Healthy Schools

Schools summit focuses on health

The scales measuring the obesity epidemic that is devastating the nation’s health – especially its future health – may ever so slightly be tipping back in the right direction, one of the nation’s leading public health advocates reports.

Dr. James Marks, a leading public health advocate, delivered the keynote address at Wednesday's Healthy Schools Summit.

The signs are faint, but they’re there: Obesity levels among low-income preschoolers are down 0.3 percent. California has recorded a 0.4 percent decrease in childhood obesity rates, and New York City has logged a 1.2 percent decrease. Kearney, Neb., has seen its childhood obesity rates drop more than 2 percentage points, from 16.4 percent to 14.2 percent.

“There’s no one specific initiative that has led to these results,” Dr. James Marks, senior vice president of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, told participants in the Colorado Legacy Foundation’s Healthy Schools Summit on Wednesday.

“But the culture has changed. It’s due to many small changes that are adding up.”

“Those communities that have started to make changes are seeing improvements in the health of their children.”
— Dr. James Marks

In addition to a change in culture, science is also figuring out what’s effective and what’s not in the battle of the bulge.

“The science about what to do has matured enough for us to take action,” Marks said. “Those communities that have started to make changes are seeing improvements in the health of their children.”

Marks was the final keynote speaker in a day that brought together more than 800 educators, policy makers, students and health care providers to celebrate schools and programs that are having a positive impact on students’ health — and to brainstorm ideas for doing more of what works, and jettisoning things that don’t.

“We’re looking for ways to shift entrenched paradigms that have outlived their usefulness,” said Colorado Legacy Foundation president Helayne Jones.

She sympathized with the health teachers, school nurses, wellness committee coordinators and other school administrators tasked with overseeing school health initiatives.

“It may be isolating to feel like you’re the only person in your school who cares about health and wellness,” she told them. “I hope that today you’ll feel connected to the national movement. I hope that, in the end, our movement will become the norm, the accepted practice.”

Common health problems impact learning

Dr. Charles Basch, professor of health education at Columbia University’s Teachers College, noted in his morning talk that recent research has focused on how some health factors commonly affecting large numbers of students impact their education.

By the numbers: What works
  • Vision problems affect about 20 percent of youngsters so providing glasses at school is a worthwhile investment
  • Asthma affects an estimated 14 percent of students so schools should strive to control environmental triggers and educate students about treatment
  • An estimated one in five children skip breakfast so universal breakfast and breakfast in the classroom address that nutritional deficit

More importantly, schools can effectively address these problems.

For example, vision problems typically affect 20 percent of youngsters.

“If you can’t see, it’s much harder to acquire literacy skills,” he said, so schools that conduct vision screening and reach out to parents and teachers about the need to correct children’s vision, will see reading scores go up. “On-site provision of glasses is a worthwhile investment.”

Likewise, an estimated 14 percent of students suffer from asthma, though the ailment disproportionately impacts urban minority students.

“Asthma per se is not so much a problem,” Basch said. “What’s a problem is poorly controlled asthma.”

Thus, schools are wise to eliminate as many environmental triggers as possible, and to educate students about proper treatment and control of the disease.

“We don’t need more research to know what to do. We just need to figure out how to put what we already know into practice in the nation’s schools.”
— Dr. Charles Basch

An estimated one child in five comes to school having skipped breakfast, Basch said.

So instituting a universal school breakfast program and allowing students to eat breakfast in the classroom are proven strategies for addressing that nutritional deficit.

“Unfortunately, some of the most widely distributed school health programs have absolutely no evidence that they’re effective,” he said. “It’s important that we use quality health programs, rather than selecting programs based on politics or ideology.”

“We don’t need more research to know what to do,” he added. “We just need to figure out how to put what we already know into practice in the nation’s schools.”

America the outlier in its approach to education

Journalist Matt Miller, author of The Two Percent Solution and a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, came with his own list of steps American schools should take in order to provide students with the skills they’ll need to compete in a global economy.

He spelled them out in his lunchtime keynote address.

“America has become an outlier nation in the way we fund, govern and administer schools, without the results to defend on practices,” Miller said.

He said serious school reform would begin with “a crusade to make teaching the career of choice for our most talented young people.”

It would also include universal preschool, a longer school day and school year, national core standards and a more equitable funding strategy that would ensure the best teachers and principals go to the poorest schools and to the students who most desperately need them to survive.

