Good medicine

How do you fight chronic absenteeism? Put a nurse in every school.

Almost a fifth of Memphis students are considered chronically absent from school, and too often it’s because of an asthma attack, a toothache or an undiagnosed psychological condition.

Community leaders grappling with the city’s high rate of absenteeism frequently have cited challenges rooted in poverty — from students who struggle to get a ride to school to embarrassment over dirty uniforms. Now they’re zeroing in on a deeper related problem: chronic health conditions.

Last year, a staggering 44,000 Memphis students reported suffering from a chronic health condition, contributing to 18 percent of students missing at least 18 days of class in Shelby County Schools or the state-run Achievement School District.

“It’s clear that having a nurse at every school could greatly reduce the number of students who miss school for preventable health reasons,” said Lora Jobe, executive director of PeopleFirst Partnership, a coalition of business, government, academic and civic leaders. “The health concerns we’re talking about disproportionately affect impoverished children and children of color. In Memphis, addressing this should be a top priority.”

Community leaders came together Wednesday at the University of Memphis for a summit on how health disparities are causing youngsters to miss school. The gathering follows last month’s launch of an attendance campaign by Shelby County Schools, providing supports for 10 schools with the most-absent students.

Students in Memphis are mostly people of color and from low-income families, both groups with higher-than-average rates of asthma and untreated dental cavities.

Last year, in fact, Memphis was named the nation’s worst city to live with asthma, a chronic lung condition that leads to episodes of wheezing, coughing and shortness of breath, among other symptoms.

Panelists talk about chronic absenteeism and health at a summit spearheaded by PeopleFirst Partnership.
PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Panelists talk about chronic absenteeism and health at a summit spearheaded by PeopleFirst Partnership.

The summit was attended by doctors, dentists, nurses and mental health professionals, as well as education and nonprofit leaders. Discussions gravitated frequently to the importance of having a full-time nurse in each school, not only to treat students but also to educate their families about how to manage medical conditions that might keep their kids home from school.

Tennessee law requires only one nurse for every 3,000 students, and budget cuts have made it impossible for Shelby County Schools to keep a nurse in every school building. Instead, nurses rotate across the district, usually giving each school one day of medical staffing a week.

That’s not enough, said Angela Hargrave, the district’s director of attendance and discipline.

“Parents aren’t comfortable that their children will be properly cared for at school,” Hargrave said. “People at schools aren’t comfortable with that responsibility. We’re not medical professionals. Our front office staff isn’t trained for that.”

A full-time school nurse can provide the medical care or information that makes the difference in coming to school or staying home, said Cindy Hogg, director of health services at Le Bonheur Community Health.

“A nurse in the school building is often the only care provider many children in low-income areas in Memphis see for years,” Hogg said. “Of course, nurses should send students home when they are sick. But so often students are missing way more school than they should because no one in the health world is communicating with them or their parents.”

Jobe pledged that PeopleFirst Partnership, which organized the summit, will lobby local and state officials to enact and fund a policy that lower the school nurse-to-student ratio.

“I hope this time next year, when we see Tennessee require a nurse in every school, you will be able to say, ‘I was in the room when this started,’” Jobe told the group.

Extra sleep

Two Colorado districts shift to later high school start times — for very different reasons

PHOTO: planetchopstick/Creative Commons

The 22,000-student Greeley-Evans school district in northern Colorado will join the 55,000-student Cherry Creek district in suburban Denver in adopting later high school start times this fall.

But unlike in wealthier Cherry Creek, the change in Greeley was not the result of a lengthy process to review research and solicit community feedback. Instead, the move came out of a very different conversation: How could the cash-strapped district tighten its belt?

After Greeley voters rejected a district tax measure last November, a chronic bus driver shortage loomed larger than ever. With no additional money to beef up driver salaries and more than a dozen driver vacancies, district officials needed to reduce the number of routes. They decided to discontinue busing for most high school students — part of a package of cuts that will save the district $667,000 a year.

That decision divorced the start time debate from the common concern that pushing high school bell times later requires more bus routes and more money.

“We were only able to move the high school start time by seriously limiting — in fact, almost eliminating — bus transportation for our high school students,” district spokeswoman Theresa Myers said.

She noted that all district students are eligible for free transportation on city buses. About two-thirds of district students qualify for free or reduced-price meals, a proxy for poverty.

Later middle and high school start times have gained traction in Colorado and nationally in recent years with mounting evidence that teens are hardwired to go to bed later and wake up later. When school schedules align with sleep patterns, research shows students are healthier, attend school more regularly and do better academically.

