First Person

School health summit focuses on proven strategies

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 S. Marks, vice president of the Robert Woods Johnson Foundation and a leading public health advocate, delivered the afternoon keynote address at the Healthy Schools Summit.

The signs are faint, but they’re there: Obesity levels among low-income pre-schoolers 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 S. 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.”

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.”

Summit attracts more than 800

Marks was the final keynote speaker in a day that brought together more than 800 educators, policy makers, students and healthcare 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 keynote that recent research has focused on just how some health factors that commonly affect large numbers of students really impacts their education. 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,” he said.

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.

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 also 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.

For instance, 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. And Place Bridge Academy in Denver, a K-8 magnet school for refugees, has formed collaborative partnerships with more than 20 community organizations to better serve its students and is in the process of construction a full-size family clinic within the school.

First Person

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Grace Tatter covers a press conference at the Tennessee State Capitol in 2015.

For three years, I covered the Statehouse for Chalkbeat Tennessee, reporting on how policies from Nashville trickled down into more than 1,800 public schools across the state.

Now I’m starting back to school myself, pursuing graduate studies aimed at helping me to become a better education journalist. I’m taking with me six things I learned on the job about public education in Tennessee.

1. Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.

I heard from hundreds of parents, educators, and students who were passionate about what’s happening — good and bad — inside of schools. I covered crowded school board meetings and regularly scrambled for an open seat at legislative hearings where parents had filled the room after driving since dawn to beat the opening gavel. Not incidentally, those parents usually came from communities with the “worst” schools and the lowest test scores. While many disagreements exist about the best way to run schools, there is no shortage of people, particularly parents and educators, who care.

2. Tennessee has one of the most fascinating education stories in America.

I’ve had a front-row seat to massive changes in K-12 education under reforms ushered in by Race to the Top — an overhaul being tracked closely well beyond the state’s borders. But the national interest and import doesn’t end with changes stemming from the $500 million federal award. Tennessee is home to some of the nation’s premier education researchers, making its classrooms laboratories for new ideas about pre-K, school turnaround, and literacy instruction, just to name a few. And at the legislature, more lobbyists are devoted to education than to most any other cause. A lot of eyes are on Tennessee schools.

3. The education community is not as divided as it looks.

During the course of just a few years, I watched state lawmakers change their positions on accountability and school vouchers. I witnessed “anti-charter” activists praise charter leaders for their work. I chronicled task force meetings where state leaders who were committed to standardized testing found middle ground with classroom educators concerned that it’s gone too far. In short, a lot of people listened to each other and changed their minds. Watching such consensus-building reminded me that, while there are no simple debates about education, there is a widespread commitment to making it better.

4. Money matters.

Even when stories don’t seem to be about money, they usually are. How much money is being spent on testing, teacher salaries, school discipline reform? How much should be available for wraparound services? Why do some schools have more money than others? Is there enough to go around? Tennessee leaders have steadily upped public education spending, but the state still invests less than most other states, and the disparities among districts are gaping. That’s why more than a handful of school districts are battling with the state in court. Conversations about money are inextricable from conversations about improving schools.

5. Race is a significant education issue, but few leaders are willing to have that conversation.

More than 60 years after Brown v. Board of Education, Tennessee’s schools are largely racially segregated. Yet most policymakers tread lightly, if ever, into conversations about achieving real racial integration. And in many cases — such as a 2011 law enabling mostly white suburban Shelby County towns to secede from the mostly black Memphis district — they’ve actually gone backwards. Then there’s the achievement data. The annual release of test scores unleashes a flurry of conversation around the racial achievement gap. But the other 11 months of the year, I heard little about whether state and local policies are closing those gaps — or contributing to them — or the historical reasons why the gaps exist in the first place. To be sure, state leadership is trying to address some of Tennessee’s shortcomings. For example, the State Department of Education has launched modestly funded initiatives to recruit more teachers of color. But often, race and racism are the elephants in the room.

