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Embracing a different approach: How some St. Louis school districts are connecting health, education

(from left) Sharonica Hardin-Bartley, Jason Purnell and Monika Kincheloe joined Wednesday's St. Louis on the Air to discuss the intersections between health and education.
Evie Hemphill and Monika Kincheloe
(from left) Sharonica Hardin-Bartley, Jason Purnell and Monika Kincheloe joined Wednesday's St. Louis on the Air to discuss the intersections between health and education.

A recent situation involving a first-grade student in the University City School District prompted teachers and administrators to consider an unconventional approach.

Rather than immediately focus on any instruction or behavior in the classroom, the district sought to provide the student and his family with basic needs – a trip to the doctor, food and toiletry items.

“We have to embrace our families exactly as they are and work collectively to provide the necessary resources,” explained Sharonica Hardin-Bartley, the district’s superintendent.

But toiletry items – things many people take for granted – were simple things the district could provide to help enable a student to learn.

“We really have embraced the concept of students being well emotionally, physically, socially and spiritually and understanding that we can’t effectively educate them if their basic needs are not met,” Hardin-Bartley said.

Efforts underway in University City, St. Louis Public Schools and the Normandy Schools Collaborative seek to address connections between health and education. Part of the effort includes implementing a federal model comprised of 10 components called Whole School, Whole Community, Whole Child.

“What we’ve learned from our work with schools is it just can’t be another thing we put on the plate of educators because their plates are already quite full,” said Jason Purnell, an associate professor in the Brown School at Washington University and director of Health Equity Works (formerly For the Sake of All). “This has to be something that’s all hands on deck, the entire community coming together to support children within schools.

“We know that a child who can’t see, can’t hear, can’t breathe – has been traumatized and doesn’t know where to sleep doesn’t have the full opportunity to learn,” he said, acknowledging that school districts in the St. Louis region are receptive to recognizing the connections between health and education.

In addition to Purnell and Hardin-Bartley, Monika Kincheloe, senior director of strategic initiative and partnerships at America’s Promise Alliance, joined St. Louis on the Air host Don Marsh on Wednesday.

“We lead big campaigns to build public will at the national and community levels,” Kincheloe said. “Our Every School Healthy campaign really builds on that track record. Our goal is centered around the idea that what’s happening in U City schools and across the St. Louis region shouldn’t just be happening there, it should really be happening in every school.

“Every young person should come to school feeling safe, supported and empowered.”

St. Louis on the Air brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. St. Louis on the Air host Don Marsh and producers Alex HeuerEvie HemphillLara Hamdan and Xandra Ellin give you the information you need to make informed decisions and stay in touch with our diverse and vibrant St. Louis region.

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Alex is the executive producer of "St. Louis on the Air" at St. Louis Public Radio.