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’ve spent years studying the link between SHSAT scores and student success. The test doesn’t tell you as much as you might think.

PHOTO: Photo by Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images

Proponents of New York City’s specialized high school exam, the test the mayor wants to scrap in favor of a new admissions system, defend it as meritocratic. Opponents contend that when used without consideration of school grades or other factors, it’s an inappropriate metric.

One thing that’s been clear for decades about the exam, now used to admit students to eight top high schools, is that it matters a great deal.

Students admitted may not only receive a superior education, but also access to elite colleges and eventually to better employment. That system has also led to an under-representation of Hispanic students, black students, and girls.

As a doctoral student at The Graduate Center of the City University of New York in 2015, and in the years after I received my Ph.D., I have tried to understand how meritocratic the process really is.

First, that requires defining merit. Only New York City defines it as the score on a single test — other cities’ selective high schools use multiple measures, as do top colleges. There are certainly other potential criteria, such as artistic achievement or citizenship.

However, when merit is defined as achievement in school, the question of whether the test is meritocratic is an empirical question that can be answered with data.

To do that, I used SHSAT scores for nearly 28,000 students and school grades for all public school students in the city. (To be clear, the city changed the SHSAT itself somewhat last year; my analysis used scores on the earlier version.)

My analysis makes clear that the SHSAT does measure an ability that contributes to some extent to success in high school. Specifically, a SHSAT score predicts 20 percent of the variability in freshman grade-point average among all public school students who took the exam. Students with extremely high SHSAT scores (greater than 650) generally also had high grades when they reached a specialized school.

However, for the vast majority of students who were admitted with lower SHSAT scores, from 486 to 600, freshman grade point averages ranged widely — from around 50 to 100. That indicates that the SHSAT was a very imprecise predictor of future success for students who scored near the cutoffs.

Course grades earned in the seventh grade, in contrast, predicted 44 percent of the variability in freshman year grades, making it a far better admissions criterion than SHSAT score, at least for students near the score cutoffs.

It’s not surprising that a standardized test does not predict as well as past school performance. The SHSAT represents a two and a half hour sample of a limited range of skills and knowledge. In contrast, middle-school grades reflect a full year of student performance across the full range of academic subjects.

Furthermore, an exam which relies almost exclusively on one method of assessment, multiple choice questions, may fail to measure abilities that are revealed by the variety of assessment methods that go into course grades. Additionally, middle school grades may capture something important that the SHSAT fails to capture: long-term motivation.

Based on his current plan, Mayor de Blasio seems to be pointed in the right direction. His focus on middle school grades and the Discovery Program, which admits students with scores below the cutoff, is well supported by the data.

In the cohort I looked at, five of the eight schools admitted some students with scores below the cutoff. The sample sizes were too small at four of them to make meaningful comparisons with regularly admitted students. But at Brooklyn Technical High School, the performance of the 35 Discovery Program students was equal to that of other students. Freshman year grade point averages for the two groups were essentially identical: 86.6 versus 86.7.

My research leads me to believe that it might be reasonable to admit a certain percentage of the students with extremely high SHSAT scores — over 600, where the exam is a good predictor —and admit the remainder using a combined index of seventh grade GPA and SHSAT scores.

When I used that formula to simulate admissions, diversity increased, somewhat. An additional 40 black students, 209 Hispanic students, and 205 white students would have been admitted, as well as an additional 716 girls. It’s worth pointing out that in my simulation, Asian students would still constitute the largest segment of students (49 percent) and would be admitted in numbers far exceeding their proportion of applicants.

Because middle school grades are better than test scores at predicting high school achievement, their use in the admissions process should not in any way dilute the quality of the admitted class, and could not be seen as discriminating against Asian students.

The success of the Discovery students should allay some of the concerns about the ability of students with SHSAT scores below the cutoffs. There is no guarantee that similar results would be achieved in an expanded Discovery Program. But this finding certainly warrants larger-scale trials.

With consideration of additional criteria, it may be possible to select a group of students who will be more representative of the community the school system serves — and the pool of students who apply — without sacrificing the quality for which New York City’s specialized high schools are so justifiably famous.

Jon Taylor is a research analyst at Hunter College analyzing student success and retention. 

First Person

With roots in Cuba and Spain, Newark student came to America to ‘shine bright’

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Layla Gonzalez

This is my story of how we came to America and why.

I am from Mallorca, Spain. I am also from Cuba, because of my dad. My dad is from Cuba and my grandmother, grandfather, uncle, aunt, and so on. That is what makes our family special — we are different.

We came to America when my sister and I were little girls. My sister was three and I was one.

The first reason why we came here to America was for a better life. My parents wanted to raise us in a better place. We also came for better jobs and better pay so we can keep this family together.

We also came here to have more opportunities — they do call this country the “Land Of Opportunities.” We came to make our dreams come true.

In addition, my family and I came to America for adventure. We came to discover new things, to be ourselves, and to be free.

Moreover, we also came here to learn new things like English. When we came here we didn’t know any English at all. It was really hard to learn a language that we didn’t know, but we learned.

Thank God that my sister and I learned quickly so we can go to school. I had a lot of fun learning and throughout the years we do learn something new each day. My sister and I got smarter and smarter and we made our family proud.

When my sister Amira and I first walked into Hawkins Street School I had the feeling that we were going to be well taught.

We have always been taught by the best even when we don’t realize. Like in the times when we think we are in trouble because our parents are mad. Well we are not in trouble, they are just trying to teach us something so that we don’t make the same mistake.

And that is why we are here to learn something new each day.

Sometimes I feel like I belong here and that I will be alright. Because this is the land where you can feel free to trust your first instinct and to be who you want to be and smile bright and look up and say, “Thank you.”

As you can see, this is why we came to America and why we can shine bright.

Layla Gonzalez is a fourth-grader at Hawkins Street School. This essay is adapted from “The Hispanic American Dreams of Hawkins Street School,” a self-published book by the school’s students and staff that was compiled by teacher Ana Couto.