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Member Spotlight: Sun Prairie Area School System

Sun Prairie Area School District

Located in Dane County, Wisconsin, Sun Prairie Area School District serves more than 8,534 students from preschool through high school. The district spans 15 learning sites in total. For Karyn Richmond, wellness director for the district, wellness is the best way to ensure the district lives up to its calling.

“We are caring for children, guiding them, preparing them,” she explained. “To do that effectively, you have to take care of your staff. That means every member of your staff, including teachers, support staff, hot lunch program employees, bus drivers, custodial staff, and administrators. They all contribute to our goal of fostering a positive and curriculum-rich environment for learning. We need them all at their very best.”

Richmond helped the district launch its initial foray into wellness by taking it on as her passion project, stemming from what she had learned in her day job.

“I’m an occupational therapist by training, and in that field, you are taught to always look at the whole person, not just individual parts,” Richmond said. “As a school-based therapist, I became more and more interested in how I could incorporate elements such as mindfulness and yoga in my practice. It made me reflect that our staff needed this type of support as well.”

Her efforts to bring wellness to Sun Prairie staff began back in the Fall of 2017. Richmond’s supervisor at the time asked her to lead weekly mindfulness sessions at the District Office. A new administrator began attending the sessions. She valued wellness after seeing it work for her previous district and made it a priority to create a wellness role at Sun Prairie. The following Fall, the district found enough budget to create a stipend position for guiding wellness activities, which was filled by Richmond.

Richmond was excited to officially take on the wellness role, in addition to her therapy responsibilities. By 2020, the stipend position transitioned into a full-time position for Richmond, with the help of some creative budgeting in partnership with the district’s health plan.

“Our health plan was sending a nurse coach to our buildings, but teachers weren’t using the resource,” she said. “It just wasn’t the right model for us. We asked the health plan if they could redirect the funding for that role to create an in-house position that would better serve our needs. They supported our request, and that’s how we funded my role full time.”

Through the same direct-to-employer health insurance program which allowed for the funding of Richmond’s position, the district also created a wellness clinic for staff and their families. They share the clinic with the City of Sun Prairie, which also uses it for their workforce. The clinic has an open-door policy for district employees. It is free of charge, even for those who are not on the district’s health insurance.

“We have a strong focus on supporting our staff across all environments,” Richmond said. “That’s why we also include families in all our wellness programming. You are going home to your family. If we aren’t taking care of them, we aren’t fully taking care of you. That’s how we see it.”

The wellness clinic offers a range of typical healthcare services. One of the key strengths of the clinic is that it reduces barriers to accessing care. The clinic is currently hosted at one of the health plan’s locations, but the district will be moving it onsite to one of its buildings next fall to make it even more convenient for staff.

Another example of the district creating convenient opportunities for staff to engage in care is onsite vaccination events. Sun Prairie was one of the first districts in Wisconsin to vaccinate its staff. It organized an onsite COVID vaccine clinic last spring and vaccinated more than 1,000 individuals on the first day. The district has continued to offer onsite events since then, including flu shot clinics and COVID booster vaccinations.

“We recently canceled school for a day to give staff an opportunity to get their booster shots on campus,” Richmond said. “We treated it as a wellness day. So staff could get their shot if they chose to do so, and the rest of the day was an opportunity for them to spend on their own or with their families.”

What They Really, Really Want

For Richmond, creating convenience and giving staff what they really want are the secrets to their success with wellness.

“The simpler the better, that’s the goal,” Richmond said. “The more barriers you remove, the more engagement you see. What our people really want right now is access to basic healthcare and fewer barriers. It can be a struggle to deliver wellness to a population like ours. Especially for our teachers. You get home from spending all day in the classroom. You take a nap, make dinner and go to bed. There’s not much time for wellness activities. We try to help staff see that even if you take micro-steps toward wellness behaviors, it makes a cumulative difference over time.”

But how do you know what your workforce really wants and needs? Richmond offers three words, “Listen, listen, listen,”

”Listening is the only way you can know what your people really want and need,” she said. “Remember, this is fluid. Needs and wants can shift. So asking them once isn’t enough. Our society is solution-based. Many times we fail to listen to what the actual problems are, and what the root causes are. We’re too quick to try to fix the problem. So, again, I say, listen, listen, listen.”

