For many in the non-profit world the work is deeply personal; change is fueled by a desire to help others. But the challenge is that while many policymakers may support the same cause, they also need data to justify their budget decisions. With the help of a grant from Voices for Healthy Kids, the American Heart Association (AHA) in Rhode Island has started to unlock the potential of marrying both the data and the story together to work for change.
Their multi-year strategy is to ensure that physical education is funded and supported in all schools – especially high-need schools by securing a full-time employee at the Rhode Island Department of Education who can provide technical support to schools and secure additional funding for high-need districts.
Central Falls is a largely Hispanic, low-resourced, high-need district, and they were in dire need of resources and funding for physical education equipment, facilities, and professional development for physical education staff. The AHA RI selected Central Falls to become the face of a statewide campaign that leveraged data and storytelling to encourage lawmakers to commit funds and resources to physical education. Though demographic data would help pinpoint which districts should be classified as high-need, Central Falls School District would illustrate that the decisions made at the local and state levels had a very real impact on kids.
By engaging deeply with one district, the AHA RI was able to personalize a statewide campaign by demonstrating the impact an effective school physical education program can have on a community and developing a base of advocates – physical education teachers, administrators, parents and youth. The campaign highlighted the fact that where a child lives or goes to school can have an impact on health outcomes and the critical role of equity in reducing disparities.
Throughout the course of the partnership, the AHA RI provided professional development for physical education teachers across the Central Falls District and advocacy training for teachers and youth at no cost. They also partnered with the district on local events that created awareness about the many benefits of effective physical education beyond the obvious health impact, including improved cognition, mood, attention, cooperation, and social skills. To capture the impact of the support provided by the AHA and the heightened awareness of an engaged community, a short advocacy film was created and shared with lawmakers and school leaders across Rhode Island to illustrate the importance of policy choices and decisions.
To drive home the results in an indisputable manner, the AHA RI is again leveraging the power of data by deploying a survey among physical and health education teachers across school districts. The data will ultimately be shared with policymakers so they can objectively understand the need of schools.
The AHA RI and Central Falls are encouraged and hopeful that the state will recognize the importance of physical education and approve a dedicated resource to ensure its equitable implementation.
“Physical education and health are the most important classes that you can take in school,” said Richard Sousa, physical education teacher at Central Falls District. “Because we all know our own health affects us so much. And if you don’t have your health, you don’t have anything.”