Espresa client, Aurora Public Schools is comprised of 65 schools in total, including K-12, a vocational and technical college, and a talented and gifted school. Including around 40,000 students, the Aurora Public Schools system was directly hard-hit by the COVID-19 pandemic. In advance of that, they had replaced their wellbeing platform with Espresa. I had the opportunity to speak with rising star and wellness coordinator, Rachel Phillips about the unique challenges public schools face, and how Espresa was able to increase engagement in a meaningful way for their teachers and staff.
Sylvia Flores // Rachel Phillips, it is such a pleasure to meet with you today. Rachel Phillips is the wellness coordinator for the Aurora Public School District. Thank you so much for being here! Tell me about your position with Aurora Public Schools and the wellness coordinator position, and how that’s changed during this global pandemic.
Rachel Phillips // Thank you for having me. I have been a wellness coordinator with Aurora Public Schools for about three years and have gone through a couple of different iterations. I started with focusing primarily on school-based wellness teams. So, going into schools and asking, “How can we get your students to be healthier? What options and opportunities can we bring to them?” And that merged into doing staff-based wellness, which is a traditional corporate role.
We have 4,500 employees and I’ve had to ask myself, what do they need and how do we get it to them? Obviously, right now, we’re really focused on the mental wellbeing of our staff as probably most school districts are with, “Are we in-person? Are we not in-person?” And then that back-and-forth yo-yo and the uncertainty. We all really enjoy structure, here.
My role has pivoted from actively programming and giving people all these resources to “Here is a foundation of how you can take care of yourself,” knowing that we have all of these other resources. We really had to take a step back and say, “You have enough on your plate already, how can we simplify it for you?” I’m a ‘think smarter, not harder’ type of person. So hopefully we can continue that through the coming school years and when our students transition to full-time in-person learning again.
Sylvia Flores // And part of the mental wellbeing, in general, is the physical fitness aspects, with things such as endorphins! Are you layering in some of the physical fitness attributes at this moment?
Rachel Phillips // Yes, we are. As Elle Woods of Legally Blonde would say, “Exercise gives you endorphins. Endorphins make you happy. Happy people (just) don’t kill their husbands,” I think that’s what she said.
Our team works really great together. There are four mindfulness coaches, three of them are social workers by trade and one of them is a school psychologist. They work with different regions within our district. I have a wealth of knowledge and education in nutrition, and my counterpart is a physical education teacher by trade. We have a good counterbalance.
For example, mindfulness can be your self-care break today, but so can a walk, and deciding to meal prep. Really looking at the whole person rather than simply pushing people to eat well, get their numbers checked, and go see a therapist. There’s more to really taking care of the whole person at the same time.
Sylvia Flores // There has been a definite shift towards total wellbeing in the corporate conversation for some time. It’s a lot like diversity, equity, and inclusion. It’s been a popular thing we continue to achieve and yet we continuously fall short of what that really looks like. It has come screaming into focus this year.
You know the school district inside and out now. You have this incredible background in nutrition. This is giving you an opportunity to use your skills and expertise in ways I’m sure you wouldn’t have foreseen. Tell me about the challenges that Aurora Public School was experiencing that led you to a discussion with Espresa.
Rachel Phillips // In my first year with the district, we were in our last year of a contract with a different wellness vendor. Their product just fell short. It was very cookie cutter. You could tell it was what they gave all their clients, not enticing in any way. So, we didn’t sign a new contract with them. And for an entire year, I was the wellness platform and I have never lost so much sleep over so many spreadsheets in my life. When you have a human running all these things without one way of doing it like a wellness platform, things slip through the cracks. I think I worked as a placeholder to make sure we found the right platform and vendor to move forward with.
Espresa was brought to us by our benefits broker. I fell in love with it quickly because I get to plan out this program how I see it versus this copy and paste that every other corporation that uses the program has. I really appreciate that you allow me to have my creative part and do a lot of the work on the backend, but you can just click a button and start a program – you can do that.
Sylvia Flores // Typically when we find our companies and organizations looking for wellbeing is when their programs are held together with spreadsheets and duct tape. It does get unwieldy and impossible to keep all those things straight. It’s also just a completely inefficient use of your wonderful brain and time. I’m glad that you found us! We really do like to think of ourselves as a partner in that way. We don’t have any off-the-shelf clients. Everybody uniquely fits into their own Espresa experience and their own cultural identity mold.
I’m excited that we have an opportunity to work with you because [Aurora Public Schools] was our first public school. And since you have come along, all a sudden this is an entirely new area for us in which we are finding great footing and we’re really enjoying it because obviously, it’s education, we’re excited about that! We’ve got many employees with families and kids who are going through the “struggle is definitely real” right now. We’ve been learning with you and we appreciate the lessons you’ve taught us. So, thank you for that!
Rachel Phillips // Every time a school district is like, “Hey, what wellness platform are you using? We’re not happy with ours.” I say, “Ooh, let me tell you.”
