Sharon Murray

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 – those states 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 come together and collaborate, can maximize their resources, to 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.”

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

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 free or reduced price lunch – 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.