The Other 60 Percent

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.

Starting young

These 11-year-old Brooklyn students are asking New York City to do something about segregated schools

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Matilda and Eliza Seki, left, and their friends Noa and Benji Weiss, right, collected signatures at a district 15 meeting to discuss middle school integration efforts.

While they learned about the history of segregation, a group of Brooklyn 11-year-olds took a good look around their classrooms and realized their schools weren’t so different from the photos in their textbooks.

So Matilda and Eliza Seki paired up with their friends Noa and Benji Weiss — two sets of twins — and decided to do something about it. They launched a petition on calling on the city to integrate its schools.

“We learned about separate and equal in the civil rights movement, and that it was not equal,” Eliza said, referring to the “separate but equal” legal doctrine once used to justify segregation. “And since there are schools with people of only one race, and it’s all separated, it cannot be equal.”

Matilda and Eliza are in the sixth grade at M.S. 839, and Noa and Benji are fifth-graders at P.S. 10. They already have a bit of experience in activism, having joined the Women’s March in D.C., and helping to lead environmental clubs at their school. They hold sophisticated views for kids their age, and are aware of the hurdles ingrained in addressing school segregation.

Describing how housing patterns can tie into school quality, Benji began his thoughts by saying: “Let’s say you’re from a different culture or race and you don’t have as much money as other people do — because we still live in a racist country — and you’re in an area where the housing is cheaper but you don’t have as good schools.”

Across New York City, adults have debated how to spur integration in the country’s largest school system — and one of the most segregated. According to one recent analysis, the city’s most selective high schools enroll 84 percent white and Asian students, even though those groups make up only 30 percent of the city’s student enrollment.

But student-organized groups have also been at the forefront of a grassroots movement for more diverse schools. The work of budding advocates Matilda, Eliza, Noa and Benji caught the attention of some those groups, and they’ve now joined the ranks of Teens Take Charge and IntegrateNYC as some of the youngest members. The changes they’d like to see go beyond admissions policies, but also include a push for additional resources for underserved schools, hiring more teachers of color and curricula that reflects all students and cultures.

“We decided it was an important issue and we wanted to help fix it,” Noa said.

Matilda added: “Our schools should look like our city.”

Their schools are in District 15, where 81 percent of white students are concentrated in just three of the district’s most selective middle schools, according to an analysis by parents. The city has launched a series of public workshops to craft a new admissions model to integrate middle schools there, but these kids already have their own ideas for how to do that.

Benji, who is heading to middle school next year, said it would be “pretty good” if schools stopped picking students based on criteria such as class grades and attendance. Such “screening” contributes to segregation because of a number of factors — from which elementary schools students attend, to their parents’ ability to navigate the complicated admissions process.  

“It’s… important to learn about different peoples’ backgrounds, and religions, and cultures,” he said. “And also to make sure that all kids, no matter their race, religion or where they live can get the same, good education.”

Raised Voices

Balloons, hearts, and ‘die-ins’: How Colorado students marked National Walkout Day

Students gather at the Colorado State Capitol to protest gun violence. (Melanie Asmar)

Thousands of students across Colorado poured out of their schools Wednesday to protest gun violence and to remember 17 victims of last month’s deadly shooting in Florida. Chalkbeat’s Melanie Asmar walked with students from East High School to the Colorado State Capitol, where Gov. John Hickenlooper and Speaker of the House Cristanta Duran urged them to remain politically active.

The protests took different forms at other schools – and not everyone wanted the event to be political. There were balloon releases, voter registration drives, and public “die-ins” at major intersections. And in one Denver area school district, a surge of threats cast a pall over events.

Here’s a look at #NationalWalkoutDay from around the region.

Students at Skinner Middle School in northwest Denver marched in silent solidarity.

In Colorado, teenagers can register to vote before their 18th birthday.

At schools in the Adams 12 district north of Denver, a big uptick in threats the night before – and a warning letter from the superintendent – led many students to skip school altogether.

Students at McAuliffe International School in northeast Denver spoke with their shirts. Instead of “Thoughts & Prayers,” they asked for “Policy & Change.”

But their event was not all about politics. They formed a heart with their bodies and read the names of the dead.

At Jefferson Jr./Sr. High School, students promised to work to change school culture.

Many schools released balloons to honor the victims and found other ways to advocate for change.

Unlike some Colorado districts, St. Vrain didn’t officially condone the walkouts, but students at Longmont schools walked out anyway.

Students at Denver’s South High School have been vocal about gun violence. In a recent visit from U.S. Rep. Diana DeGette, they rejected the idea that armed teachers would make them safer and demanded that lawmakers do more.

Students from one of Colorado’s KIPP charter schools used their bodies to send a message at a major intersection in west Denver.

Students of color in Denver reminded the public that gun violence is not limited to mass shootings.

Students aren’t just marching. They’re also writing their representatives. State Rep. Faith Winter, a Westminster Democrat, tweeted a picture of her inbox full of emails from students.

Colorado carries the legacy of the 1999 mass shooting at Columbine High School, where a memorial asks urgently as ever: “How have things changed; what have we learned?”