School district to review and overhaul health curriculum

The Kodiak Island Borough School District will embark on a two-year review and overhaul of its health curriculum in order to bring it up to date and provide a holistic experience for students, according to Superintendent Larry LeDoux.

LeDoux provided an update to the board of education Monday ahead of its approval to hire a health curriculum coordinator to help with the effort.

The project is titled “Whole School, Whole Family, Whole Community, Whole Student, Laying a Foundation for Learning.” LeDoux said the health curriculum will, in part, address the individual.

“You have to be able to recognize the needs of each student, but also the things that are going on in their lives,” he said. “One of the many things we’ve learned in this last year is that kids need a lot of support, emotionally, socially, nutritionally.”

He added, “You can’t really teach a hungry student.”

He noted that students have several needs that can support or hinder their ability to learn, and that the school district has seen extreme needs over the course of the past year, especially during the pandemic.

“It’s time that we take a comprehensive look at our health programming,” LeDoux said. “This is very exciting because this is the foundation for everything we do — and if we do this right, then it will meet all of our expectations in terms of academics and developing a vision for our future.”

He said any health curriculum “goes beyond the birds and bees. … It’s expansive.”  

LeDoux said that when reviewing results from a 2019 National Youth Risk Behavior Survey, the district observed an increase in certain trends districtwide, such as an increase in suicidal ideation, an increase in mental health concerns and counseling support.

The district has increased its counseling services, including offering behavioral interventions with students. The district also noted an increase in adverse behavior, concerns about nutritional but unappealing school meals and an emphasis on physical fitness.

“Students should graduate knowing how to take care of themselves and develop healthy lifestyles,” LeDoux said.

Sexuality was also identified as “an area we need to address,” according to LeDoux. He noted that students who identify as transgender might find themselves in stressful situations.

Every one of the needs affects academic performance and continuity of learning, he added. 

“All in all, what we need to do and what we’re asking is what we want our students to know and be able to do about their personal health when they graduate — socially, emotionally and physically,” LeDoux said.

He observed that health curriculum reviews in communities have been confrontational and difficult in the past because of a lack of focus on content.  

“It’s ‘we don’t want our kids to talk about this topic’ or ‘we think it should be later, or it should be earlier,’” LeDoux said. He added that it’s a valid concern and a discussion parents should be involved in.

But he said students today live in an information age, have access to smartphones “and can look up anything to see in the world.”

“Students aren’t going to talk about that, not going to share what they see,” he said. “The problem is kids are getting information without any dialogue or adult guidance about what they see … and I think we all know the internet is not a place for children to play without supervision.” 

Any health education course, he said, should start with discussions with students to foster healthy attitudes on topics appropriate to the grade level.

The current framework for elementary school health education includes a focus on nutrition and physical activity; an understanding of how alcohol, tobacco and drugs affect personal health; safety and injury prevention; mental and emotional health; and personal health and wellness, such as basic self-care and health maintenance skills.

"They're all very appropriate topics but I don't think they are consistently taught very appropriately from grade to grade," LeDoux said. "We need to change that."

Middle school focuses on healthy relationships and living, tobacco, alcohol and other drug uses and their prevention, as well as nutrition and fitness, sexual health and wellness.

The high school curriculum continues the topics from middle school, with additional emphasis on safety and violence prevention, life skills and consumer health. 

He noted the district lacks concrete “continuity of learning” when it comes to health education. High school students, for example, can opt to take a health education course at any time, while the coursework is designed for freshman and sophomore grade levels.

“The goal has to be a continuous, age-appropriate health program that provides sufficient information and discussion for students to develop a healthy attitude, and this is a partnership with parents,” LeDoux said. 

A more effective model would focus on teaching functional health information and developing essential health skills, as well as shaping personal values, beliefs and group norms.

LeDoux said the "Whole School, Whole Community, Whole Child" model is provided by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The framework breaks health education up into several groups, with the student at the core and expanding into community involvement.

"We have to include our community, we need the many resources in our community to support this," he said.

The blocks include general health education, physical education and activity, family engagement, nutritional services, health services, counseling, psychological and social services, social-emotional climate, and employee wellness.

"If we are going through our health education program, we're going to take a look at physical education and make sure it's on the right trajectory to develop skills as kids get older and teach them how to take care of their body," LeDoux said.

He added that the district "needs to get to the point where instead of reacting to problems, we need to be proactive."

"If we don't get a good prevention program, we are going to spend a lot of time and money and lost education opportunities reacting to challenges," LeDoux said. "That's a whole change."

He said high school and middle school are already examining "restorative justice" programs focusing on involving students in the discipline process instead of merely providing punitive responses.

Another focus will involve health intervention, LeDoux said.

"School health services intervene with actual and potential health problems, including providing first aid, emergency care and assessment and planning for the management of chronic conditions, such as asthma and diabetes," he said.

Social and emotional climate will be a continued focus, with an emphasis on providing a safe and supportive learning environment, including activities. 

“There is a correlation between grades and academic success and the participation in activities that benefit kids,” LeDoux said. “It shows they are bigger than themselves. It also teaches them risks, about success and failure.”

He said any program development will need to include parent involvement “so they can have discussion with kids.” 

“Our program should facilitate student and parent dialogue, so we need to listen to parents and work with them because their children are at the core of everything we do,” LeDoux said. 

He said the district’s director of instruction Katrina Stewart will take the lead on the overhaul, assisted by recently hired health curriculum coordinator Theresa Miller. Miller previously worked for five years as a KIBSD counselor before gaining more experience while working in Hawaii.

The review will take two years to develop and implement.

“We will spend this year really looking at the research, strategy for a curriculum that is long-lasting and relevant to the needs of kids,” LeDoux said. “This is not a quick review where we’ll have a credit for middle school and one for high school. It has to be well developed and materials carefully selected.”

The first year will also include community and parent engagement. The second year will focus on implementation. 

School board member Judy Carstens acknowledged LeDoux’s excitement for the program, especially the emphasis on involving family.

“If one thing COVID has been positive for, in my experience, is that families have been coming closer together because of the needs at home,” Carstens said. “I feel this is a good time to continue that unity with the families and how we are going to continue to take care of students in other ways.”

Board member Kate Oliver also supported the concept.

“I’m really happy to see this come to bear,” Oliver said, adding she was happy to see that the program would be culturally inclusive. “Students are coming to school with so many different identities, and it’s a strong part of how they interact with one another.” 

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