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Good health, good grades? Do healthy students make better learners?

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, April 6, 2010 - Can investments in children's health lead to improvements in student achievement? Charles E. Basch, a professor at Columbia University's Teachers College, is one of a growing number who believe the two are related. Basch just released a study suggesting that investments in children's health may amount to an investment in student achievement.

Basch says health problems play a big role in limiting a child's motivation to learn, adding that "no matter how well teachers are prepared to teach, educational progress will be profoundly limited if students are not motivated and able to learn."

Basch argues that the nation will never close the achievement gap without investments to offset child-health risks, such as asthma, teen pregnancy, attention deficits and poor vision. He is urging the Obama administration to target these health risks because of "their causal effects on educational outcomes."

St. Louis County Children's Fund

At a time when state and local governments are trying to cope with red ink and cutting services, one small agency in St. Louis County has the luxury of deciding how to spend millions of dollars in new money for youngsters in need.

The St. Louis County Children's Services Fund, set up through a 1/4-cent sales tax approved by 62 percent of the voters in November 2008, will use the tax money to help children who otherwise wouldn't be helped by the county's social services. A recent study by Vision for Children at Risk estimated that nearly 20 percent of zip codes in the county had "severe high-risk ratings" for children.

By the end of the year, the agency will have awarded its first allocations -- $35 million worth of contracts to agencies to provide services for youngsters up to age 19. 

"We're grateful to have this money, and we will be good stewards," says Kate Tansey, the fund's executive director.

The goal, Tansey says, is to improve the lives of children and families through an "integrated system of care" -- not that $35 million will solve every problem. Still the money will buy a lot of services.

For example, Tansey says, the fund will be able to help young adults needing transitional housing as they age out of foster care. Without the fund, many young people might otherwise end up on the street with few places to turn.

Tansey says the money will reach 160,000 youngsters needing:

* Temporary shelter

* Services to unwed teen parents

* Respite care

* Crisis intervention

* School-based prevention services

* Home and community-based intervention services

* Individual, group, and family counseling

* Outpatient Substance Abuse Treatment

* Outpatient Psychiatric Services


One local example of a health initiative with a potential educational benefit is the Healthy Vision Network for Kids partnership between Crown Vision Center and the School of Optometry at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, to provide free eye exams to students at several elementary schools.

Kate Tansey, executive director of the St. Louis County Children's Service Fund, said she had not seen Basch's study. But she agreed that school performance is influenced by factors beyond the competence of teachers and even children's physical health. A clinical social worker, Tansey says mental health issues, such as child abuse and neglect, can affect how a child performs in the classroom.

Ron Jackson, head of St. Louis for Kids, agrees that health can influence a child's achievement, but that the onus for student achievement still must rest on teachers.

"It is clear that closing the achievement gap cannot be done by schools alone," he says. But he adds that schools and teachers come under attack over student achievement because "educating the children is (the teachers') job, and we spend billions of dollars to pay them to make it happen. We do not pay parents."

Unfortunately, he says, schools and health systems are set up in ways that don't foster collaboration. "That's the way we have chosen to solve problems," but he adds that the Regional Health Commission is pushing healthy children initiatives and is looking to provide leadership.

The prospect of more collaboration between schools and the health system, Jackson says, "is a rather recent phenomenon."

Scott Gee, executive director of Citizens for Missouri Children, says that "if health issues could be better addressed, we would see a significant change" in academic performance.

Citing "wide gaps in child well-being," Richard Patton, executive direction of Vision for Children at Risk, says the region needs to invest more in early childhood development. He warns that the entire region loses when children "are left behind because we don't meet their basic needs for a healthy upbringing." He adds some political leaders, such as Mayor Francis Slay and Sen. Christopher Bond have pushed for more investments in children's programs.

Robbyn Wahby, Slay's executive assistant for school issues, says the mayor's policy is to focus on both health and academic issues and Slay remains committed to making sure that all children in St. Louis are "Ready by 21" -- ready for college, career and life.

"Competent teachers and access to quality health care are components of what it takes to assure a child reaches his/her full potential," she says. "However, there are plenty of examples of children who match the conditions described in this (Teachers College) study who are successful academically, but I have yet to see academic proficiency in children who have incompetent teachers. As a matter of fact, there are studies that show a poor teacher in one year of primary education (K-3) can derail the educational attainment of children."

Aside from pressing the school system to do a better job in educating children, Wahby says the mayor's child-health initiatives with a potential for improving school performance include:

  • Children's environmental health -- a program begun last fall to addresses lead poisoning, asthma and tobacco use among children
  • Lead Safe St. Louis -- credited with cutting poisoning from 22 percent of kids to just over 3 percent and increasing testing in areas having high poisoning rates.
  • Body & Soul -- an outreach program to encourage students to avoid high-risk behaviors that lead to HIV and AIDS.
  • Truancy court -- a program that's has a health focus because children out of school during school hours are more likely to become victims of violence, in addition to missing valuable time in the classroom.
  • Early childhood success -- Slay held a series of summits, bringing early childhood providers, advocates and families together to develop a plan to address the needs of children up to age 6.

Funding for health reporting is provided in part by The Missouri Foundation for Health, a philanthropic organization whose vision is to improve the health of the people in the communities it serves.

Robert Joiner has carved a niche in providing informed reporting about a range of medical issues. He won a Dennis A. Hunt Journalism Award for the Beacon’s "Worlds Apart" series on health-care disparities. His journalism experience includes working at the St. Louis American and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, where he was a beat reporter, wire editor, editorial writer, columnist, and member of the Washington bureau.