June 13, 2006
A school system in Mississippi has documented significant gains in student attendance and test scores while reducing dropouts and suspension/expulsion rates.
Superintendent Pat Cooper exudes enthusiasm when he talks about the role of comprehensive school health in systemic education reform.
Currently leader of the McComb School District in Mississippi, it is no coincidence that Cooper formerly served as executive director of the National School Health Education Coalition.
Cooper proclaims, "School leaders must take action for children's nutrition, fitness and overall health, to create healthy, safe, supportive schools where teachers can teach and children can learn."
McComb is a school system with about 3,000 predominantly low-income and minority students where 82 percent of students are on free or reduced-price lunches.
The district, according to current American Medical Association President J. Edward Hill, M.D., previously suffered low student achievement, frequent student discipline problems and high dropout rates typical in such settings.
Now, evidence indicates improved average attendance, a large decrease in discipline referrals, increased graduation rates and a dramatic improvement in second grade reading readiness. The district's 7th grade students recorded the highest scores in the state on the writing assessment.
Both Drs. Hill and Cooper contend much of this positive change is linked to the implementation of the "Coordinated School Health, Wellness and Safety Model," an expansion of the school health model adopted by the National Centers for Disease Control.
While other initiatives have played a part in the recorded increases, focusing upon the health and physical well being of the McComb students and staff has played the central role in these achievements, according to Hill and Cooper.
Speaking to the Rotary Club in downtown Jacksonville in late April, Dr. Hill related: "Comprehensive school health education is a personal passion. Kids need to know how to read food labels, which now include things like fat content. That's why we should start with pre-K students - and go straight through high school."
Meanwhile, Dr. Copper told a group of 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."
The McComb district leadership has supported sweeping health-related changes. The administration collected data demonstrating the community's children were a very expensive group because most of their primary health care came from the emergency room. In their quest, they found that unemployment rates, teen-age birth rates and lack of recreation and public transportation all contributed to poor health.
The program's nine components are:
There is, indeed, good reason to believe many school districts can greatly benefit from the McComb School District model.
is Distinguished Research Professor at the
University of Dayton and is President & Chief Executive Officer
of SchoolMatch®, a Columbus based educational auditing, research, data