6. Still, there’s lots to celebrate.

If there were unlimited hours in the day, I could have written thousands of stories about what’s going right in public education. Every day, I received story ideas about collaborations with NASA in Oak Ridge, high school trips to Europe from Memphis, gourmet school lunches in Tullahoma, and learning partnerships with the Nashville Zoo. Even in schools with the steepest challenges, they were stories that inspire happiness and hope. They certainly inspired me.

Grace Tatter graduated from public schools in Winston-Salem, N.C., and received her bachelor’s degree in history from the University of North Carolina. She’s now pursuing a master’s degree in specialized studies at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

First Person

I’m a Houston geography teacher. This is my plan for our first day back — as soon as it arrives

PHOTO: Creative Commons / Texas Military Department
Texas National Guard soldiers arrive in Houston, Texas to aid citizens in heavily flooded areas from the storms of Hurricane Harvey.

Hurricane Harvey has upended so many things here in Houston, where I am starting my third year as a teacher. One of them is the lesson I am planning for the first day of school — as soon as it arrives.

This upheaval is nothing compared to what people across the city have faced, including my students, who have been sending me photos of evacuation boats going past their houses.

But it is fundamental to the task of being a teacher at a time of crisis. As an A.P. Human Geography teacher, my job is to help students make connections between the geography concepts we are learning in class and their real lives: Does Houston look like the models of urban development we study? Does their family history include a migration?

Before the storm, my thinking went like this: I am white and was born in England and most of my students are Hispanic, many with parents who were born in other countries. I was excited for us to share and compare our different stories. My students last year were shocked and fascinated when they discovered that my white, middle-aged father who is a university professor was applying for a green card, just as many of their family members were.

Now, Hurricane Harvey has underlined for me the importance of those real-world connections. As I looked at the photos from my students, I was struck by how geography concepts can affect us in very real — even life-threatening — ways.

I had planned to teach a lesson at the end of the year about how urbanization affects the environment. The lesson looks at how urbanization can exacerbate flooding: for example, how paving over grassy areas can increase the speed with which rain reaches the bayous, causing the water levels to rise faster. I would then have students evaluate different policies cities can adopt to mitigate that risk, such as encouraging the building on brownfield rather than greenfield sites and passing laws to protect farmland — options that have significant benefits but also significant costs.

I have decided to move this lesson up in the curriculum and teach it when we have school again. School is scheduled to start again on Tuesday, though at this stage everything is provisional, as each hour we find out about more families that have had their homes destroyed by the rising waters. It is still unclear how all our staff, let alone students, will get to school.

I am worried that the lesson could re-traumatize students who have experienced so much trauma in the past few days. I know I will need to make an active effort to make students feel comfortable stepping into the hall if they are feeling overwhelmed. However, my experiences with the recent presidential election make me think that this lesson is exactly what some students might need.

After the election, many students were genuinely confused about what had happened. One question in particular was on their minds: How you can you win the popular vote but not the election? We talked through the Electoral College together, and having clarity about what had happened and why it happened seemed to give them a firmer foundation to build on as they processed their emotions. I am hopeful that teaching about flooding will help ground them in a similar way.

This lesson about flooding was once simply another lesson in the curriculum, but now it has taken on a new urgency. In moments of disaster, it is easy to feel powerless; I certainly could not help the people I saw posting on Facebook that they were been on hold with 911 for hours while standing on their roofs.

Yet teachers have a unique power — the power to shape the minds of future generations to solve the problems that we face. Houston’s location means that it will always be susceptible to flooding. But by teaching about the flood I hope I can play a small role in helping our city avoid repeating some of the tragic scenes I witnessed this week.

Alex McNaughton teaches history and geography at YES Prep Southeast in Houston.

Looking to help? YES Prep is collecting donations to support its students and their families. Houston ISD and KIPP Houston are also soliciting donations for their students.