By: Stephanie A. Whyte MD, MBA; Chief Health Officer, Chicago Public Schools
Prompt: Given your role in the Chicago Public Schools, the SOCAP community will most benefit from learning about the challenges that face the public school system, and its direct relationship to the health of the students. Specifically, we hope to learn from the successes (and failures, if relevant) of implementing health-based initiatives.
In 2012, Chicago Public Schools (CPS) in collaboration with the Chicago Department of Public Heath hired the district’s first ever-Chief Heath Officer. The primary charge was to build the infrastructure to remove health-related barriers to learning. Research shows and most people will agree “Healthy students are better learners.” But how does one promote and prioritize health and wellness in a system whose main objective is to educate students?
From the onset, it is necessary to make the connection between student health and academic success. For example, students who are more fit perform better academically (Grissom, 2005); students miss 51 million hours of school annually due to dental problems (Surgeon General’s Report 2000); and experts agree that 80% of what children learn is processed through the visual system. Quite simply, if little “Johnny” cannot see the blackboard (or smart board as the case may be) he will certainly struggle with reading and literacy.
The state of Illinois mandates vision and hearing screenings for select grades of students annually as well as a comprehensive vision exam for kindergarten students. Over 30,000 Chicago Public School students failed their vision screening last year. Once a child fails a screening, it is the responsibility of the parent to seek further evaluation. One of the systems of support that Chicago Public Schools has in place is a comprehensive vision exam program in which schools have the option to visit a year-round CPS partner-ran vision clinic or receive school-based services at their school. With the school-based option, optometrists arrive with all equipment in tow to provide services to students’ thereby creating access to care and removing vision as a health obstacle to learning.
The impact of this program on student achievement is heralded in the true story of little “Johnny” (not his actual name) below:
A Chicago Public School opted into the school-based vision exam program and its school nursetargeted students who failed the vision screening, were kindergarten students and/or were recommended by the teacher for evaluation. A visit to the school from a vision service provider ensued and little “Johnny” a kindergartener received his state mandated exam. Prior to this exam, “Johnny” had an individualized education plan (IEP) with a diagnosis of borderline autism. During his comprehensive exam, it was noted that “Johnny” had rapid intermittent eye movements, he was referred for specialty care where it was also noted that he had headaches due to light sensitivity and problems with visual processing and tracking.
“Johnny” was prescribed tinted eyeglasses that “slanted” his world and a visor. The change was almost immediate! After receiving the eyeglasses, “Johnny” performed much better in school. He no longer required an individualized education plan and was perceived to be a completely different student by his teacher. “Johnny” progressed so well that he was subsequently tested for and enrolled into one of the district’s regional gifted centers.
Whereas, the impact of this story is profound; it reinforces that “healthy students are better learners.” Health can be a barrier to learning but once identified and treated, unexpected gains and results can ensue. Of note, the Mayor of Chicago has since expanded this school-based vision model, which is expected to serve 45,000 Chicago Public School students in 2014.
For those of us in the trenches, it is a serves a wonderful reminder that we must treat and teach the entire child and leverage all of resources to ensure their success. As we respect the role of the school as the hub of the community, we must strengthen the relationships and engagement of all stakeholders. And in this age of innovation, we must consider those who are not traditionally seated at the table for inclusion in the discussion.