In addition to setting forth challenges confronting schools, the summit spotlighted some schools that have done outstanding work in improving school wellness.

Thirty-two schools received $42,000 in awards, ranging from $5,000 to $500. Among the winners:

  • Manitou Springs Elementary is building an outside classroom called “the earthroom” to encourage students to study outside and learn about Colorado native plants.
  • Skoglund Middle School in Center has seen a 20 percent drop in alcohol use and a 12 percent drop in tobacco use among its students.
  • Denver’s Place Bridge Academy in Denver, a K-8 magnet school for refugees, is constructing a full-size family clinic within the school.

How are you feeling?

With plan to focus on teen health, Adams 12 school district opens new clinic

PHOTO: Jasleen_kaur/Creative Commons

The Adams 12 school district, Colorado’s sixth-largest, will open its first school-based health clinic this fall at Thornton High School.

The new clinic will offer routine physicals, sick care and mental health counseling to the 1,675 students at Thornton High as well as another 1,000 students who take classes at the district’s career and technical education center on the same campus.

By providing a convenient source of health care, particularly for low-income students, advocates say school-based health centers help prevent and address health problems that can impede learning.

Statewide, the number of school-based health centers has grown over the last decade — from 40 in 2007 to 59 this fall.

Despite the overall upward trend, not all school-based health centers survive. For example, the clinic at Jefferson Junior-Senior High School, a high poverty school in the Jeffco district, closed its doors last spring.

A district official there said the nonprofit organization providing the health services, which were available to Jefferson students and other local residents, decided to depart because district security logistics made it difficult to keep the clinic open during evening and weekend hours.

In Adams 12, planning for the new clinic began in 2015. A district committee chose Thornton High to house the health center because of the high level of poverty in that area and because the campus, which also houses the Bollman Technical Education Center, serves the largest number of high school students in the district.

District spokesman Kevin Denke said the decision to focus on a teenage population stems from the fact that adolescents tend to see doctors less often than younger students and may be starting to engage in risky behaviors, such as sexual activity, alcohol use or drug use.

The neighboring Boulder Valley school district also has a school-based health clinic in the works, though it’s not expected to open until the fall of 2019. That clinic, the district’s first, will be located at the Arapahoe Campus, which houses Arapahoe Ridge High School and the district’s career and technical education center.

District officials said the clinic was originally slated to open earlier, but the launch was pushed back to align with a planned remodel of the career and technical education space.

In the meantime, the district will expand a dental care program that’s gradually ramped up at the Arapahoe Campus. Begun four years ago as a basic screening program that referred kids with cavities and other problems to area dentists, the program last year provided cleanings, fluoride treatments and sealants to 42 students at Arapahoe Ridge and two other district high schools.

This year, the program will offer the same services, plus treatment for minor cavities, to students from all district high schools. The goal is to serve 250 students by the end of the year.

Fighting hunger

No more cheese sandwiches: Denver restores hot lunches for students in debt

Students at Denver's Fairmont ECE-8 have a choice of fruits and vegetables for lunch. (Denver Post file photo)

Denver students will start the year off with lunch debts paid off and a new promise that falling behind on lunch payments will not mean a cold “alternative” meal.

The district announced the change this week.

“We will feed every kid, every day,” Superintendent Tom Boasberg wrote. “We know hungry kids aren’t the best learners.”

In some districts, including DPS, students who fall behind on lunch payments may be given alternative meals such as a cheese sandwich, or graham crackers and milk.

Boasberg said all kids will get regular hot-lunch options while payment issues are resolved and the district works on a long-term strategy.

In the last school year, Denver students had accumulated a balance of more than $13,000. The debt would be higher if some schools had not set aside money to help students.

According to the district, schools paid for more than 37,700 meals during the 2016-17 year.

The district said that donations raised by students through a nonprofit called KidsGiving365, and by Shift Workspaces, founded by Grant Barnhill, a parent of an incoming DPS student, will cover all the outstanding lunch debt of students in the district.

In DPS, all students receive free breakfast. Students who qualify for free lunch based on family income do not make payments and do not accrue debt.

For 2017-18, a family of four must earn less than $31,980 to qualify for free lunch, or less than $45,510 to qualify for a reduced price lunch.

The announcement from DPS reminds families that the application for free or discounted lunch can be submitted throughout the year, and that students are eligible regardless of immigration status.