Safety, Wellness, and Education: Building Institutions for the Whole Child

Navigate Prepared

I want you to imagine you’re an elementary school student who wakes up one day and your mouth hurts. On top of that, you’re alone in the house. There isn’t anything for breakfast, you have nothing to bring for lunch, and your mouth has been hurting for at least two weeks.

You need to get to school, but how are you going to get there? There’s no one to drive you and you don’t feel good about the area you have to walk through.

Consider these challenges and then think: Are you going to learn properly once you get to school that day?

If students aren’t safe and healthy, how can we expect them to learn?

In my role as Superintendent for Oakridge Public Schools in Michigan these past 10 years, I have to ask myself this question. I have no desire to sensationalize, but the truth is that for many of the students in my district, the above scenario is not hypothetical. That’s why I increasingly think of wellness and safety as going hand-in-hand with academics. At Oakridge Schools, we’ve made great strides in addressing the interconnectedness of wellness, safety, and education. This is important because kids who genuinely feel safe and healthy don't turn violent—and they’re ready to learn when they reach the classroom.

Our Schools and Our Students Are Asked to Do More with Less

Sometimes people ask me how I got started in education. I tell them I started as a kindergartner! But if they want to know why I became a teacher, it’s because I wanted to coach. I was an NAIA Division 2 college scholarship athlete at Olivet Nazarene University and I was looking to further my career through coaching to help kids pursue a similar path, which steered me into the teaching field. The irony is that when I learned how difficult teaching was, that became my sole focus. I haven’t coached a day in my life since becoming a teacher.

I’ve worked in Michigan public schools since 1995, when I first started as an elementary school teacher. My roles since then have included assistant principal, instruction and technology specialist, curriculum director, university adjunct professor, and school improvement consultant to over 100 schools across America.

I often say the superintendent role is the most challenging, rewarding vocation I’ve had in my career. The highs are higher than any in my career when I look at what we have accomplished as a district. The unfortunate flipside is that the lows are lower, to be quite frank, when dealing with the financial challenges that public schools face.

Ten years ago, we experienced massive budget cuts as a result of the automotive industry’s financial challenges and the impact that had on Michigan's economy. I had to painstakingly recommend over $3 million in budget cuts to the Board of Education over a 6 year period from an approximately $16 million budget. Add to this that Oakridge is not a rich district. Our taxable value per pupil is in the bottom 2.6% in the state. That means for capital expenditure or improvements for safety infrastructure, we have to be creative in finding the resources for our schools.

To give you a sense of how our students’ families fare financially, almost 70% of our 2,000 kids qualify for free or reduced-price lunch. When incurred those budget cuts, I got calls from principals saying they were having behavioral difficulties with some of their kids. When one principal looked in a kid's mouth, they literally saw abscessed teeth. No wonder those kids were acting out. How are they supposed to learn like this?  

Addressing the Whole Child: The Oakridge Wellness Network

This all came to a head one day when I got a call from a principal who said she'd just spoken to a grandmother who was very upset that one of her grandkids came home from school with lice. This grandmother happened to be deathly afraid of lice and wanted to donate $100,000 to the district to hire a lice checker. In retrospect, I am so thankful that the right louse, landed on the right kid, of the right grandparent, with the right heart, with the right resources, and took the right action to make a huge wave of impact.

Now, given the financial burdens of the district, I could not in good conscience accept $100,000 for the sole purpose of employing a lice checker. But that conversation got me thinking about how our schools could access health resources for our kids. It turns out our local hospital, Mercy Health, has a benefit arm to work with the community called The Health Project. We ended up contracting with them to bring in a community health worker for three years. We then developed a model where that community health worker could bill for services through insurance and seek other creative funding sources. That self-sustaining model developed seven years ago grew with further community partnerships into what we now call the Oakridge Wellness Network.

Today, the wellness network operating in our schools includes the Pathway to Potential office. This is a Michigan Department of Health and Human Services program to work with families who need some kind of government assistance, whether that’s helping with utilities, transportation, daycare, and even cash assistance. It’s a program families now access at their kid’s school.

Likely the greatest accomplishment of my career is opening our state-of-the-art teen health center, which we achieved through a grant, a partnership with a non-profit in our county (Hackley Community Care Center), and about half a million dollars in donations. We have three dental exam rooms, three medical exam rooms, and a mental health office right in the school. Our kids can see a dentist, a doctor, or a mental health professional by walking down the hall, and be back in class 20 minutes later. They don’t have to miss a whole day of school to access these services.

Through this process of building multiple partnerships within our community, our schools have transitioned to the Whole Child Model: We’re not here to just teach math, science, social studies, reading, and writing. We’re here to wrap all these services to keep kids safe, healthy, challenged, engaged, and supported in all kinds of ways.

Wellness is a safety issue, and vice versa. @NaviGatePrepare

Because of the specific needs of the students under our care, I tend to emphasize the wellness part of safety and wellness, so much so that “safety” and “wellness” might seem like separate concepts. More affluent communities might place greater emphasis on the safety part. I’d like to remind all educators of the interconnectedness of these concepts, however. Mental health is wellness. When we talk about bullying or concerns regarding social media, we are talking about wellness. How many times in the wake of a tragedy have we learned in the news about a student who was clearly struggling emotionally and didn’t receive the support they needed? Wellness is a safety issue, and vice versa. Safety is such an important part of our holistic approach that it deserves an equal focus of our energy.

