Do Something Extraordinary! A Roadmap to Program Sustainability in School Health Education

Do Something Extraordinary! A Roadmap to Program Sustainability in School Health Education

By Jessica Lawrence, MS | March 9, 2015
Director, Cairn Guidance

“Young lady, let me tell you something. There are people who take life by the reins and forge full speed ahead, and people who sit back and wait for things to happen to them. I think I know which category you fit into.”
—Citizen in Dayville, OR, June 2013

Two years ago this month I prepared for a goal I had daydreamed about since I was a teen. At 15, I told my parents I would someday bicycle across the United States. During the summer of 2013, I completed that journey, cycling 4,197 miles solo from the Oregon coast to the Rhode Island shore.

My goal wasn’t only to make it safely to the east coast. I was raising funds for the Alliance for a Healthier Generation and I intended to enjoy the ride. I also wanted to model that balance of work and play we all strive for on a daily basis. I scrambled to leave town while sustaining school health contracts, hoping to maintain communication with my clients while on the journey.

And did it work? Yes! This was the most amazing adventure of my life so far.

I Met My Goals

I completed my journey safely. I raised over $23,000 for the Alliance. I maintained my work contacts, and I even created a new marketing approach for the work I’m so passionate about: promoting the simple proposition that healthy kids learn better.

Since completing this adventure, I’ve keynoted conferences, spoken to health care organizations and presented at Rotary Clubs. I’ve used my journey as a way to advocate, motivate, inspire and energize leaders, educators and administrators from all areas of school and community health.

From Here to There

My keynote is titled “Do Something Extraordinary.” In it, I outline a roadmap that can get people from where they are right now to the kind of moment I experienced at the end of my ride. I encourage the audience to begin by setting a health goal they can achieve while balancing work and play.

I use storytelling to share the power of vulnerability. I explain how I learned to ask for help—there was no way I could have completed this journey entirely on my own. I urge the audience to think about who on their team effectively provides both personal and professional support. We can’t reach our goals—personal or professional—without a community of love and encouragement.

Riding: Sustaining Health & Motivation

As I ride, I think a lot about how passionate I am about creating and supporting sustainable school health programs. It’s no coincidence that I quickly learn how important it is to sustain my own health and motivation in order to complete my ride and reach my goals. It’s priority number one.

One of my water bottles is always filled with plain water. The other has a tablet in it that provides my body with electrolytes. I wake up and start the day drinking an entire bottle before even climbing out of my tent. I will drink a total of 1 ½ to 2 gallons of fluid by the end of a day. I will burn over 3500 calories. I must eat to sustain my energy level.

I sleep like a baby. I stretch and take ice baths whenever possible. I wear sunscreen every day and reapply it six times. When I feel like I’m getting too much sun, I cover my skin, and I sit somewhere with air conditioning when I have the chance. I squeeze water over my head and jump into water every chance I get.

But taking care of my physical body is only part of sustaining my journey. I also need a sense of humor, a confident attitude and positive self-talk. I will endure sore muscles, boredom, heat waves, a snowstorm and too many flat tires to count. Before I am done, I will cycle through 17 states, ascend 172,862 feet, burn over 189,000 calories and receive one marriage proposal from a man in Kansas who was 89 years old.

However, never once do I have the impulse to say, “I quit.”

Schools: Creating Sustainable Programs

Just as knowing what it takes to sustain health and motivation made my ride possible, knowing what works to create sustainable school health initiatives makes effective, efficient programs possible.

There are several essential components to creating lasting school health initiatives. We need to understand how to create a culture of health so ingrained in the school community that if anything was threatened with termination—a key person, an exemplary program, financial support—the community would come together to save the program.

For example, if your school happens to adopt an exemplary program one year, then trains its teachers and implements the program the next year, how will new teachers coming in and implementing after this get support and training?

Well, a comprehensive health education policy stating that this is the program that will be taught would help. Support and buy-in from administrators is also important, as is ongoing professional development. Without these pieces in place, there’s a good chance the program’s curriculum will end up sitting on the shelf. All the effort, dollars and time put into selection, preparation and implementation might ultimately be wasted.

11 Sustainability Characteristics

Sustainability characteristics are the elements that can genuinely help schools sustain effective school health education programs.

  • Readiness. Schools and districts embrace the belief that healthy kids learn better. Leadership believes that in order to raise test scores, graduation rates and attendance, the health and well-being of the students and staff are key.
  • Environmental Support. The community has internal and external champions who believe in the link between health and learning. This support is leveraged within the school and in the community at large. School leadership effectively communicates this message both internally and externally.
  • Community Engagement/Partnerships. Law enforcement, faith-based organizations, public health and businesses are involved in various efforts within the school health initiative. The policies, practices and programs that are part of the health initiative are rooted within these partnerships, and partners are ready to step up and act if the initiative is threatened in any way.
  • Organizational Capacity/Understanding of Systems Transformation. People are able to dedicate enough time to leading and implementing the initiative. Champions and education leaders understand the research base behind systems transformation in the school setting.
  • Data Driven Planning. Schools and districts use data to inform their planning, action plans, curriculum decisions and implementation. They complete an inventory as a needs assessment tool (such as the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s School Health Index). Schools review local and state Youth Risk Behavior Survey data. They gather other data on local youth behaviors (possibly provided by city or county public health departments).
  • Initiative Evaluation. An evaluation plan is an integral part of the initiative process. Evaluation steps are implemented from the beginning of the initiative. Data is collected on a variety of key indicators (for example, knowledge, attitudes and behaviors of students, staff and parents; how these are affected as a result of the school health initiative; and whether the effects are moving toward greater health and fewer risks for students).
  • Initiative Adaptation. There is a clear understanding that each district and school is distinct. Programs or materials used within the initiative allow for adaptability and customization. (Cookie-cutter approaches are not generally sustainable.)
  • Initiative Alignment to Education Accountability Measures. The initiative supports the school or district’s education accountability measures (e.g., test scores, attendance, graduation rates). This alignment is effectively communicated to staff, administrators and the community at large.
  • Policy. Policies are developed, presented, passed, implemented and revised in ways that support the health initiative and recognize the evolving health challenges students and staff face.
  • Communication/Messaging. An intentional focus is brought to communication and messaging concerning essential elements such as school accountability via academic achievement, attendance and discipline. Messaging is supportive, clear and consistent at the individual, collective and institutional levels.
  • Employee Wellness. Employee wellness programs are supported and sustained. These build awareness of and buy-in to the health initiative.

Riding: To the Mighty Atlantic

I reach the edge of the Atlantic Ocean in Charlestown, Rhode Island, greeted by many friends and family. This is the most exhausted I’ve ever been in my life. I am at the beach where I spent most of my summers growing up. I dip my wheel into the Atlantic, throw my bike down and jump into the ocean.

I take a long deep breath, turn around and stick my arms high in the air in celebration. To my surprise, hundreds of people on the beach for Labor Day weekend are cheering with me.

I think to myself, “This amazing body! This mind, bold enough to do this alone! This confident woman, empowered by doing this journey solo.” My body has sustained my health, my spirit and an attitude that has allowed me to do something extraordinary.

I can tell you from experience that while your “something extraordinary” will be different from mine, your conscious and intentional practice about sustaining your body and mind can make it possible for you, too.


Jessica Lawrence is director of Cairn Guidance, a collaboration and partnership development consultancy that works to build stronger, healthier school communities. To learn more about Jess and her work, visit the Cairn website. You can learn more about her amazing journey here. Jess is also on Twitter @cairnguidance and is available as a speaker and facilitator.



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