Our Journey to Good Health

A Mississippi educator details what his district does to connect healthy bodies to strong minds by PATRICK B. COOPER

Imagine a public school district in which every school has the resources and the commitment to promote the physical, emotional and mental health of students and staff, in which violence is nearly nonexistent, and in which dropout rates and discipline referrals are low.

Sound like an unrealistic utopia? Look again.

This is a picture of McComb Separate School District, a predominantly conservative, minority, low-income district in Mississippi that five years ago was fraught with low student achievement, high dropout rates and student discipline problems. Today, McComb, which serves about 3,000 students, boasts improved average attendance, increased graduation rates and a dramatic decrease in discipline referrals, in-school detentions and out-of-school suspensions.

Perhaps the most striking change during the past five years has been the dramatic improvement in second grade reading readiness. During the 1996-97 school year, according to Success for All reading testing, just 11 percent of our students were reading on grade level at the beginning of second grade. By 2000-2001, that figure had jumped to 82 percent. Although McComb enrolls predominantly low-income minority students, the district’s 7th-grade students recorded the highest scores in Mississippi on the state writing assessment in that grade. Today, all schools in the district would be designated successful or exemplary according to the new Mississippi accountability standards.

Much of this positive change can be linked to the implementation of the Coordinated School Health, Wellness and Safety Model, the foundation of which was developed and adopted by the Centers for Disease Control. While other initiatives have played a part in increasing achievement and improving the overall climate, the increased focus on the health and physical well-being of the McComb students and staff has played the central role in these achievements.

Attuned to Health
As school administrators we’re faced with the daunting challenge of improving student performance. In our incessant focus on test scores, however, the social and mental well-being of the individual child is often overlooked. Health is tied to achievement, and part of our job is to do our best to fill the vacuum represented by Maslow’s hierarchy of needs so every child has the opportunity to achieve.

In McComb, we support the position of the Action for Healthy Kids initiative, a collaboration with the nation's leading children's health and education organizations. We believe an effective, long-lasting, sustainable school reform initiative can only succeed if it is based on a healthy school system. If our children, their families, administrators and teachers are healthy, then they will come to school and, just as important, they will be ready and able to teach and to learn. The National Association of School Nurses (www.nasn.org) has compiled a listing of those studies that also validate this premise.

At a time when much attention was focused on raising academic test scores, the McComb community, parents and school board heartily supported sweeping health-related changes. Why?

When I joined the McComb district in 1997, I’d already led similar changes at a school district in Louisiana and had just finished four years as director of the Center for Disease Control’s National School Health Education Coalition. I believe that much of what I learned about the link between health and academic performance could work in McComb. The critical component was letting the community lead the way. That’s what we did in McComb. Based on our success, I suggest several steps for bringing health to the forefront of every district’s agenda.

* Get community buy-in. We collected data from all resources to look not only at the condition of the school system, but the community as well. The head of the local hospital was quick to say that the community’s children were a very expensive group because most of their primary health care came from the emergency room. Unemployment rates, teen-age birth rates and lack of recreation and public transportation all contributed to poor health. The public appreciated knowing all the pieces of the puzzle, and it was important that they did.

We sent out personal invitations, ran ads in the local newspaper and invited all interested community members to join us at a meeting where we could discuss ways to improve the school district. More than 350 people attended that initial meeting, including the mayor, judges and other government leaders, fire and police officers, the director of Head Start, medical personnel, business and community leaders and many parents.

We challenged attendees to look at the school district’s success in relation to the community’s success. What problems were we facing in the community that might be affecting the schools? How could we work together to tackle these problems in order to benefit both the community and schools? We talked about truancy, crime, one-parent households and drugs and alcohol.

* Build on community leadership. Based on the discussions at the first meeting, we developed a 350-person study team that included representatives from all parts of the community: black and white, rich and poor, staff from the school, state heart and cancer associations, city and county representatives of local government, law enforcement, clergy and the state health and education departments. They were charged with designing a model comprehensive school health program to address the needs of the community.

The members of the community study team broke into five smaller units to focus on specific issues such as technology, academics, facilities and community relations. One team focused on the general health of the community as well as the health of our school-age children and their families.

