Building A Healthy District From the Top Down

Craig Aarons-Martin and his students participating in the New Balance 5K
Craig Aarons-Martin and his students participating in the New Balance 5K (Image credit: Courtesy of Craig Aarons-Martin)

Like many of us, Craig Aarons-Martin had a revelation about his health and his weight during what seemed like a normal day at work as a superintendent for Bridge Boston Charter Schools: “There was just no way this six-foot-three-inch ‘care bear’ could keep up!” he says.

Aarons-Martin, now CEO of CCM Education Group, weighed more than 300 pounds back then, and realized that he needed to change his lifestyle in order to improve his health if he wanted to be able to interact with students. He also decided that he might be successful in this goal if he could get others to join him. Plus, improved mental and physical health across his district could support social-emotional concerns, for students as well as educators, many of whom were suffering from similar mental health challenges.

Ultimately, Aarons-Martin was able to lose more than 100 pounds and boost his entire school community in the process.

Starting Small

Growing up in New Orleans, Aarons-Martin was no stranger to an abundance of good food. “I had gained a significant amount of weight, some of that attributed to some of the depression that I was going through as a queer man who struggled with his identity, but also someone who was trying to figure out how do I become more agile and fit mentally as well as physically for the young people I serve,” he says. “I wanted to be able to run and play ball and do all those things, and I need to have a really good mind-heart-body-spirit connection. And I made a decision that I was going to go on this journey unapologetically and see what happens.”

Aarons-Martin started his process by being open and vulnerable with his staff and students about his own health and goals, and encouraged others to do the same.

“I told them, ‘This is my journey, but I welcome you to take whatever parts of it resonate with you,’” he says. “Each person defines wellness for themselves but what we wanted to do was have a school-wide wellness plan, but it was driven by me.”

From there, he and his staff started off with small, attainable steps, including:

  • Creating more opportunities for physical activity
  • Mindfulness moments throughout the day
  • Creating peaceful paths for students
  • Providing movable weight-loss equipment

Aarons-Martin also constantly looked for opportunities to model healthy habits, such as holding meetings while walking around the block.

As they began to have success, Aarons-Martin and his team expanded their efforts to integrate it into the community by participating in events such as organized walks and 5Ks. They also implemented other actions when possible, such as providing healthy snack alternatives.

To help foster and support a sense of community, and also reduce absenteeism, event planning was focused on scheduling can’t-miss events on days when students and families might skip school, such as a Friday before a holiday weekend. In one school community, absenteeism dropped from 12% to 7%.

“We found kids were coming to school because they didn't want to miss the thing, and it was going to be fun and active and deeply engaged,” he says. “And we saw that our discipline numbers, our suspension numbers, went down as well. I went from 25 suspensions in one year down to five. We also used restorative justice.”

5 Tips For Implementing A Top-Down Wellness Approach

For other district leaders looking to implement a similar approach, Aarons-Martins offers this advice:

1. Keep It Simple to Start - Aarons-Martin recommends starting with no more than three new initiatives in a school year. “For school leaders who are trying to figure it out, get clear about what's the one to two things school-wide that you can manage,” he says. “There's going to be sustainability with it if you are going to go the distance, and make it clear why this is important. Because it shouldn't just be personal to you.”

At the beginning, for example, Aarons-Martin simply tried to make sure that every morning that students were outside and active to start the day. “So before they walked into classes, I wanted them to take that lap. I want them to get their bodies oxygenated,” he says. “And then we would all start with a pledge and a reminder of who we are and what we need to do.”

2. Get Buy-In and Build Support - As with any initiative, buy-in from students, faculty, and community is critical. “You need staff members and students who are going to champion it and you have to show them how to execute it,” says Aarons-Martin. “They’re going to steward the work with you so that if you go to a meeting or conferences, they're going to continue the practices because ‘This is what we always do.’”

3. Publicize Small Wins - Highlighting and showcasing the success stories via social media can help to build a sense of momentum, says Aarons-Martin. “I always tried to find the folks who were kind of on the fence and apprehensive, to highlight,” he says. “Like, if I saw they actually had a kid do a mindfulness moment and lead it, even though they didn't believe in it themselves, they still had a student doing it. I know it may feel like, ‘Oh that's kind of hokey,’ but they were trying.”

Social media is also where students are, and when certain stories about the district’s efforts went viral or reached a wider audience, it fueled positivity. “Young people loved the fact that we became a school that we have always said we were when we said we're one of the best schools in Boston,” Aarons-Martins says. “They saw themselves in places outside of the school and people talking about it to the degree that they feel a sense of pride that like, ‘Yep, this our school.’”

4. Don’t Be Afraid to Share Your Challenges - “I was very vulnerable and upfront in front of the community about where I was in my journey,” says Aarons-Martin. “Like, ‘I'm dropping the ball’ and ‘Here’s why I didn't do X.’ And people would say, ‘Hey, Mr. Martin, well, let's get back on the ball again.”

Aarons-Martin adds that sharing failings helped humanize him to students and also provided an opportunity for the community to hold him accountable.

5. Remember, It’s A Team Effort - Aarons-Martin said that while he benefited from many of the initiatives and decisions, he had to maintain a broader focus. “If you're doing something because that's for you, and it's not for the community, then you need to rethink what you're doing and why,” he says. “I wanted to make sure that the people who were choosing the journey with me also found resonance as a school, and as a wider community.”

All of this started with a few small steps.

“I never said, ‘We're gonna have a weight-loss challenge,” says Aarons-Martin. “I just tried to say, ‘Hey, can we be more active for 30 minutes? You know, this week? I can. I can figure that out.’ Ultimately, I want everyone to thrive!”


Ray Bendici is the Managing Editor of Tech & Learning and Tech & Learning University. He is an award-winning journalist/editor, with more than 20 years of experience, including a specific focus on education.