by Brittany Wright, HSC media and outreach specialist
After hearing school nurse Ponzella Johnson sing the song she uses to energize her 400 students, I knew that she was an extraordinary woman. This weekend, Johnson will celebrate her nine year career serving as a champion for wellness.
The New York native and school nurse at Harriet Tubman Learning Center has a well-rounded background in the fields of psychology and women’s health that she developed before bringing her expertise to schools as a nurse. Her biggest inspiration for transitioning to school nursing was starting a family. When her son was born, she looked ahead and knew that she wanted to be able to enjoy quality time with him and that school nursing would allow her to share the same time out of school.
When I asked her what she loves most about her position, she said, “the children, making an impact on [their] lives. That’s what propels me to get up every morning.” She adds, “I live in the community, the kids look like me. They trust me to make a difference. When you love what you do, they know it.”
At P.S. 154 in New York, Ponzella Johnson serves as the asthma and diabetes educator, teaching students and staff how to manage these health issues. She also serves on the wellness council where she imparts what is expected from both a medical and public health perspective. Additionally, she serves on the safety council to prevent children from being hurt. The council oversees every aspect of safety from the meals served to playground equipment safety.
The school nurse applies her personal motto, “teamwork makes the dream work” to her vision for school wellness. “Dream is an acronym for Daring to Reach Enormous Attainable Milestones,” she said. That daring attitude has led to impressive accomplishments: the school has received recognition and grants for its strong wellness programs.
Earlier this year, Johnson worked with the physical education teacher to identify 16 students who were obese and facing other health issues. Together, they follow the students’ weight and blood pressure and provide opportunities for physical activity. The students also learn about nutrition and do self-esteem exercises. She has already seen a difference in the student’s eagerness to make healthier decisions and has noted that their attendance has increased. “The focal point is action,” she said. The program has become very popular, with requests from dozens of other students!
In addition to supporting at-risks youth, Ponzella has created a walking club program with pre-K and kindergarten students and teachers. She is excited to see the program double in participation with increased attendance. “They’re walking to school, they’re healthy and they feel good. We do it twice a week, but now, they want to do it more. It’s very popular,” she explained.
The school nurse doesn’t just challenge students to live healthy, actively lives, but staff and colleagues as well. She encourages participation in group fitness and encourages them to be role models for the school. “Being a role model helps me while I help [kids],” she said. “It helped me look in the mirror in terms of being healthy.”
Johnson said she was amazed by her experience participating in HSC’s School Nurse Leadership Program this year. “It was important for me and my colleagues to hear from other school nurses,” she said.
She advises other school nurses who want to impact the school community’s health to start by building a relationship with the principal. “Let the principal see how wellness can impact the school,” she said. She also encourages school nurses to use other schools’ experiences as a springboard. She frequently receives calls asking for advice on wellness and said nurses can learn valuable strategies from simply reaching out to each other.
Working with parents has also strengthened the Johnson’s priority on wellness. She said parents are willing to help, especially when it comes to their children. Lastly, she encourages school nurses to tell people what they are doing. Ponzella added that sharing her wealth of knowledge has made her a valuable player, especially in fighting stereotypes around her job title.
As I concluded our call, I complimented Ms. Johnson on her extraordinary work. She replied, “No nurse is ordinary, we’re all extraordinary. Do it with the children in mind. Nothing but good comes from that.”
We couldn’t agree more! Congratulations to Ponzella Johnson on her remarkable work and nine year anniversary as a school nurse!