Sunday, April 20, 2014

Removing Health Barriers to Student Learning

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By Tim Walker

One of the few education issues where you can find almost universal consensus is the connection between student health and the capacity to learn. The conditions for health and well-being in many of the nations’ schools, however, are an impediment to learning.  Too many students spend their days in dilapidated buildings with unhealthy air, no opportunity for recess, and no access to fresh water, nutritious food or a school nurse.

For educators, prioritizing a healthy environment in schools is a no-brainer. But incorporating and integrating what they know to be right requires a collaborative and systemic approach that is absent in most school districts. The ‘what’ and the ‘why’ is easy, but what’s missing is the ‘how.’

This week, The Healthy Schools Campaign (HCS) and Trust for America’s Health (TFAH) released policy recommendations might provide that much needed blueprint. The recommendations, Health in Mind, have been presented to Secretary of Education Arne Duncan Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebellius.

“Healthy students are better prepared to learn and succeed in school,” said Rochelle Davis, President and CEO of HCS. “An increasing body of research backs-up this common-sense notion. This is especially critical in light of the health disparities that exist in our nation. Unless we address health and wellness in schools, our nation’s efforts to close the achievement gap will be compromised.”

Some of the recommendations, which focus on several federal initiatives, include:

  • Robust professional development programs and in-service training that equip principals and teachers with the tools to identify and address student health issues.
  • Incorporating health and wellness into school metrics and accountability systems
  • Providing schools with strategies to partner with parents as agents of change for integrating health into education
  • Increasing the Department of Education’s capacity to provide leadership and guidance on how health and wellness promotes learning
  • A level of funding to improve access to critical health and prevention services – particularly school nurses – for low-income students

NEA President Dennis Van Roekel called the recommendations “right on the money” and singled out the need for professional development. On Wednesday, Van Roekel joined Rochelle Davis, Secretary Duncan, Secretary Sebelius, and other stakeholders at an event in Washington DC on Wednesday to announce the recommendations.

“Our members work with students every day whose health and school conditions impede their ability to learn,” Van Roekel said. “That’s why NEA members are taking the lead to advocate for school and learning conditions that result in a higher level of student engagement and fewer absences. It is our responsibility as educators, but professional development and training about health issues is not a luxury – it is a necessity.”

Van Roekel also pointed out that repairing and modernizing the thousands of deteriorating public schools is a top priority for student health – along with a strong and sustained national campaign against student bullying.

Speaking to the critical role of school nurses, Melinda Landau, manager of Health and Family Support Programs for the San Jose School District, presented findings from a special program that funded full-time school nurses in a few low-income public schools in her district. After two years, the participating schools reported better attendance rates and a dramatic reduction in emergency room visits for children with asthma. In addition, 50 percent of all students with asthma targeted with the intervention had significant gains on standardized tests in math and English Language Arts.

The results of the program underscored how vital student health is to improve learning, and  the national effort to create great public schools depends on educators, parents, and communities putting the issue front and center.

“Everything we’re doing to transform schools, improve teacher preparation, create more accountability,’ Van Roekel said. “None of it will succeed if students aren’t healthy enough to learn.”

To learn more about NEA’s work in creating safe and healthy schools, visit NEA’s Health Information Network

Read more about the Healthy Schools Campaign Health in Mind initiative

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