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Teachers in Training

Boost morale and decrease sick days by creating wellness programs for your staff.

As deputy superintendent of marion county Public Schools in Ocala, Florida, Diana Greene spends plenty of time talking to the district's employees about staying healthy. She was on a committee to raise awareness about heart-healthy living. She brought in a speaker to talk about weight loss. She helped arrange for affordable fitness classes.

So Greene felt she had to walk the walk, too.

She signed up for a 6:15 a.m. walking group and a Zumba dance class. "It's an opportunity to release some of the stress I have as deputy superintendent," says Greene.  

The classes are one element of the district's wellness program, which took home a gold medal at the Directors of Health Promotion and Education's School Employee Wellness Awards last year. "It's been part of reenergizing our staff. They look forward to the classes. When employees tell you, ‘I am happier when I come to work,' they are going to be more productive."

The size of the competition has increased fourfold since 2009, its inaugural year, says Sara Bowie, school employee wellness manager for the Washington, D.C.-based organization.

What's fueling the increased interest in employee wellness programs? "It's driven by one thing: health-care costs," says Bowie. "The cost of chronic diseases for school districts is crippling." Wellness programs not only help control health-care costs and reduce claims but also improve employees' health and morale.

Principals and administrators are in a position to recognize the broader benefits to the school culture as well. "Healthy teachers can be positive role models for the students," says Michelle Owens, national employee and student wellness manager for the nonprofit Alliance for a Healthier Generation.

Tailored for Teachers
An effective program doesn't have to be expensive-and a district's health insurance carrier and local businesses can often be called upon to provide crucial support-but it does have to be tailored to the school environment, says Owens. A typical corporate program might suggest healthy activities for employees to do at their desks. But teachers are in front of a class all day and may not even have a desk. The key for teachers is convenience, says Owens. They are more likely to participate if programs are offered on school grounds and at varying times, to accommodate their complicated schedules.

The centerpiece of the wellness initiative at Franklin City Schools in Franklin, Ohio, which got its start two years ago, was the conversion of an old industrial-arts storage room into a wellness center with exercise equipment and space for yoga and Jazzercise classes.

"If a person feels better physically, and better about themselves, they will do a better job in the classroom," says Franklin superintendent Arnol Elam. Another positive result: The wellness program, which has also introduced a biking club and weight-loss contests, has brought together employees from the district's eight campuses. "It builds camaraderie among staff," Elam says. "You get to know people in other buildings."

In Marion County Schools, there are 18 fitness classes at various locations. Employees pay a fee of just $10 for the entire semester. "The goal is to remove any roadblock," says Greene. She recommends offering convenience, incentives, and a range of classes; her district's include a fitness boot camp and even a "Flirty Girls" exotic dance class.

Building Buy-In
To find out what deforest area School District employees wanted from a wellness program, electronic surveys were sent out, says Vickie Adkins, HR director of the Wisconsin district. It turned out that employees were most interested in weight management and walking programs, with stress management and nutrition programs following close behind.

DeForest's wellness committee, which has representatives across the district, used the results to put together a calendar of events. In the winter, the district promotes healthy eating, with weekly tips and articles on how to avoid putting on extra weight over the holidays. Stress-reduction programs are often scheduled in March. And in the spring, on the cusp of swimsuit season, employees form teams for a Biggest Loser contest.

Holly Larsen, the co-coordinator for the Eau Claire Area School District program (also in Wisconsin) has found that competition is the best way to get employees involved. With the pedometer challenge, participants track their steps and compete against other schools to rack up the most mileage. A traveling trophy goes to the school with the most entrants for the annual 5K.

Each building in the district has a wellness program organizer. Mary Purvis, the financial secretary at North High School, encourages colleagues to join her in aqua Zumba, healthy cooking classes, or morning fitness. For the latter, she recruited a kinesiology student at a local college to serve as a personal trainer.

Purvis has had gym memberships in the past, but the convenience of taking programs right at the school at no cost is a powerful incentive to actually exercise. She recently added aerobic activity to her workout and has seen results. "I was finally able to start losing weight," says Purvis. "I really have a commitment to these programs."

The Bottom Line

The Eau Claire District received a $25,000 grant from its insurance carrier to start its program. That money funded two coordinator positions.

In DeForest, Adkins received $3,000 from the district to fund its program. "I know there are larger districts and very glitzy programs," she says. "We are low-budget and are doing things without a lot of money involved."

The winners of the district's first wellness competitions received a recycled trophy from Adkins's basement, with flowers and a new label hot-glued on it. The business community has chipped in as well: Employees who sign up for the weight-loss competition get a free temporary membership at a local fitness center.

Jana Bellamy, who organizes the wellness program in Franklin, Ohio, which was also recognized by DHPE, got a travel agency to donate a $2,000 cruise to the winner of a wellness drawing.

Evaluation, a key component of any successful program, can provide data to help make the case for ongoing support. Marion County's wellness screenings and diabetes-management programs have reduced health-care costs. In one year, emergency-room costs for the district's 6,000 employees fell by $600,000, says Laurel Lingle, wellness coordinator for the district's insurance provider.

Wellness efforts can be integrated with student health programs. But, says Michelle Owens, of the Alliance for a Healthier Generation, teachers have told her they like to have some time to themselves. "They are so used to taking care of the students, teachers feel like the employee wellness is the first thing offered for them."  

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