Healthy Schools

Lecture: Healthy kids learn better

Sharon Murray isn’t saying that pumping money into things like health education classes or more nutritious school lunches would automatically result in higher CSAP scores. That’s too simplistic an answer to a complicated challenge.

But Murray, the president of the Rocky Mountain Center for Health Promotion and Education, does point out that states with “health-supporting policies” – things like minimum health and physical education requirements, an emphasis on healthy nutrition standards, funding for school-based health clinics and other student services – tend to have  higher test scores and lower dropout rates than states that don’t.

“So my recommendation for action is, the first thing would be supporting health-promoting policies,” Murray said Tuesday at a lecture at the University of Colorado at Denver to discuss strategies for making kids both healthier and smarter. “You know we have no requirements in Colorado for health education or for physical education.”

Next on Murray’s preferred to-do list is setting up coordinated school health systems, so that providers can collaborate, maximize their resources and better deal with any student health issue that arises.

She would have schools use data at both the district level and the individual school level to identify the real health needs of their students.

“There are some places where obesity isn’t the necessarily the No. 1 health issue,” she said, “but use of illicit drugs is.”

Sharon Murray is president of Rocky Mountain Center for Health Promotion and Education.
Sharon Murray is president of the Rocky Mountain Center for Health Promotion and Education.

She would keep evaluating programs intended to address student health issues because, despite the stack of research studies linking health and academic achievement, more needs to be done in this area.

And she would have Colorado rethink the school paradigm, so that providing access to a variety of health-related services simply becomes the default position.

She hopes school-based health services become, like intramural sports, something about which people say, “Of course we do that in school.”

Murray briefed the audience on some places that are getting it right, and what sort of results they’ve experienced.

For example, the McComb, Miss., school district – a small district of 2,900 students in seven schools, 30 percent of whom live below the poverty level and 90 percent of whom qualify for federal lunch aid – adopted a coordinated school health program guided by Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. The McComb superintendent’s thinking was that only by first having their basic physical needs met could the children achieve their full potential.

Among the programs the district set in place in 1997: health education classes to help students become more knowledgeable about disease and risky behavior; 30 minutes of daily physical education for younger students and two units of PE for high school students; health clinics in each school; fitness classes and annual health checkups for staff; and community involvement through health advisory councils.

When the program started, the district had a graduation rate of 77 percent. By 2004, that had improved to 92 percent, a rate that seems to be holding steady today, Murray said.

Meanwhile, suspensions dropped 40 percent and juvenile crime plummeted 60 percent. Only three percent of teen mothers who participated in a district-sponsored parenting class went on to have a second baby while in their teen years – a percentage far smaller than the national average of 20 percent.

Read an article about “McComb’s Journey to Good Health” here.

“McComb came together as a community, and brought together families, judicial services, health services, and said, ‘How do we do better?’ ” Murray said.

Elsewhere, Washington state recently did a health survey and found that health risks and academic risks affect one another, she said.

And when schools were able to take away certain health risks – such as convincing students to stop smoking – they saw an increase in academic scores.

“I can’t stand here and say that by having poor grades you will engage in high risk behaviors,” she said. “But clearly a relationship exists.”

Other studies underscore how important physical fitness is to academic performance. One study found that 80 percent of students in academically high-performing schools met minimum fitness criteria, while only 40 percent of students in academically low-performing schools were deemed physically fit.

Nutrition also matters. Murray told of one study in California of low-income youth who were deemed nutritionally at risk.

Six months after one school district implemented a free universal breakfast program, those same students showed great improvement in attendance, a decrease in hunger, and improvements in math scores and in behavior.

“So access to good, nutritious food has impacts not just on behavior, but on academic success as well,” she said.

Hillary Fulton, a program officer with the Colorado Health Foundation, said the foundation is committed to funding a number of programs designed to improve Coloradans access not just to health care and health coverage, but also to healthy living.

“We don’t believe schools are the cause of childhood obesity,” Fulton said. “We think they’re an excellent partner in trying to make sure the whole community facilitates healthier eating and more physical activity.”

Fulton said CHF has just approved a grant to the San Luis Valley PE Academy, a collaboration of 14 rural southeast Colorado school districts, to train them in the SPARK curriculum, an evidence-based and widely-lauded physical education program.

“We’ll be training principals and superintendents in how to assess the quality of the teaching taking place,” she said.

She encouraged other districts to apply for similar grants, since such “PE quality improvement” is going to be a priority for the health foundation, along with funding health education and nutrition education programs.

Not long for this world

Denver teen pregnancy prevention organization to close its doors at the end of the year


A Denver-based nonprofit focused on teen pregnancy prevention and youth sexual health will close its doors at the end of 2017 after losing two major grants.

Andrea Miller, executive director of Colorado Youth Matter, announced the news in an email to supporters Monday afternoon.

The organization, begun in the 1980s as a volunteer-run group, provides teacher training and assistance in picking sex education curricula for 10 to 25 Colorado school district a year.

Miller said she’s hopeful other organizations will pick up where Colorado Youth Matter leaves off — possibly RMC Health, the Responsible Sex Education Institute of Planned Parenthood of the Rocky Mountains or the state-run Colorado Sexual Health Initiative.

