ROBERT PHILIPS: Schools as Centers of Community Health

sac-button-wedOPINION – In order for adults and children to get the exercise they need to be healthy, they need places to be active.  In a 2008 report, Designing for Active Living Among Adults,  the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation found shown that people who have parks or recreational facilities nearby exercise 38 percent more than those who do not have easy access.  Unfortunately, research also shows that lower-income communities, particularly in predominantly Latino or African-American neighborhoods often have fewer resources to support active lifestyles and places to play and exercise.  In Sacramento County this dynamic is no different

How can we make it easier for our community to access local school facilities like gyms, fields, basketball courts, and playgrounds?

Frequently schools serve as centers of the community.  In recent years, increasing access to existing recreational facilities at schools has emerged as one of the most promising strategies for improving physical activity in communities. These initiatives are rooted in the realization that even the most poorly designed and underserved neighborhoods include schools. In Sacramento, the Healthy Sacramento Coalition, a pioneering program of Sierra Health Foundation made up of over 80 organizations working together to improve health for all Sacramento County residents, is building upon this national effort by seeking maximizing access to existing facilities.  The Coalition’s efforts are a recognition that rather than trying to construct new facilities, building on existing ones is the most efficient and economical use of public resources.

Many states have laws which specifically promote the use of schools as community centers. For example, in California, the Community Recreation Act provides school districts and local governments the authority to enter into agreements to use school facilities to establish community recreation programs. The Legislature passed the Act to “promote and preserve the health and general welfare of the people of the state.”  In Sacramento, we need our joint use agreements to take the spirit of this law, and make them a reality by providing a roadmap for the shared use of specific school resources in communities whose access to recreational space has historically been limited.  As a formal legal document, a joint use agreement can facilitate community access to school facilities and grounds.

Land use and facility planning by local governments and school districts have become separated in many communities, and this lack of coordination has contributed to less access, and larger, more distant public facilities that have less connection with the people they serve.

School and local government facilities, especially those that are centered in the community, are an excellent resource for recreation and exercise in the neighborhoods in Sacramento where there is limited availability or private options are too expensive. The Healthy Sacramento Coalition asks you to support its efforts to accelerate Sacramento Country’s progress toward making its school districts the most innovative at maximizing joint use of school facilities to address the educational and health needs of our children, and our community’s need for recreational activity spaces.

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By Robert Philips

 Robert Phillips is the Director of Health Programs at Sierra Health Foundation, where he leads the foundation’s Health Unit and programs including the Healthy Sacramento Coalition, the Respite Partnership Collaborative and the Sacramento Region Health Care Partnership.

Sierra Health Foundation is sponsoring The Empowerment series to help improve health outcomes and reduce health disparities in the region through education and awareness.  Sierra Health Foundation is a private philanthropy with a mission to invest in and serve as a catalyst for ideas, partnerships and programs that improve health and quality of life in Northern California.