Lessons Learned From Decades of Advocating for Health and Physical Education

Wisconsin Health and Physical Education (WHPE), a SHAPE America state affiliate, has been “speaking out” for quality health and physical education in Wisconsin for more than two decades. Over the years, our organization has learned that advocacy requires work — but it can be done, and it does work.

If you follow and adapt the described steps in this article for your state’s situation, positive results will happen. Advocating for health and physical education is worth the effort!

Our First Advocacy Attempts

More than 20 years ago, WHPE began conducting several Legislative Health & Fitness Day events at the Wisconsin State Capitol building in Madison. WHPE leaders and representatives of several other local/state organizations related to health and wellness engaged citizens and state legislators as they stopped at various booths arranged in the Capitol Rotunda with the goal of educating and influencing attendees.

WHPE supplied information on quality HPE and provided attendees with a program passport allowing all to navigate interactive booth activities. Despite the positive verbal feedback from participants, little qualitative evidence was collected to support anticipated WHPE objectives. One of the only concrete results was a “thank you” from the governor at the time who, after finding out his cholesterol was “high” after having it tested at one of the booths, sought out further medical intervention.

After several years of hosting the event, WHPE’s Board of Directors concluded that the time and money spent securing affiliate sponsors, staffing booths, and paying for related printing and travel costs was not resulting in positive results. Too often, legislators sent low-level staffers to the event rather than attending in person — which meant we were unable to make a direct connection with the legislators. Therefore, the event was discontinued.

Setting a New Course of Advocacy

After several years with no WHPE state advocacy event, Beth Mahar, Midwest District president secured an AAHPERD (now SHAPE America) advocacy grant. WHPE Executive Director Keith Bakken used the grant to establish a new course of advocacy which involved attending the Wisconsin State Education Convention, hosted by the Wisconsin Association of School Boards (WASB).

The event brings together more than 2,000 administrators, school board members, business officials, keynote speakers, and often the state’s governor — along with music, art, and reading groups and numerous education-related exhibitors. Members from the state’s nearly 400 school districts interact in the exhibit hall and during breakout sessions.

Since that initial year (2008), WHPE has had an annual presence at this convention. In the beginning, WHPE staffed a booth within the exhibit hall. Several past presidents, the association’s executive director and secretary (a former HPE teacher and administrator) made more than 50 contacts speaking to school personnel from across the state. At the booth, they connected to school board members and administrators, spoke about standards and assessments, and handed out printed materials.

In 2009, WHPE once again connected to both school board members and administrators through exhibit booth interactions. In addition, a Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction consultant (who had been a WHPE president), offered WHPE members the opportunity to partner with him and a group of Wisconsin Olympians in presenting a breakout session with 50 attendees. This greatly increased WHPE visibility.

Increasing Visibility With Educators and Policymakers

After 2010, WHPE assessed the value of the new format for state advocacy, and it was decided to continue the convention booth and to expand by submitting a competitive proposal for a breakout session. This task was assigned to the association secretary and a team of state, district and national teachers of the year. They looked at the convention program, reviewed past topics and “hot topics,” and then developed the first WHPE breakout session, which was accepted and presented in 2011.

Except for 2021, when the Wisconsin State Education Convention was canceled, WHPE has had an advocacy booth every year — and has a success rate of 80% in the competitive proposal selection process for breakout sessions, thus further increasing visibility and contact with policymakers. In 2017, when former SHAPE America President JoAnne Owens-Nauslar was the convention’s keynote speaker, the WHPE exhibit booth was overrun immediately following her speech. Advocacy was at an all-time high that day thanks to “Dr. Jo”!

Wisconsin State Education Convention attendees have come to look for both the WHPE booth and breakout sessions — and now understand that health and physical education is much more than “busy, active, happy”: there is curriculum structured around standards and assessments and delivered via best practices, which are student centered.