Colorado Youth Matter’s biggest financial hit came in July when federal officials announced the end of a major teen pregnancy prevention grant mid-way through the five-year grant cycle. That funding made up three-quarters of Colorado Youth Matter’s $1 million annual budget.

“It feels like we’re getting cut off at the knees,” Miller said.

About the same time, the organization lost a family foundation grant that made up another 10 percent of its budget.

Miller, who took the helm of the organization just 10 months ago, said one of her primary goals was to diversify funding, but there wasn’t enough time.

Miller said with a variety of factors playing into the state’s teen pregnancy rates, which have been at record lows in recent years, it’s hard to say what the impact of the organization’s dissolution will be.

She said Colorado Youth Matter has worked successfully with school districts with different political leanings to find the right policies and resources to address the sexual health of their students.

“We have been masters at meeting the school districts where they are,” she said.

Wanna go outside?

Less plastic, more trees: New effort seeks to reinvent preschool playgrounds and capture kids’ imaginations

This play structure at Step By Step Child Development Center in Northglenn will go away under a plan to create a more natural and engaging outdoor play space.

Michelle Dalbotten, the energetic director of a Northglenn child care center called Step by Step, doesn’t like her playground.

Sure, it’s spacious, with a high privacy fence bordering an adjacent strip mall parking lot. It’s also got a brightly colored play structure surrounded by lots of spongy rubber mulch.

But Dalbotten and her staff have long noticed that the kids get bored there. They clump together in the small shady area or on a few popular pieces of equipment. Sometimes, they start throwing trucks off the play structure or shoving their friends down the slide.

Something about it just doesn’t work.

Recently, Dalbotten found a solution in the form of a new grant program called the ECHO initiative, which aims to reinvent more than 100 preschool and child care playgrounds across Colorado over the next few years. Think mud kitchens, looping tricycle trails, vegetable gardens, stages, shady reading nooks and dump truck construction zones.

The idea is to create outdoor spaces that capture kids’ imagination, connect them with nature and keep them active in every season. Such efforts grow out of a recognition in the education field that healthy habits start early and boost learning.

The current preschool playground at Step by Step is covered by rubber mulch.

Step by Step staff members had talked many times about their stagnant play space. But it was hard to envision anything different until they attended a design workshop with experts from ECHO, a partnership between the National Wildlife Federation, Qualistar Colorado and the Natural Learning Initiative at North Carolina State University.

“We knew we were missing the boat somewhere because (the children) weren’t super-engaged and we had a lot of behavioral issues,” Dalbotten said. “But we just couldn’t see past it, I guess.”

For child care providers, it’s a common challenge, said Sarah Konradi, ECHO program director with the regional office of the National Wildlife Federation

“This is a very new idea to a lot of folks,” she said. “It’s hard to sort out as a layperson.”

ECHO, borne out of a decade of research from the Natural Learning Initiative, will hand out $355,000 in grants over the next three years. The initiative prioritizes centers that serve children from low-income families or other vulnerable populations.

Fourteen centers — Step by Step and Wild Plum Learning Center in Longmont are the first two — will get $10,000 awards for serving as demonstration sites willing to host visits for other Colorado providers.

Leaders at Step by Step say kids and teachers often congregate in the limited shady spots.

Around 100 other centers will receive ECHO’s $5,000 seed grants and expert assistance to revamp their outdoor spaces.

Such transformations can have a big impact on children who may spend thousands of hours a year at such centers, said Nilda Cosco, director of programs at the Natural Learning Initiative.

“When we do a renovation of the outdoor learning environments as we call them — not playgrounds — we see increased physical activity … more social interactions among children … less altercations,” she said.

“The teachers have to do less because the children are so engaged. There is so much to do.”

ECHO, which stands for Early Childhood Health Outdoors, is the latest iteration of a program Cosco started a decade ago called “Preventing Obesity by Design.” That effort revamped outdoor space at about 260 child care centers in North Carolina, South Carolina and Texas.

Cosco said such makeovers can ”prevent obesity by counteracting sedentary lifestyles. Children walk more, exercise more, are conversant with healthy eating strategies.”

Dalbotten and her staff have big plans for their play areas, which sit behind a plaza that houses a bingo hall, Dollar Tree and Big D’s Liquor store. They’ll get rid of the colorful play structure and the rubber mulch in favor of a more natural look. There will be trees, shrubs, small grassy hills and a winding trail leading to a wide array of activity areas.

This porch will get new lighting, fencing and foliage to make it a more attractive outdoor space at Step by Step.

The center’s smaller toddler playground will get a similar reboot and its tiny yard for babies — mostly bare except for a couple low-hanging shade sails — will be expanded to include a shaded deck where teachers can sit or play with babies. A barren concrete porch on the side of the building will be remade into a cozy activity area decorated with bird houses, planter gardens and butterfly-attracting foliage.

At the recent design workshop Dalbotten attended, ECHO leaders displayed photos from other centers around the country that have gone through outdoor transformations. She saw one that stuck with her.

“There were kids everywhere,” she said. “It was super cool looking. I was like, ‘Oh look, we can be that. We can have kids everywhere.’”

PHOTO: Natural Learning Initiative
The play space at Johnson Pond Learning Center in Fuquay-Varina, NC, after a makeover.
PHOTO: Natural Learning Initiative
The outdoor play space at Spanish For Fun Academy in Chapel, Hill, NC, after a makeover.