Child Reaching for Hamburger and Fries

Childhood obesity presents a critical and widespread issue for Indiana children.

One in three Hoosier children ages 10-17 are overweight or obese (33.9%). While childhood obesity presents a concern nationally, this issue is especially relevant in Indiana. Hoosier children are 14.9% more likely to be obese than their peers nationwide. This ranks Indiana as the 9th highest rate of childhood overweight and obesity. In comparison to all neighboring states, Indiana has the highest rate.

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The scene from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida is one we have seen far too often: terrified students fleeing a school, parents frantically searching for their children, law enforcement swarming a campus. While our immediate concern is for those directly involved in these tragedies, instinctively we also wonder if our own children are safe. Safety is the top school-related concern of parents, above academic performance, student services, facilities or educator quality. Parents must have an accurate understanding of the safety plans in place in our schools. We also must work to ensure that students, and their families, feel that their schools are safe.

School administrators are keenly aware of the need to protect students, with the range of threats including not only active shooters but also weather and natural disasters, noncustodial parent abductions, and everyday issues like bullying and fighting. Although mass school shootings understandably garner intense media coverage, all threats to school safety are cause for concern. Research shows that any instance of crime or violence at school not only affects the students directly involved but can also negatively impact bystanders, the larger school environment and the community.

The good news is that Indiana is leading the nation in school security and safety planning. Indiana is one of only two states with a school safety specialist law, and is the only state in which the program is fully implemented. Every public school corporation in Indiana is required to have a certified school safety specialist, and 88% of districts have two or more specialists.

David Woodward has worked at the Indiana Department of Education (IDOE) for over 20 years and is architect of the state’s School Safety Academy. Started in 1999, the Academy’s five-day basic training covers national and state best practices on topics such as cyberbullying, digital threats, active shooters, safe and effective drills, student suicide and school entrance security.  Each district specialist must also complete two additional days of training annually and are tasked with starting the multi-step process of updating and implementing their district’s safety plan. As Woodward notes, “The threats to our schools are always changing, so our response always needs to be updated.”

Although our state is proactive in addressing the safety needs of schools, challenges remain. Fear at school can contribute to an unhealthy school climate and lead to negative student behavior. Students who feel unsafe at school are more likely to miss days of class, and students who witness school violence are more likely to experience health problems, social and emotional difficulties, and poor academic performance. According to the National Survey of Children’s Health, 78.1 percent of Indiana parents say they “definitely agree” that their child is safe at school. This is compared to the Healthy People 2020 initiative’s goal that 95 percent of parents will consider their children to be safe at school. We all have a role to play in creating and sustaining a climate of safety through our schools.

At the leadership and policy level, more can be done to increase both the actual and perceived levels of safety. In late February, State Superintendent of Public Instruction Dr. Jennifer McCormick called on the General Assembly and our Congressional Delegation to pass additional school safety policies. Her two main requests were increased resources for mental and behavioral wellbeing, and ensuring that our private and charter schools all have the same requirements to keep our schools and students safeLate in the legislative session, Governor Holcomb requested a $5 million increase in the state’s school safety grant fund, but the bill died in the final minutes of this year’s session. The May special session will be a time to finalize additional school safety actions and funding.

At the community level, effective communication is critical. Although schools understandably cannot publish their specific safety plans, they can and should talk with parents and community members about the steps they are taking to ensure students are safe. Experts suggest directly calling your school principal with safety concerns, noting that many people erroneously first call local law enforcement.  Student voice is also important in shaping and maintaining a safe school environment. Ask your school how they are supporting student engagement in their safety planning. Finally, do not underestimate the impact these national traumas have on our students’ sense of safety.

The horrific mass shooting in Florida has once again heightened our concerns for school safety. Indiana has proactively taken steps to ensure our schools have updated safety plans in place and yet even the best plans are not guarantees. All Hoosier parents and families should have a clear understanding of what is going on at the state and local levels, especially inside their individual schools. Students are understandably and admirably stepping up to not only regain their sense of safety but also to call for increased action. But as community leaders, parents and citizens, it is our shared responsibility to provide safe learning environments for all of our educators, administrators and, most importantly, our students.

Urgent, complex challenges affect children across Indiana, including high infant mortality rates, persistent achievement gaps, and the soaring impact of parental opioid use. There are successful prevention and intervention programs operated by youth-serving organizations throughout the state, many of which engage government, philanthropic and corporate partners. The complexity of many social problems, such as preparing all children for success beyond high school, calls for shared community investments of time and treasure that are beyond the scope of any single sector. Solving these complex problems will require expansion of partnerships and collaborations and reduction of siloed services. A growing body of evidence shows the key to lasting improvements in the well-being of Indiana children will be the proliferation of prolonged cross-sector partnerships.

The collective impact approach holds potential for tackling large-scale social problems. First defined by the Stanford Social Innovation Review in 2011, this framework brings together multi-sector stakeholders with a shared desire to address a large-scale social problem. It has been received with enthusiasm and widespread, rapid adoption. But with implementation and effectiveness varying greatly across initiatives, many question whether “collective impact” is simply a trendy update to the term “collaboration.” David Shapiro, CEO of MENTOR, notes, “Once something gets popularized and trendy, it also gets watered down and given a million meanings.”

The collective impact framework offers a fundamentally different approach based on discipline, high performance and constant adaptability. Stanford’s model outlines five key conditions that differentiate the approach from other collaborations or partnerships: a common agenda, shared measurement systems, mutually reinforcing activities, continuous communication, and the presence of a backbone organization.

Experts stress that three conditions must be in place before launching a collective impact initiative: an influential area champion, adequate financial resources and a sense of urgency for change. There must also be a core understanding that collective impact work takes time, patience and financial resources. Having worked with successful collective impact initiatives centered on youth mentoring, Shapiro stresses the importance of coming together around a critical issue. He states, “We are all trying to solve very hard problems. No one is saying that you are failing because you haven’t solved them the way that you’ve been trying to solve them. We’re just trying to figure out if there are new ways to continue to push on the solutions together.”

Promise Indiana, a nonprofit based out of Wabash, functions as the backbone organization for community-driven efforts to instill the hope, culture and habits needed to create pathways for all children to go to college. This initiative engages many sector partners including: government, nonprofits, schools, higher education institutions, community foundations, businesses, philanthropic partners and individual donors. In fact, the community applies to the program as a unit. Clint Kugler, Promise Indiana’s founder, explains that the program succeeds by “connecting current systems and creating a network of community champions.” To date, 17 Indiana communities have committed to this collective impact project, with several more planned to join in 2018.

Policymakers and funders can support increased impact by encouraging a collective impact approach to large-scale social issues. Stakeholders from all sectors must be invited to the table, and they must arrive with a learning mindset and a willingness to compromise in service of the overarching goal. The best collective impact initiatives include space to customize for local context. In addition to leaders from the public and private sectors, it is important to engage individuals who are directly impacted by the issue being addressed, those with the lived experience. As individual community members, we can all attend school board meetings, city council meetings and community gatherings to offer our perspectives and generate that critical, shared sense of urgency.

Collective impact is not simply a new buzzword to describe collaborations and partnerships of all types. Instead, if implemented with intention, the framework holds potential to create lasting change. Leaders are recognizing that solving complex social problems is more effective when isolated programs and interventions become systems of shared vision and coordinated effort. Collective impact work is time-intensive, messy and sometimes uncomfortable. Yet when we are talking about the well-being of our future workforce and leaders – our kids – collective impact is also an approach that can provide the insights, connections, energy and optimism needed to tackle our biggest challenges.