Sylvia Flores // I think you should be doing television. I know that you’ve got this career, this MBA track, and all that going on, but you have an amazing personality that really would work well in television!
How are you determining the success of the Espresa platform and it’s used by your teachers and faculty and so on?
Rachel Phillips // The biggest piece of data that I am using is employee engagement. Last school year, the 2019-2020 school year, we had less than 500 people engage, which is great for me because I didn’t want to have to send out handwritten notes to all of them. And the year before, we had 1,200 people sign up for the platform and only about 300 engaged.
With Espresa, within the first two months of the program launching, we have met that 1,200 people mark of sign-ups, which is phenomenal. We don’t do pulse surveys terribly often just because survey fatigue is real. Teachers are busy. I don’t want to be the reason they are stressed, but we did send out one survey at the beginning of this year. And most of the people responded with, “Thank you. This is what we needed, having a one-stop-shop.” So really, streamlining our wellness offerings and getting that anecdotal feedback of this is what we wanted, and this is what we needed was a sign of success.
Sylvia Flores // And are people predominantly using the app or are they using a web or a combination of the two?
Rachel Phillips // Probably a combination of the two. With the QR code scanner, I think that’s forcing people to be on the app. I would say our demographic is a bit older. Doing it all on the web is a little bit more accessible. Whereas I’m a millennial. Everything that I can do on my phone, I will.
Sylvia Flores // Do you see wellness technology creating a path in the public and private school system given this last year?
Rachel Phillips // Oh, absolutely. It’s a trend that we’re all on anyway. Knowing the wellness space, not just in education but the wellness space as a whole, there is going to be more app-based telehealth offerings. I am excited to see how that gets implemented.
Sylvia Flores // Do you think this technology would be something that students would be interested in?
If it was rebooted specifically for –
Rachel Phillips // For the kid mind? Yes!
I think that’d be cool and a good way to streamline information for parents as well. I know in our school district, we have a lot of immigrant families, a lot of English language learners. Being able to streamline what we know what wellness is – how do we make that accessible for other cultures as well? I think it would be a really cool way to engage wellness for everybody.
Sylvia Flores // Do you have any unique insights into the world of people and wellbeing that you would like to share? Any predictions for this next year or for the future in this space?
Rachel Phillips // I think we’re already seeing this big boom for mental health support, especially. My prediction is that the world is going to start locking down again with pandemic numbers on the rise. Going back into complete isolation is going to have even more of a toll on people’s mental health. Not to get political, but the inactivity of our government to provide some form of stimulus, so people might be out of housing, out of jobs, and being stuck back inside.
Mental health support, resiliency, social, and emotional tools – actually, I read something that our social skills are very much like any other muscle. That if you don’t train it, it gets weak. I think we’re all going to go through this weird, awkward phase of going back into public with people. We’re going to need those social, emotional skills to be fine-tuned, I think.
Sylvia Flores // I think so too. You’re right, there are so many stresses within the home now. Perhaps you’ve only got a single parent who’s working. Perhaps you’ve got a single parent who has been laid off. Perhaps you’ve got two parents who have been laid off. I mean, there are so many things that contribute to the stress of a child. Maybe the parents must work, so a child must take care of other children in the household. There’s such a multitude of stressors that seems so dramatically unfair, and to not have the support systems in place financially or otherwise, to be able to take care of those young minds.
I am really curious to see what 15 years looks like from now. And what pandemic kids going into adulthood, what sort of mental changes, what sort of things have occurred within the minds of those individuals based on this massive crisis? It’s curious.
Rachel Phillips // That, none of us are prepared for. I have to tell teachers too, when I talked to them, I said, “You are also going through a pandemic. You are also going through this really tough time. You have to take care of yourself too.”
Yes, we want to be the superheroes. I think that’s why people get into teaching because they’re very good-hearted people. But you working 18 hours a day to try to get all of your kids online isn’t doing anybody any favors. It’s just burning you out faster and we don’t want that. You’re going through a pandemic too. You have to take care of your family. You have the same financial stresses.
“Make sure you’re putting your own oxygen mask on as well, and you have to do it first.”
Sylvia Flores // I have a final question for you and that has to do entirely with your future. You are an MBA candidate at the University of Denver. Tell me about your career path in the future. What does that look like for Rachel Phillips before your television debut, teaching wellbeing on CNN or some other big network? Tell me about that.
Rachel Phillips // Can I meet Anderson Cooper? That’s all I want at this moment. Anderson Cooper, if you’re listening.
I’m actually transitioning out of [Aurora Public Schools]. I’m going to go work for a telehealth company focused on weight loss and diabetes prevention to hopefully utilize my love and passion for making people healthy, as well as that education as an MBA candidate. I have a year and a half left.
And then I think I told you by email that the plan is to one day, come and work for Espresa. I want on your team. I heard there’s an opening, an area of opportunity for schools. So, if you need someone that’s been in the trenches for the schools, I’m on that market.
Sylvia Flores // 100%. You’re an absolute joy. I appreciate you talking with me today!
Rachel Phillips // Of course. Thank you!