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Four Culture of Health Prize Communities Share Why They’re Addressing Education as a Social Determinant of Health

By Sarah Strunk on September 5th, 2019

As Healthy Places by Design’s Sarah Moore reflected in her August 15 blog, education is a social determinant of health and one of the strongest indicators of life expectancy. So it’s no wonder that communities across the country are working hard to ensure that all children have an opportunity to thrive. Their lives—and our nation’s health and wellbeing—depend on it.

Nowhere is this commitment to education more authentic than in RWJF Culture of Health Prize-winning communities, where dozens of cross-sector partners are leading the way with innovative and evidence-based strategies that:
  • Create environments that support learning through initiatives such as school–community liaisons, community schools, and trauma-informed schools;
  • Increase early childhood education through interventions like Head Start and Early Head Start, family engagement, and other early learning opportunities;
  • Improve the quality of K–12 education through summer and after-school learning programs, culturally relevant education, and project-based learning;
  • Increase high school graduation by reducing truancy and dropout rates, increasing access to GEDs, job skills development, mentoring programs, and teen parenting programs;
  • Increase higher education through college savings accounts, support for underrepresented students at colleges and universities, college and career readiness initiatives, scholarship programs, and offering college credit in high schools; and
  • Improve parent education through programs such as Parents as Teachers.
I recently connected with inspiring education leaders from four Prize-winning communities. Read on for highlights and insights from their work, including why and how this diverse group of communities is addressing education as a social determinant of health.


Algoma, Wisconsin

2017 Prize Winner, population 3,126

Teal VanLanen, Director of Improvement & Community Engagement, Algoma School District, Live Algoma:

"It’s critical that we lead beyond the school walls to reduce the equity, achievement, and opportunity gaps that exist within our schools. The Algoma School District is committed to recognizing the untapped potential of our youth, families, educators, and communities. Together, we can apply lessons from our own experiences, shared vision, and collective ideas for action.

"We’ve learned that health, wellbeing, and prosperity are not just the absence of a chronic illness or disease. A student’s socioeconomic status, access to healthcare and food, connections to others, and safety are all contributing factors that can determine the outcome of the student’s education and longevity of life. And we know that, youth voices are critical at the decision-making table. I’m proud of how we’re getting out of the way of students’ leadership and ideas for change."

Click here for more information on Algoma’s work in education. Learn more about Algoma’s Youth Change Agents at Wolf Den, Hands Only CPR, and Recharge, Revive, Resourced.


Cicero, Illinois

2018 Prize Winner, population 83,000


Linda Rios, All Our Kids Network Coordinator and Chair to the AOK/ECC Collaboration:

"In a community with a majority Latino population, there are cultural barriers to early childhood education. Some people lack knowledge about how children learn, the importance of certain developmental activities, or being enrolled in a high-quality early childhood program. The ISBE KIDS data reported that only eight percent of the kindergarten population in Cicero was kindergarten ready when they entered school.

"Early education, elementary education, and high school education are all interconnected—they’re each an important part of ensuring that our youth are not only graduating, but are also socially and emotionally ready to venture out into the world and continue their education or career path. Our community has a strong history of collaboration and cross-sector partnerships that are working together to target education from birth through high school. We’ve learned that it’s important to make sure all voices are at the table—especially the community’s voices—when creating initiatives to improve educational outcomes. We’ll know that we’ve been successful when everyone is working together to create change."

For more information on how the Town of Cicero is ensuring a healthy start for children, read about All Our Kids Early Childhood Network and the Cicero Community Collaborative.


Menominee Nation, Wisconsin

2015 Prize Winner, population 8,700

Wendell Waukau, Superintendent of Schools, Menominee Indian School District:

"American Indians have some of the worst outcomes in education and health among all ethnic minorities, and most of the challenges and barriers to student achievement are connected to chronic health issues. Our data shows that if we don’t give up on our students when they don’t graduate on time, and instead give them an additional year or two, we can achieve a 90 percent graduation rate.

"When it comes to advancing education to improve health outcomes, we’ve learned that it’s important to build and tell our story; find and invite new leaders in our community to participate; develop champions within our organizations; and validate successes. When we do those things, the siloes come down one by one."

For more information on efforts to address trauma in Menominee Nation and across the state, view this documentary from Wisconsin Public Television: Not Enough Apologies: Trauma Stories.


San Antonio, Texas

2018 Prize Winner, population 1.5 million

Ryan Lugalia-Hollon, Executive Director, UP Partnership:

"In San Antonio, we’re expanding young people's opportunities by uniting diverse leaders behind a clear and powerful set of shared strategies. Our proudest accomplishment was to increase the Bexar County high school completion rate from 78 percent to 90 percent! That took the leadership of so many different stakeholders, including superintendents and their district staff, foundations and youth development agencies, and judges and community-based organizations.

"We believe that no single person, organization, or district can do this work alone. If we really want a generation of healthy and successful people, then collaboration has to be more than a notion. It has to mean real interdependence, where we share values, metrics, and resources. I think we've learned a lot about how to structure collective efforts in order to enable that level of sharing."

Click here for more information on how the UP Partnership is helping partners better understand their programs through data, expanding young people’s pathways to success, and driving policy improvements that will improve young people’s lives.

2020 Culture of Health Prize

Is your community prioritizing health and committed to providing everyone, especially those with the greatest challenges, the opportunity to live the healthiest life possible? The 2020 Culture of Health Prize Call for Applications is now open! Click here for more information and to apply by November 24. And stay tuned for a public announcement of the 2019 Prize winners on November 12.

The RWJF Culture of Health Prize is a collaboration between the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute.

Sarah Strunk

Strategic Advisor

Healthy communities networker, integrator and distance runner on the go.