Connecting health to better scores

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Veronica Anderson, editor

Veronica Anderson, editor

Apples, eyeglasses and hockey sticks. Can it be that simple objects like these can improve student achievement? They can, according to Action for Healthy Kids, a national initiative to improve children’s health led by a coalition of educators, policymakers and physicians from every state.

“[I]mproving children’s health likely improves school performance,” argues former U.S. Surgeon General David Satcher in the group’s recent report, “The Learning Connection: The Value of Improving Nutrition and Physical Activity in Our Schools.”

It’s not much of a stretch to see how poor nutrition and little or no exercise can be a drag on how well kids do in the classroom. And eyeglasses, well, there’s a no brainer. Unfortunately, easy logic does not translate into easy action. Last year, more than 60,000 Chicago Public Schools students failed vision screening tests, but no one knows how many of them visited an optometrist and got glasses.

Fewer than one in three of the 26,000 who failed screenings this year had seen an optometrist by February.

Incredibly, money is not the problem here—free and discount eyeglasses are available through Medicare and privately funded programs. What’s needed is for the district and schools to do a better job notifying parents when their children fail such tests, and setting vision as a priority. Parents, too, need to do a better job following up screenings by making appointments for their children, and then making sure they wear their glasses.

Tougher and more costly to address, however, will be nutrition and fitness. Today, most of the district’s elementary school students wolf down salty, sugary meals during 20-minute lunch periods. Just this year, the federal government issued new guidelines to limit the sugar and salt content in school meals, but it has not yet required vendors to meet them.

Meanwhile, it is relatively easy for a school to extend lunch periods from 20 to 45 minutes, carving out time for recess; it just needs approval from a committee made up of the principal, teachers, a union delegate and parents. However, getting teachers to agree to stay at school an extra 25 minutes and lining up enough adults to supervise recess will no doubt be a challenge. Still, two schools that made the switch—Bethune in East Garfield Park and Peterson in North Park—are both glad they did. The extra time gives kids a chance to work off pent-up energy and teachers a break to recharge, principals say.

And while Illinois is the only state in the country to require daily fitness classes, many school districts, including Chicago’s, have found ways to skirt the mandate or opt out entirely. Here, many schools give their kids only one gym class a week, and some offer none.

Local school councils, even those at probation schools with limited authority over education programs, can make a difference by pressing for increased focus on student health. Ultimately, though, attending to the health and fitness of public school students will cost more money—to pay teachers to work a longer school day and to purchase the necessary equipment. A $400,000 federal grant is paying for a research-based fitness program that has gotten kids moving at 28 elementary schools, and district officials hope to expand it to a lot more by this fall. There’s a catch: The district will pay for gym teachers to be trained in the new curriculum, but schools will have to dip into their own pockets to pay for the equipment.

Given their limited resources, though, it’s unlikely schools will be able to afford it. Still, it’s difficult to ignore the potential for kids to do better academically at schools that pay attention to fitness and health.

Case in point: Noble Street Charter High School, where 86 percent of the mostly Latino student body comes from low-income families. It requires students to pass a fitness test to move on to the next grade and graduate. Last year, it beat the district averages for students meeting standards on reading, writing and math tests. There is no proof the two are related, but principal Michael Milkie, citing at least a 10 percent lift, is confident they are.