To boost student learning, improve student health, says panel

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A panel of local and national researchers and educators,
including Interim Schools CEO Terry Mazany, convened Wednesday to discuss the health
disparities that affect poor and minority students and the impact of those
disparities on educational achievement.

It’s an issue that surfaced
recently, with the Chicago Public Schools’ adoption of a program offering
free breakfast for students as part of a federal initiative to help low-income
children get a healthier start to the school day.

A panel of local and national researchers and educators,
including Interim Schools CEO Terry Mazany, convened Wednesday to discuss the health
disparities that affect poor and minority students and the impact of those
disparities on educational achievement.

It’s an issue that surfaced
recently, with the Chicago Public Schools’ adoption of a program offering
free breakfast for students as part of a federal initiative to help low-income
children get a healthier start to the school day. The new program sparked
controversy—over 1,000 parents signed a petition against it because of the time
taken from the school day—but speakers at Wednesday’s event took care to praise
the initiative.

Mazany also noted plans to institute
a policy incorporating health and wellness as part of school improvement
planning, but did not offer additional details.

“If we start with a vision of
public education as development of the whole child, that’s an important part [of
school improvement],” Mazany said.

Gail Christopher, the vice president of program strategy at
the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, noted the importance of the issue nationally,
given that most students will soon be children of color.  “When we talk about health disparity, we talk
about an issue facing the entire country,” Christopher said. “It’s not a
‘we-they’ conversation.  It’s an ‘us’
conversation.”

The forum was organized by the non-profit Healthy Schools
Campaign as part of a week-long series of events to focus attention on programs
that support student wellness and achievement.

Charles Basch, a professor of health education at Teachers
College of Columbia University, presented highlights
from his research on the relationship between student health and achievement.
Basch’s research identifies major health risks that have a negative impact on
learning, including asthma, teen pregnancy, poor vision and a lack of
breakfast.

“It’s not a coincidence that children in the 5,000
lowest-performing schools are the same ones that experience the greatest health
disparities,” he said.

Organizers hoped to inspire greater collaboration between
different agencies and organizations as they tackle health and education
issues. Speakers echoed that sentiment.

“We’re all doing the same things in isolation,” said Mirtha
Beadle, the deputy director of the federal Office of Minority Health.  “Part of the solution is doing a better job
in partnerships.”

The national political climate appears right for such
collaboration. A little over a year ago, First Lady Michelle Obama launched the
Let’s Move! initiative in an effort to spark healthier behavior among American
schoolchildren. On Friday, the Office of Minority Health will unveil its first
national plan to improve health and wellness.

“We’re finding that schools that are very involved in these
issues have higher test scores, or at least are on the way up,” said Jose
Hernandez, the president and CEO of the Local School Council Member Alliance
of Chicago, who attended the event.  “It’s
so important for us as parents to support these policies.”