School Health

St. Louis: A hub for building healthier schools for learning


How does a truly healthy school for students and staff look, feel, and function?

How do you build systems that naturally incorporate physical and emotional wellness into learning? What types of conversations motivate people in different roles in a school community to understand that health is an important part of educational success?

Some of the people finding the answers are right here in St. Louis, inside places like University City High School and Bryan Hill Elementary School in St. Louis.

In late November, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation convened grantees from around the country in St. Louis to talk about their work on child health. About two dozen of them visited the two schools to learn about the intentional work each is doing to become a healthier place for optimal learning. Both schools are a part of a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation national initiative called Together for Healthy and Successful Schools.

Inside the University City High School library, members of the school district “circled-up” their chairs, sat face-to-face in what’s called a fishbowl, and reflected on the increasing well-being of their school community.

A pastor praised the school district’s successful response to a suicide scare among a group of students. A high school student seated nearby said he now feels safe at school and views his teachers as trusted partners, not adversaries. A community partner who teaches mindfulness to elementary school children said younger students feel centered and aware of their emotions as they go through the day. And Superintendent Dr. Sharonica Hardin-Bartley explained how the district has been focusing hard on “humanizing the learning experience.”

University City schools Superintendent Dr. Sharonica Hardin-Bartley

Indeed, the work is paying off: The district has reduced its total student suspension days by half, Hardin-Bartley said.

“We really have embraced the concept of students being well emotionally, physically, socially, and spiritually and understanding that we can’t effectively educate them if their basic needs are not met,” she said.

Ten miles northeast in the economically-challenged College Hill neighborhood of North St. Louis, teachers and staff at Bryan Hill Elementary School talked enthusiastically about their efforts to build “a true family” inside the public school. Teachers remembered how it took time to buy into their principal’s new mindset about the school culture, including the school mantra that four positive things should be said before one negative. Now, eight years later, everyone in the school – from maintenance staff to teachers – uses positive behavioral techniques and data to address the wellness and potential of every student. They were proud to share that Bryan Hill now has a 98 percent attendance rate—one of the best in the City of St. Louis.

“Our children want to come to this school,” said Bryan Hill principal, Dr. Sarah Briscoe. “I think it’s contagious what we do here.”

As conversations bubbled up in both schools, it became clear: The St. Louis region is becoming a hub for building better systems that lead to healthier schools for students, staff, and even parents.

This is just the type of momentum envisioned in the Together for Healthy and Successful Schools initiative. There are three main partners in the initiative: Health Equity Works at Washington University in St. Louis and America’s Promise Alliance and Child Trends, both out of Washington, DC.

Though each partner has a different focus, they all aim to increase the uptake of the Whole School, Whole Community, Whole Child model in school communities nationwide.

The model promotes 10 specific areas of health and wellness in schools to keep students challenged, supported, engaged, safe, and healthy. Research has shown that these factors boost student performance and graduation rates.

But as Health Equity Works director Dr. Jason Purnell says of the model, “Frameworks don’t implement themselves. It takes strategic coordination and intentional effort to apply this complex framework in schools. And school communities often lack the resources or effective strategies to implement it.”

Now, about 18 months since its start, the THSS initiative is beginning to yield results, particularly in the St. Louis region.

For example, as part of its THSS work, America’s Promise Alliance selected St. Louis as one of six “acceleration sites” nationwide to rapidly advance health and wellness in specific school districts. America’s Promise partnered with the St. Louis-based nonprofit, Alive and Well Communities, to work within the University City, Pattonville, Ritenour, and Rockwood school districts to build trauma-informed systems and practices in each school.

For University City schools, the ongoing work with Alive and Well has transformed a school district once dealing with racial tension after Michael Brown’s death to a school that puts restorative justice and well-being above all else. Indeed, at the start of the current school year, University City High School set aside its first four days of instruction to focus instead on health, well-being, and community building-activities. The circling-up mentioned earlier happens routinely in its schools so that students, staff, teachers, and administrators can talk candidly about tensions and issues that arise.

St. Louis benefits in other ways from THSS. The national organization Child Trends is currently completing a national evaluation of school health policies in selected states nationwide to build a database of policies that reflect the domains of the Whole School, Whole Community, Whole Child model. The ambitious project includes a review of Missouri policies. Child Trends also recently conducted a deep analysis of policies utilized by St. Louis Public Schools and the Normandy Schools Collaborative to help both districts better align their efforts to build healthier school systems through their policies.

For its part, Health Equity Works, along with the Center for Public Health Systems Science, Health Communication Research Laboratory, Prevention Research Center, and Social Systems Design Lab out of Washington University and the Center on Society and Health at Virginia Commonwealth University, has put social science tools to work in six schools in the St. Louis Public Schools district and the Normandy Schools Collaborative. One of those schools included Bryan Hill, mentioned earlier.

Members of the Bryan Hill Elementary School community participate in a Group Model Building session.

Teachers, administrators, staff, parents, and students participated in interviews, surveys, and collaborative group sessions in both districts over a span of 12 months. That critical participation helped researchers conduct social network analysis, group model building, and message testing – three ways of identifying the people, systems, and messages schools and school districts can leverage to more effectively build a strong culture of health in their communities.

“What we’ve learned from our work with schools is that it just can’t be another thing we put on the plate of educators, because their plates are already quite full,” Purnell said. “This has to be something that’s all hands on deck, the entire community coming together to support children within schools.”

Health Equity Works and its research partners are now creating a toolkit based upon what was learned from the research with Normandy and St. Louis Public Schools. The toolkit will enable other St. Louis education leaders in the region’s 24 school districts to conduct similar types of evaluations to identify the key people, systems, and messages they can utilize to promote health in their schools. Health Equity Works also continues to collaborate with a National Advisory Committee in the hopes of eventually distributing the toolkit to schools nationwide.

The KWMU radio program, “St. Louis on the Air,” recently hosted Dr. Purnell, Dr. Hardin-Bartley, and Monika Kincheloe, Senior Director, Strategic Initiatives and Partnerships at America’s Promise Alliance, to discuss the work both in St. Louis and nationwide.

Kincheloe said St. Louis appears to be ahead of the curve in work to build healthier schools.

“Our goal is centered around the idea that what’s happening in U. City schools and across the St. Louis region shouldn’t just be happening there; it should really be happening in every school,” she said.

“Every young person should come to school feeling safe, supported, and empowered.”

To Learn More: Embracing a different approach: How some St. Louis school districts are connecting health, education

Did You Know? America’s Promise Alliance has launched a national media campaign called Every School Healthy to promote the creation of healthy schools nationwide.


  1. Reading this article really gave me another perspective on group studying. I have always loved study groups. I even would us this in my work environment, when we have meetings.

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