Improving schools by addressing students’ health

Schoolboy holding plate of lunch in school cafeteriaIn 1997, the McComb School District in Mississippi hired Pat Cooper as superintendent to improve academic performance while working within a framework of caring and inclusion. The city’s population was 50 percent white, but white students made up only 15 percent of the 3,000 students in the district’s public schools. Eighty-five percent of students qualified for free or reduced-price lunch.

In the 1997-1998 school year, the district sent invitations to clubs, organizations and churches and published an invitation in the newspaper to encourage people to take part in restructuring the school district. District leaders surveyed the community to find out what they did not like about the schools, what they wanted their schools to be like, and how reform should be accomplished. Respected citizens and education leaders jointly facilitated meetings.

A total of 350 people were divided into five groups according to their interests: health and wellness, facilities, technology, public relations, and academic opportunity. Each group met once or twice a month during that first year. At these meetings participants initially focused on how the schools failed to meet students’ needs.

Lack of readiness for work life

Business people said students were not ready to work when they graduated. The Chamber of Commerce pointed out that the schools weren’t well maintained or physically inviting. Residents complained there were too many young people skipping school and hanging out on the streets.

Parents focused on the high number of students lagging behind in reading skills and being placed in special education. Teachers complained about poor attendance. Others expressed concern about the lack of P. E. classes, poor facilities, poor and inadequate health care, obesity, violent behavior and drug abuse.

When asked what they wanted their schools to be like, participants agreed that schools had to do more than provide traditional academics. However, they did not reach consensus about where the responsibility for children’s well-being should reside.

Ultimately, they agreed not to blame problems on parents, students or their circumstances. To ensure the future of their community, educators joined with parents and community partners in taking responsibility for the whole child. Everyone agreed to do for all children what they did for their own, with no excuses.

Cooper reports that these community meetings created unanimity of purpose and direction. Community members and district personnel agreed that excellence was not about test scores alone, but about enabling every child to excel in all of his or her abilities. They developed a vision statement: The McComb School District is a committed and caring community taking responsibility every day for positively impacting the physical, social, and academic well-being of every child and challenging him/her to become an extraordinary individual empowered to change the world.

Hierarchy of needs

With widespread enthusiasm for the vision, participants struggled with how to make it happen. A parent provided the breakthrough idea when he suggested that children, in order to do their jobs well, have the same needs as adults. What does it take for adults to do their best work?

Educators turned to Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, which states that basic needs such as physiological well-being, safety, love and belonging must be met before meaningful learning, competence and self-actualization can be achieved. Maslow’s model provided the framework for school reform.

Programs were designed in eight areas: health education; physical education; health services; nutrition services; counseling and psychological services; healthy school environment for staff; family and community involvement; and academic opportunity.

Over the next five years, every school in the district put programs into place to address each area of concern. The district mandated that each school must tackle at least one component of its choice each year. Some schools worked on two or three at a time. For logistical reasons, the district office took responsibility for academic opportunity, nutrition services, and family and community involvement.

The funding for this initiative was incremental and evolved over time. First, district leaders made more creative use of existing funds. They prioritized health and safety services over materials. They worked from a zero-based budgeting modeling, finding funds for health programs every year before funding anything else.

Access to community resources

The interagency agreement reached with community organizations gave the schools access to nurses, therapists, police officers, recreation personnel and others working for the city and private groups. School clinics were turned into Medicaid-eligible facilities and received more funding. As daily attendance increased and dropout rates decreased, the district received more state funding.

The success of the district’s focus on the whole child was revealed in expected and unexpected ways. Attendance has stabilized at 96 percent; suspension days have decreased by more than 40 percent and disciplinary hearings by more than half. Academic data is encouraging. Collaboration with daycare and Head Start facilities has dramatically raised the academic functioning of children entering kindergarten.

Achievement has also risen. In a representative sample of students in third through sixth grades, the percentage of reading scores above the national average rose from 32 to 46 percent. Language scores rose from 34 percent to 47 percent above average and math from 28 percent to 48 percent above average.

All but one school made adequate yearly progress in every category; the exception fell short only in the special education category. Graduation rates rose from 77 percent to 92 percent, dropout rates fell to below 2 percent, and the juvenile crime arrest rate dropped by 60 percent. The rate of teenagers’ having second babies stands at 3 percent (compared to a national rate of 21 percent), indicating that teen mothers are staying in school.

Cooper reports that one of the most telling indicators is that the community is coming back to the public schools. White student enrollment has risen from 15 percent to 25 percent of the student body. Parental complaints to the superintendent’s office have dropped by 75 percent, and there is increased support for public funding for school facilities and programs.

Cooper concludes that while the same housing projects, single-parent households and poverty continue to exist in the city, and the schools have the same teachers and the same reading programs, the academic and behavioral outcomes are much improved. In this impoverished and struggling school district, a focus on common human needs, a coordinated health plan, and a believing and supportive community have brought about significant improvement in the health and performance of the city’s public school students.
“A Coordinated School Health Plan”, Educational Leadership, Volume 63, Number 1, September 2005, pp. 32-36.

Published in ERN October 2005 Volume 18 Number 8

 

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