Addressing Safety: The Dreaded Red Binder

When I think about safety, I’m reminded of the red binder I had sitting on my desk for several years. I expect many people in education have an equivalent of the red binder. Physically, it was old and tattered. And this was supposed to be our collection of safety protocols. It was two inches thick but had only a few tabs to help someone navigate all these instructions. Much of it was outdated and inaccurate. And let’s be real: Who is going to flip through a binder during an emergency? Updating this physical binder and training 280 staff members on it would be a major undertaking, not to mention expensive.

This thing just sat on my desk and when I looked at it I felt this task looming over my head because I knew I needed to update it, but I didn’t know where to start. I didn’t go to school to become a security director or an operational services person.

What I do know, however, was there had to be an app for that, especially since being an instructional technology specialist earlier in my career. I have a knack for using technology to organize. I began looking for a solution to help me update our emergency operations plan. Some people visited the district to give presentations on their product. Nothing clicked for me, though, until I was at a state superintendent’s conference where I came across NaviGate Prepared. This was a clear solution to the problem of the red binder.

Checking All the Safety Boxes, Plus Some Needs I Didn’t Know I Had

NaviGate Prepared made it easy to update and distribute our emergency operations plan. Our schools across Muskegon County, first responders, 911, fire chiefs, police chiefs, mental health professionals—all these people came together to develop a full-fledged review to update our plan with the latest procedures for emergencies and safety. We practice those procedures in our buildings to this day. Now, it’s all in the easy-to-use app for when any member of our staff needs to access that information.

Oakridge was the first district in our county to use this tool. Since then, two other districts have followed in our footsteps. NaviGate Prepared checked all the boxes of what I was looking for—plus some things I hadn’t realized I needed.

I’ll give you an example of something I didn’t know to look for. I’ve taken tours of our facilities where the maintenance staff would show me all the entries and exits, the fire alarms, video cameras, water shut off, electrical shut off, the boiler room, but our floor plans in the red binder were out of date. In an emergency, would I really be able to remember all that information if the floor plan wasn’t correct? The team at NaviGate Prepared came through and took pictures and from those put together a detailed floor plan. Today, in an emergency, I know where everything is, and I can show first responders a 3D image of a hallway where an incident is taking place. They can look at that screen and know the risks and opportunities before they go in.

Providing real-time safety information to first responders means everyone’s on the same page.

Another bonus also relates to further ways we can share information with first responders. By state law, every time we do a safety drill we have to notify a lot of people, including the county emergency services director. This is a good thing: We want everyone involved to be on the same page when we do a practice run. The problem is that doing this manually was onerous. The form I used to notify the emergency director was on a piece of paper. We had to post a report on the drill to our website. We had to email everyone reminding them of the drill.

NaviGate Prepared takes all these menial, time-consuming tasks and automates them. With their solution, I don’t file a paper form with the emergency director. In fact, the emergency director can log into our NaviGate Prepared app as a first responder. With a few clicks, the drill report is on our website. Three days before a drill, identified individuals receive an automated email and then another reminder email the day before the drill. Meeting these transparency requirements is no longer an administrative chore. I also like how these features bring our district into closer alignment with the people who are there to help us in a real situation.

It’s a Long Road to Safety and Wellness

The biggest difference NaviGate Prepared has made is my confidence in the case of an emergency. Looking back, I realize how naïve and unaware I was relying on the red binder, because we got through emergencies on common sense and good people doing good things. You can’t rely on that. We’re now so much better prepared with our partnerships with emergency services, our practicing of procedures, and our improved infrastructure.

Sometimes it’s about improving the very infrastructure of our schools. As I mentioned earlier, finding the funding for infrastructure is a challenge for our district, but we recently applied for a Michigan State Police Safety Grant after our local sheriff walked through our facilities to assess our preparedness for an active shooter. That $250,000, if awarded, will go to bolstering our classrooms, entryways, and buildings in the case of an intruder.

But other times it’s about improving processes. We’re also preparing to build our reunification process. Several years ago we had a gas leak when we were building one of our lower elementaries. We had to vacate the premises, transport the kids to a different building, and then call parents to come pick their kids up. I expect many educators who have been in a similar situation will cringe at the memory. There’s a lot to coordinate, and security—verifying adults are who they say they are—can fall by the wayside. We can’t leave this to chance. NaviGate Prepared is working on tools so we can get reunification right next time.

A Decreased Burden

I’m so thankful that my best before-and-after stories are all about wellness, not how our district handled a fire or an active shooter, because we have been fortunate to not experience such terrible events. In large part, I’ve been able to focus even more of my energy on the wellness side because of the burden that NaviGate Prepared has relieved from me. 

Instead of citing tragic statistics, I can talk about the first patient at our teen health center. This child had not been able to hear out of one ear for weeks. His family didn’t have a car to drive him to the closest medical center half an hour away. They didn’t have medical insurance. But this kid knew this teen health center was coming and he was the first person through the door. He got his ear fixed with just a short walk down the hall from his classroom, and that just wouldn’t have happened before.

This one story is symbolic of dozens of such stories. Safety and wellness need to be top of mind for me. Thankfully, NaviGate Prepared gives me peace of mind so I can focus on wellness initiatives like the teen health center instead of worrying if each staff member knows the most up-to-date version of a procedure hidden in a two-inch-thick binder. With that said, I don’t want to give the impression we now just rest on our laurels when it comes to student safety. I always ask staff to focus on learning from each practice procedure, so we can continue to improve.

This is a long and winding road that Oakridge Public Schools has been on, but it’s a journey we had to take. The safety and wellness of Oakridge students is my top priority. I want kids to read by third grade, but if a child’s full set of needs isn’t met, can I really ask them to meet my expectations? NaviGate Prepared helped me address the safety piece. Now I can focus on the rest of the puzzle.