School Safety Affects Learning
by Eva Marx and Daphne Northrop
Eva Marx and Daphne Northrop are co-editors of the book, Health Is Academic: A Coordinated Guide to School Health Programs. The book was developed by Education Development Center, Inc. under a cooperative agreement with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
One of the most urgent "wake-up calls" about our public schools was the recent finding that math and science scores of U.S. students were significantly lower than the scores of students in 14 other industrialized countries. President Clinton's response: "We need smaller classes, better teaching, higher standards, more discipline, greater accountability." Agreed. But what's missing?
Unless schools address students' health -- their physical, mental, social well-being -- as directly as they do math, reading, and science, even the most brilliant curriculum or discipline plan will fail. If we expect students to succeed, schools must help them surmount the problems that interfere with learning--such as a lack of school safety; distractions caused by family problems; and chronic, untreated health problems. When schools do not deal with children's health by design, they deal with it by default.
The Problems--and Some Responses that Work
One child in four -- 10 million -- is at risk of failure in school because of social, emotional, and health handicaps, according to leading researcher Joy Dryfoos. Education reform has fallen far short of our expectations and the needs of children. It is likely to continue to do so unless educators directly address the causes of underachievement; poor health is clearly one. Continued inattention to this most basic of basics will render high-publicity reforms largely ineffective.
In some schools, dropout, depression, chronic infections, alcohol and drug abuse, violence, and adolescent pregnancy are rampant. In others they simmer beneath the surface. Wherever they emerge, they can disrupt individual lives, classrooms, and the overall school environment. Clearly schools did not create these problems and ultimately, they alone will not be able to solve them. But many schools are working with their communities to consolidate and maximize their resources in ways that place students' overall well-being at the heart of education decisions. For example, an elementary school in Louisiana houses a family resource center where a pediatrician holds office hours, parents attend literacy classes, and a counselor offers group sessions for student-aged mothers.
In Rhode Island, a team of teachers, administrators, parents, and counselors meets regularly in an elementary school to devise solutions to problems that are interfering with students' school success. In districts around the country, classroom instruction on health is reinforced by activities in gym class; the cafeteria; or by school policies on smoking and violence.
These initiatives, sometimes called "school health programs," are much more than "AIDS Day" or essay contests on the perils of drug abuse. They feature classroom activities, psychological and health services, and an improved school climate that boost children's health so that they can succeed in school. What is novel about these programs is not their individual components--many schools already have much of this in place--but their quality, continuity, and coordinated approach.
Schools that directly address health reap great financial and health rewards: improved attendance; fewer disciplinary problems; decreased use of drugs, alcohol, and cigarettes; reduced suspension and dropout rates; improved test scores; and reduced teacher absence and frustration.
Public support is strong for schools to take this approach. A Gallup poll reported in 1994 that most parents, students, and school administrators believe that health education is at least as important as other subjects taught in school. In a Harris survey, 80 percent favored providing health services in school.
Report after report, from the World Health Organization, the federal government, foundations, local organizations, emphasize that an underpinning of school performance is emotional, social and physical health. This premise is reflected in numerous national initiatives such as Healthy People 2000 and Education Goals 2000. In fact, the first education goal is that children "start school ready to learn." Sadly, the admonition of the National Commission on the Role of the School and the Community in Improving Adolescent Health in 1990 still needs to be repeated today. "Efforts to improve school performance that ignore health are ill-conceived, as are health improvement efforts that ignore education."
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