Overcoming Educational Obstacles

According to Richmond, one obstacle for successfully delivering wellness in a school setting is that public education is not an industry where leadership receives training on supporting employees. Instead, they are entrenched in creating and delivering curriculum and continuing education for teachers. In many cases, there is a gap when it comes to determining how to best care for their people.

“One way we try to bridge this gap is by meeting individually with each of our building administrators to craft a specific wellness plan for their building,” Richmond said. “We have a very diverse population, and every one of our buildings has a unique culture and unique needs. We plant the seeds in the administrators’ brains so they understand the importance of wellness and keep it top of mind.”

Once a specific plan is established for each building, Richmond relies on wellness reps from each of the district’s sites to be the eyes and ears of their building. They bring updates and requests back to monthly wellness team meetings and serve as daily ambassadors for wellness with their colleagues.

Responding to the Pandemic

For anyone who works in a school system, COVID-19 has required a seemingly never-ending series of adjustments.

“It’s been tough,” Richmond said. “At the beginning of the pandemic we shifted to a fully online platform for the first time ever, then it was hybrid learning, and then we went back to full-time in-person learning. But then you also still have to accommodate students who are quarantined. The constant change has caused an extra layer of stress and burnout for staff. We’re trying to support them through that.”

This support includes leveraging wellness clinic staff to help coach individuals through the process of engaging with mental health services and making sure staff are aware of complimentary counseling services available through its EAP. They are also evaluating the feasibility of adding a behavioral health specialist for the wellness clinic in order to broaden access to mental health support.

The Two C’s: Community and Connection

Community and connection are also important to the district’s wellness efforts.

“We are a tight-knit community, and we’ve created unique connections with many of the other organizations in our community,” Richmond said. “We have brands who donate prizes for our wellness challenges. We worked with the Bank of Sun Prairie to offer financial wellness workshops.”

The district also offers a weekly, donation-based yoga and mindfulness class with proceeds flowing to a local charity that provides meals for people in need.

“We have identified that connection equals wellness,” Richmond said. “So many people have been disconnected during the pandemic. This leads to loneliness, isolation, and then to even more serious issues. We work hard to connect people, both through our community efforts and through our program offerings.”

To spark new connections, the district hosts a closed group on Meetup and pays for staff subscriptions to the service. A variety of meetup classes are available each week for staff and their families. These classes are taught by Richmond, as well as staff members who want to offer their expertise on a specific skill or topic area.

“These classes cover a wide range of topics,” Richmond said. “As an example, we recently had an administrative assistant teach a class on playing cribbage. These meetup classes have been really successful for bringing staff, and families, together.”

What’s Your Why?

When asked to choose a WELCOA Benchmark in which the district excels, Richmond selected Benchmark 4 – Crafting an Operating Plan.

“You need to know your why, and the goals that align with it,” she said. “Then you can build initiatives and timelines, assign responsibilities, smartly budget, and measure success. We are very strong in this area. From the beginning, we’ve been committed to it.”

As for the value of WELCOA membership, Richmond says its mission-critical for her as a “one-woman show.”

“WELCOA has been incredibly instrumental in changing the trajectory of my skill set and helping me build a robust program,” Richmond said. “Starting with the Checklist, which helped us take a strategic approach and all the way through to all the webinars. I listen to those and bring best practices back to our leadership. With WELCOA backing me up, it’s not just my opinion. But I have research, science, nationally renowned experts at the ready. So it’s just a lot more credible and high impact when I provide recommendations.“

Wellness as a Talent Magnet

According to Richmond, for the first time ever, there are fewer people graduating in education than the current need for educators across the state of Wisconsin. It has never been more important to attract and keep, quality staff.

“The strength of your curriculum will not be enough to draw exceptional talent moving forward,” she said. “You need something more. For us, that means wellness. We want to create a happier, healthier workplace. That’s how you attract and retain top talent.“

The plan is working. Last school year, the district had a retention rate of 87-93 percent across its various employee groups. It also successfully recruited 60+ new staff members this year as it prepares for additional growth, including the opening of a new high school.

“It’s so fulfilling when we hear from existing colleagues, and new colleagues, who are impressed and excited about the wellness offerings,” Richmond said. “In the end, it is simple. If you make people feel valued and show them that they matter, they will be happier and healthier, and they will want to stay.”

Want to learn more about Sun Prairie Area School System’s program, or how your wellness efforts can keep pace with the increasing speed of change at work?