Nationally, Seattle Public Schools is one of the largest districts to embrace later start times — pushing high school and most middle school start times to 8:45 a.m. last year, with plans to shift to 9 a.m. this year. Also, in what could be the first statewide start-time mandate in the country, California lawmakers are currently considering legislation that would prohibit the state’s middle and high schools from starting before 8:30 a.m.

In Colorado, the move to later start times has been relatively slow. Until March, when both the Cherry Creek and Greeley-Evans school boards voted on the schedule changes, only a few smaller districts had made the switch. They include Montezuma-Cortez in southwest Colorado and Harrison in Colorado Springs.

Both Denver Public Schools and Boulder Valley considered later high school start times in the last couple years, but ultimately shelved the idea. Boulder Valley officials said the prospect of increased transportation costs was one of the reasons they didn’t move forward.

In Denver, which currently doesn’t provide district busing to most high school students, administrators expressed concern about complicated transportation logistics, after-school sports schedules and conflicts for students with after-school jobs.

Cherry Creek officials say the change in start times this coming year won’t cost the district more money.

In both Cherry Creek, the state’s fourth-largest district, and Greeley-Evans, the 13th largest, high school start times will shift 45 minutes to an hour later this year. In Cherry Creek, high schools will start at 8:20 a.m. and middle schools will start at 8:50 a.m., and in Greeley-Evans, high schools will start at 8 a.m. and middle schools will start at 8:30 a.m.

Other changes in Greeley-Evans include greater walk distances for students at all levels. That means high-schoolers won’t qualify for busing unless they live more than three miles from school, middle-schoolers won’t qualify unless they live more than two miles from school, and elementary kids won’t qualify unless they live more than 1.5 miles from school.

Myers said the new start times haven’t caused much consternation among parents.

“It’s more the transportation issue (that’s) causing some angst for some of our families,” she said. “We’re really going to watch and see how this impacts attendance and tardiness at our schools.”

shot down

Boys & Girls Clubs unlikely to open soon in Memphis schools as SCS funding plan collapses

PHOTO: Boys & Girls Club
The Boys & Girls Club provides after-school programs for children and teens.

If there’s a downside to the improved financial condition of Shelby County Schools, it’s the challenge of getting additional funding for a new initiative, even if everyone agrees it’s a good idea.

That scenario played out this week as some county commissioners balked at a request for an extra $1.6 million to open Boys & Girls Clubs inside of three Memphis schools.

The decision was close, just one vote shy of approval, demonstrating the tension among commissioners wrestling over how to invest in a community with big needs, limited resources and a desire to keep property taxes in check.

In many ways, the proposal to open school-based clubs felt like a slam-dunk. Boys & Girls Clubs have programming. The district has empty space. Neighborhoods near schools have young people in need of enriching afterschool activities.

“We talk everyday about crime, and this is a safe haven,” Chairman Melvin Burgess told his fellow commissioners on Monday in arguing for the investment. “What people don’t know is that an afterschool program is a place for kids to go instead of an empty home.”

But even as the district’s $985 million spending plan sailed through the board, several commissioners questioned the need for anything extra.

“I really support Shelby County Schools spending their own money to do it,” said Commissioner David Reaves. “They have $80 million sitting in a savings account, and we gave them a huge bump last year. Here’s the reality: I was on the school board and I know how it works. They need to spend their own money.”

The decision kicks the proposal back to district leaders, who have been in talks for months with Boys & Girls Club of Greater Memphis.

A district spokeswoman said Wednesday that Shelby County Schools has no plans to fund the initiative at this time.

Keith Blanchard, the president and CEO of the Boys & Girls Clubs, agreed that it’s now unlikely for new clubs to open inside of Dunbar Elementary, Riverview School and Craigmont High by 2018.

“This process has drug out so long, we don’t know what next steps will be yet,” he said. “If we can secure funding at this point, maybe we start in just one school in the fall. Maybe we try again next year. We’re not giving up.”

Shelby County Schools began its 2017-18 budget season without a shortfall for the first time in years, allowing the district next year to provide teacher raises, hire new guidance counselors and behavior specialists, and make new investments in struggling schools.

But Superintendent Dorsey Hopson says the school system still doesn’t have enough money to propel students to academic success in a community challenged by high poverty and mobility.

Such concerns are among the reasons that school-based investments in Boys & Girls Clubs made all the more sense, according to the idea’s backers.

“(The commission vote) was really disappointing,” said Blanchard. “We thought we had the votes going in. I think it was most disappointing for the students who were there, and for them to have to listen to the reasons why this didn’t pass.”