Turning schools into community centers in their off hours can improve neighborhood health and help combat obesity, according to a study by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Beginning in 2010, seven Los Angeles county schools entered into joint-use agreements with their communities to open school grounds for physical activity when classes weren’t in session. Community activities included swimming, aerobics, golf, fitness video game play, tennis, and walking clubs.
The school districts in the study were located in neighborhoods with extremely high rates of obesity for both adults and children. There was also little public park space in the surrounding areas, which were typically in low-income neighborhoods.
For two years, researchers observed how the school grounds were used and found that the community programs were frequented by local people. Two-thirds of all the people observed using the facilities were involved in either moderate or vigorous physical activity.
Hispanic families were the most frequent users of the after-hours programs. Researchers say this is important because Hispanics have disproportionately high rates of obesity. A separate new study shows that about 35 percent of Mexican children are in fact genetically predisposed to obesity.
Researchers also found that adult-inclusive programs during joint-use hours were beneficial because they encouraged parents to bring their children along.
“A new paradigm in which adults are welcomed to access school facilities for exercise is one step closer to the much-promoted model of schools as centers of the community,” researchers concluded. “Agreements that stipulate physical activity programs for adults and youth, for example, may draw a much greater number of users from the community than agreements that do not.”
Other school districts across the nation are also adopting programs to keep schools open after hours and to make their grounds and programs available to the community at large.
Addressing Physical, Mental & Emotional Needs in Oakland
In Oakland, the Oakland Unified School District (OUSD) is in the third year of its full-service community school system program, which offers both academic and support services to students and their families.
The school district partnered with numerous community organizations to transform schools in disenfranchised areas in order to address larger issues in the community, including physical, mental, and emotional health needs. As in L.A., this includes opening their grounds for after-hours structured physical activity.
One novel approach to community outreach is the use of school-based healthcare clinics. OUSD has added 15 facilities that offer healthcare access, and last year, these centers served 34,000 patients.
“You need to improve the surrounding circumstances to have the most impact,” OUSD spokesman Troy Flint said in an interview with Healthline. “We want to make the school as engaging as possible for the whole community. We’ve started to change the mindset at a community level.”