing mandates.
Know Your ‘Why’
We all must look back to why we started in our current profession as a health and physical education teacher or someone with a role in the central office. Starting with the “why” centers us when competing interests pull us out of the race toward developing physically literate students.
I never thought about being a supervisor of adapted physical education, health education, and physical education — but here I am today serving over 165,000 students in 208 schools. I came out of college with a dream to be a physical education teacher like my father.
However, my path took a different turn.
Through the years, I stayed focused on guiding students toward healthier and more physically active lifestyles. I took advantage of every opportunity to develop curriculum, be a trainer, attend meetings voluntarily, mentor students, coach, run before- and after-school activities, shadow school leaders in physical education, and more.
My “why” has always been serving the whole child through health education and physical education. This later expanded to include other components that link directly to this work through physical activity, human trafficking, anti-substance abuse and anti-vaping efforts, LGBTQIA supports, recess, wellness, and more health-related topics.
There will always be people and projects trying to pull your time and energy in a lot of different directions. My goal has been to focus and center myself around the MCPS Health and Physical Education Vision, which we established as a team:
MCPS Health and Physical Education Vision
Our vision is for all students to become physically literate and health-literate citizens who demonstrate behaviors that value lifelong physical, social, and psychological well-being.
Be Well 365: How Did We Get Here?
In Leadership on the Line, authors Ronald Heifetz and Marty Linsky discuss a strategy to assess, leverage, and manage work.
Here is how we linked this process to advocacy in slow, patient steps — leading to the Be Well 365 program and our goal of serving the whole child.
Assess — We always assess the work of our district. The projects, the scores, the curriculum and more. We assessed where we were with new demands from legislation (USDA Final Rule, 2016) that reinforced the Healthy Hunger Free Kids Act and Wellness Policies for school districts.
With only a small team in the health and physical education curriculum office and many demands from schools, students, parents, and other stakeholders, we knew we had to reflect on what we were doing to support schools. So we assessed where we were and what we were doing to create the best way to serve students through health and physical education.
To assess how your work connects with others in your school, district, state, and nationally, consider using SHAPE America’s Crosswalk for National K-12 Physical Education Standards/SEL Core Competencies; the CDC’s Whole School, Whole Community, Whole Child resources; and research showing how the benefits of physical activity help with testing results.
Leverage — Leveraging relationships is a key component of this work. MCPS Superintendent Dr. Jack Smith pulled together a team of people under the associate superintendent in the Office of Student and Family Support and Engagement to develop a comprehensive plan for the district.
The focus shifted from a dialogue centered on testing to one where rigor and relationships would no longer compete with one other. During this process, I was able to have a seat at the table. It was through co-chairing the system wellness committee and other projects that I was able to be part of this high-level, cross-office collaborative team working to serve the whole child.
Through the work of this team we developed Be Well 365, a framework built on equity for all students and containing six essentials:
- Culturally Responsive Relationship Building
- Mental and Emotional Health
- Character Education and Empathy
- Trauma Informed Practices
- Restorative Justice and Restorative Practices
- Physical Health and Wellness
As you think about fostering new relationships with supporters for health and physical education, consider local or system wellness councils, other departments that serve the mental and emotional needs of students, counselors, psychologists, and more.
Manage — This is the first year of the Be Well 365 work implementation. Goals, timelines, cross-office collaborative teams and training have occurred.
With our technology office and director of school psychological services, Dr. Christina N. Conolly, MCPS developed the Be Well 365 online training, which reached over 12,725 staff system wide.
The work is time consuming yet rewarding. If you search #BeWell365, you’ll see the results of each step in the journey that started many years ago — including whole school programming, student-centered instructional practices, mental and emotional health, health and physical education being placed as a priority in schools, and much more … all taking place to serve the whole child.
Do you have a plan for managing your work? Create an action plan with “Who,” “What” and “When” goals connecting the assessment and leveraging components. Consider working in partnership across departments and offices to support implementation of the work.
We’ve all heard the famous quote from Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu that says, “The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.”
What steps can you take in your school? Your central office? Your community? How can you help all students access and develop health and physical literacy now and apply it for a lifetime?
Advocacy for Health and PE at #SHAPESLC
To learn more about how Montgomery County Public Schools (Maryland) established its system-wide initiative to serve the whole child, be sure to attend Advocacy for Health and PE: Be Well 365 at the SHAPE America National Convention & Expo in Salt Lake City.
- Be Well 365
- Advocacy Sessions at the SHAPE America National Convention
- 10 Top Advocacy Tools for Health and Physical Educators
Photos from MCPS website and Twitter feed.
Cara D. Grant, Ed.D., C.A.P.E., is supervisor of PreK-12 Adapted Physical Education, Health, and Physical Education in the Office of Curriculum and Instructional Programs for Montgomery County Public Schools in Maryland. Additionally, Cara is professional development coordinator for the University of Maryland College Park Physical Education Teacher Education Program (part-time). She currently serves as SHAPE America president-elect. She can be reached at Cara_D_Grant@mcpsmd.org.