We voted as a group on each aspect of the comprehensive plan we developed (see related story for school health components), and after nine months we brought our entire school restructuring plan to the school board. The heart of the plan concentrated on the health of our students and families, using Maslow’s hierarchy of needs as our infrastructure and the nine-component model of school health as the avenue for attaining our results. The board approved the entire plan because it was developed and supported by the community.

Hard Questions
* Be a proactive leader. While I did not dictate a plan for comprehensive health when I came to McComb, I did share my philosophy, my expertise and, most important, my commitment to and belief in the McComb community.

For the first nine months of my superintendency in McComb, I spent literally every day visiting teachers, students, food service staff, school nurses, community health workers, city leaders, parents and many other community leaders. I pushed district staff members to learn more about grant programs and other opportunities to fund and support the community’s vision.

I encouraged district staff to think outside the box, to ask tough questions and to explore the flexibility of rules and regulations. For example, could money from Title I be used to fund school nurses in every McComb school? Should we use our federal Safe and Drug-Free Schools funds to buy red ribbons or should we hire people who could be role models and mentors to help our children stay away from drugs?

We all learned a lot. Some was in the form of increased “book knowledge,” but much was related to taking risks, trying new things and asking tough questions.

* Implement the program step by step. Once we had gained the support of the community and the school board, we began to build the Coordinated School Health program step by step, focusing on one or two of the nine components each year.

This gradual implementation allowed us to obtain funding for each item, to get principal and teacher buy-in and to educate parents and other community members about the overall program. Initial funding has come from such federal sources as Goals 2000 (Educate America Act), Title I (Education for the Disadvantaged), Title II (School Improvement), Title IV (Safe and Drug-Free Schools), Title VI (mostly folded into the No Child Left Behind Act) and Special Education (for preschool and K-12).

Local, state and private sources have been tapped, such as state pilot health projects, Medicaid, hospital and private partnerships, interagency agreements with public health and social service agencies, university medical and dental partnerships and Partnership for a Healthy Mississippi.

Staff Impact
* Support health and wellness for everyone in the school environment. In addition to ensuring our students have access to medical care through Medicaid programs and through in-school case management, we’ve also worked hard to ensure that teachers and staff members are managing their health as well.

One teacher who has diabetes, for example, was missing school days. She was having seizures and even passing out in class because she wasn’t taking care of herself. Now a child is assigned each day to remind her and even accompany her to the nurse’s office to get her blood sugar checked. Since we’ve made this change, the teacher has missed far fewer days of school, and her students are seeing good health care in action.

* Recognize and support the potential of every student. In a community where many students have historically had no access to health care, where 82 percent of students are on free or reduced lunch and where many families have never experienced educational success, the job of building and nurturing student self-esteem is critical.

While many of our students are experientially, economically and emotionally impoverished, they are in no way intellectually limited. Teachers, staff and administrators are constantly reminded that “no one is really educated unless everyone is educated” and they all work together to support every student.

* Keep your eyes on the prize. In our focus on student health, nutrition, fitness and safety, we never lose sight of our schools’ core purpose: to create an environment in which every teacher can teach and every student has the opportunity to learn. In fact, as I mentioned, we added “academic opportunity” as a ninth component to the original eight-component national model for Coordinated School Health precisely to remind ourselves that student academic success is our goal.

It takes time to make changes, but if you can get kids to school, if you can get them to behave appropriately and if you can make sure they’re not sick, they’ll have a much better chance at succeeding academically.

We are continually working to be better at all the components. We expanded physical education and health classes and pay a lot of attention to the obesity epidemic. We are starting this year to look at a new nutrition and fitness initiative that will focus on teaching students to eat in a healthier manner. We just revamped our counseling and therapy program to provide a full-time master’s level mental health therapist at each school.

Saving Our Students
If we are serious about saving a generation of kids, ensuring that not one of them is left behind, we must see that health and achievement go hand in hand. Only when children are healthy and safe will we be able to focus on improving their academic performance and improving the stress-filled lives of our teachers and principals.

Simply providing access to education will not solve anybody’s problems if the nation’s schools are overwhelmed. We must work together to take action for children’s nutrition, fitness and overall health, to create healthy, safe, supportive schools where teachers can teach and children can learn.

Pat Cooper is superintendent of the McComb Separate School District, P.O. Box 868, McComb, MS 39649. E-mail: pcooper@mde.k12.ms.us. He formerly directed the Centers for Disease Control’s National School Health Education Coalition.