Those who stop at the WHPE booth now often have specific questions and are seeking resources. We’ve gone from having to educate people about the fact that health education and physical education have standards, to entering into meaningful conversations with individuals looking for advice in problem-solving and decision–making for their respective districts. Here are a few examples of discussions we’ve had and comments we’ve received from convention attendees:

  • Should we allow marching band to count for PE credit?
  • How can you help us in offering better nutrition for our lunch program?
  • A teacher keeps her students “in” for recess to complete make up work. What research do you have to show this is negative?
  • A principal has low academic scores so he wants to cut recess. Is this a good idea?
  • Following one breakout session where attendees were engaged physically, one administrator commented, “Who knew going to an education conference could be so much fun while actually learning something.”
  • An administrator whose students were part of a breakout demo group for their teacher of the year presenter said, “Watching our students teach other school officials about brain breaks and acting as demonstrators for the WHPE presenters was exciting. Students felt empowered and were grateful for the opportunity to participate and help.”
  • Another administrator expressed thanks for receiving the SHAPE America Administrator Observation Checklist, indicating: “This is good stuff and I will share with my staff.”
  • A school board member recognized one of the WHPE presenters after the convention and commented to her, “You and your other presenters opened my eyes to the need for quality PE in our schools.”

Tips for Advocating at Your State Education Conference

Feedback indicates that our advocacy efforts at the Wisconsin State Education Convention are working. The WHPE Board of Directors has supported these efforts financially for every year following the initial grant. Some years, we have secured affiliate partners to help fund costs of approximately $3,000 for travel, registration, printing/photocopying, etc.

The following suggestions may help you advocate for health and physical education in your state by connecting directly with the stakeholders who make policy for our schools.

Practical Suggestions:

  • Establish a team (suggested members: state affiliate past presidents, teachers of the year, board of directors, and association executive director).
  • Contact state school board/administrator association and find out if your state has an “open” conference.
  • Investigate costs to attend (booth and breakout session, if appropriate).
  • Seek affiliate partner sponsors.
  • Determine if the conference allows competitive proposals for sessions. If so, choose a theme, write proposal, and submit).
  • Select qualified individuals for booth and breakout sessions (use those from list above with possible addition of retirees).
  • Assign a central contact to communicate with the state conference.
  • Disseminate information to all involved and communicate well in advance of the event.
  • Communicate consistent association message while advocating for HPE at the event (not personal views).
  • Reflect, revise, and begin the process for future.

Making It Come Together:

  • Select materials/staffers for booth.
  • Develop a consistent message.
  • Coordinate apparel to look professional and represent state association.
  • Disseminate information for participants regarding registration, travel, parking, central meeting place, etc.
  • Meet, greet, and connect with attendees (offer resources from state association or SHAPE America as well as related research-based material).
  • WHPE often hands out leftover “favors” from our convention or small healthy treats after speaking with attendees at the booth or after a session.
  • Make sure breakout presenters dress appropriately and set up room early if possible; involve students as demonstrators and greeters.
  • Incorporate relevant research concepts into the presentation; include an activity component to the session, with student demonstrators and attendee participation.
  • After the event, include an article in your newsletter; thank participants and sponsors.

What WHPE Has Learned:

  • Communicate with state school associations and attend their conference.
  • Staff a booth to increase awareness; piggyback on their conference theme.
  • Have a clear, consistent message delivered by all representatives.
  • Keep handouts to one page and use graphics to increase visibility.
  • Take a risk. Develop and present a breakout session.
  • Involve students whenever possible.
  • Link your message to that of SHAPE America and other regional affiliates.
  • Include local media when possible.
  • Review, revise and expand advocacy vision.

Final Thoughts on Advocating for HPE

Advocacy starts with us — the individuals. Get to know and establish relationships with your local school administrators and board members. Participate in state association initiatives and support SHAPE America’s SPEAK Out! Day.

Together, the result can be a stronger and improved profession that improves student learning. With a little extended effort, we can make a difference.

Additional Resources

Kris Fritz

Kris Fritz is a retired health and physical educator who worked at South High in the Sheboygan, WI School District, followed by many years facilitating a preK physical education program at the Early Learning Center. She is an active member of SHAPE America and WHPE (Wisconsin Health and Physical Education) and is past president of SHAPE America Midwest District. She can be reached at krisrfritz@aol.com.