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Noting the strong link between students’ health and their ability to learn, health advocates want the federal departments of Education and Health and Human Services to make a few small changes they believe could improve students’ academic and physical well-being and work to close achievement gaps.
The Healthy Schools Campaign, a nonprofit group based in Chicago, and Trust for America’s Health, based in Washington, have asked U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius for changes that include appointing new federal staff members to shepherd school health efforts and undoing Medicaid red tape so schools can be reimbursed for some health services they provide.
Rochelle Davis, the president and chief executive officer of the Healthy Schools Campaign, said the proposals were designed to be simple, straightforward, and already within the budgetary and regulatory authority of the federal government.
“We take both of them at their word that they will take these recommendations seriously,” Ms. Davis said after a May 9 presentation in Washington at which Mr. Duncan and Ms. Sebelius recounted the Obama administration’s efforts to improve children’s health.
Those efforts include first lady Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move!” campaign that targets childhood obesity; expansion of the Children’s Health Insurance Program; and the Affordable Care Act. That last expanded health-insurance coverage for children, including those with pre-existing medical conditions, and provided grant money to build and expand school-based health centers.
At the presentation, Mr. Duncan said he understands that the academic achievement he hopes to see, including better graduation rates, is directly tied to students’ well-being.
“The academic research is absolutely compelling,” he said. “We can’t use tough economic times as an excuse” not to advance those efforts.
Among their recommendations, the groups said:
• The Education Department should expand the work of the office of safe and healthy students and appoint a deputy assistant secretary to the office so it is better equipped to handle emergency situations, such as an outbreak of the H1N1 flu, and provide guidance to states, school districts, and universities.
• The department should appoint a school nurse consultant who can share information with state school nurse consultants and promote school health services and school nursing.
• The agency should incorporate health measures into the Blue Ribbon Schools program, which recognizes schools with high-performing students and schools with disadvantaged students that improve student achievement.
• The department should identify best practices for training teachers about standards related to health and separate standards for integrating health into data tracking and school accountability. Health and wellness also should become part of the criteria for competitive-grant programs for teacher and principal training, parent-engagement strategies, and state longitudinal data systems.
• Schools should be encouraged to engage parents around health and wellness issues based on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s best practices.
• The Health and Human Services Department should reinforce and spread the word on its decision allowing schools that provide free health services to all students to be reimbursed for some of that care by Medicaid. Under previous rules, schools could not collect Medicaid reimbursements for providing universal free care, but the groups said HHS has yet to put the revised rule into practice, so schools still go unpaid for such care and may shy away from providing health services to all.
• The National Prevention Council, led by members of President Obama’s Cabinet, should explore the potential roles that schools can play in supporting children’s health and wellness.
The two health-advocacy groups have gathered support for their recommendations from dozens of other organizations, including several school districts; the American Association of School Administrators, based in Alexandria, Va.; both national teachers’ unions; and the American Heart Association, based in Dallas.
To demonstrate the feasibility of the recommendations, district officials from Chicago, San Jose, Calif., and elsewhere shared stories at the presentation about how their districts are addressing students’ health.
One example: Dr. Stephanie Whyte, the chief health officer for the 404,000-student Chicago school system, said her district last year began incorporating a wellness rating into school report cards. Ratings for schools that have met the requirements of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s HealthierUS School Challenge are marked with a Y.
The clear marking gives principals an incentive to work toward the program’s requirements about school meals, physical education, and activity for students, she said.
Mr. Duncan also touted informal ways of incorporating lessons about good nutrition and health into schools.
When his daughter Claire’s Arlington, Va., public elementary school recently held a musical program, Mr. Duncan said, he was pleasantly surprised to find the content was all about nutrition, including the recommendation that everyone eat five servings of fruits and vegetables a day.
“There was a big song about fiber,” he said, and students dressed as bananas, artichokes, and plums—with the role of one of the stone fruits played by his daughter.
After the discussion, Mr. Duncan said he is open to the recommendations. While they may not all be enacted exactly as the groups have laid them out, the secretary said, “this is a movement whose time has come.”
Nirvi Shah, Writer contributed to this article.
A version of this article appeared in the May 16, 2012 edition of Education Week as Groups Propose Federal Agenda on Student Well-Being