Experts eye link between student health troubles, lower performing schools

About 250 people gathered Tuesday morning at the Boston Public Library’s central branch in Copley Square to discuss a new report that details the health of students in the city’s public school system. Boston Public School representatives and public health researchers hope that a new approach to the well-being of students can help even the academic playing field and give struggling learners the boost they need to close achievement gaps.

The annual Healthy Connections report, released this week, indicates students living in Boston experience significantly less physical activity, more incidents of violence, and higher rates of sexually transmitted illnesses than statewide averages. The conversation was made more urgent because a $2 million federal grant for health and wellness programs will conclude at the end of the current school year.

According to the report, 43.6 percent of BPS students have unhealthy bodyweights compared to 34 percent statewide; 36 percent of BPS students report being in a physical fight, compared to 28 percent statewide; and nearly three times as many Boston teens aged 15 to 19 (3199.6 per 100,000 people) contract Chlamydia compared to the state average (1134 per 100,000.) 

These findings are compounded by a recently-released Boston Public Health Commission report that indicates Dorchester, Mattapan, and Roxbury face higher than average incidence rates of STDs, obesity, heart disease, and asthma.

Keynote speaker Dr. Charles Basch of the Columbia University Teachers College said that regardless of investments made into other aspects of the educational system, a physically and mentally unhealthy student body will continue to under-perform.

“No matter how well teachers are prepared to teach, no matter what accountability measures are put into place...educational progress will be profoundly limited if students are not motivated and able to learn,” Basch said. “If you look at those lowest performing schools, those are the schools facing the greatest health challenges.”

Basch said there was no quick fix to these challenges, but recommended BPS consider treating education, social service, and wellness as a unified effort and hire health coordinators who can pursue partnerships with caregivers and grant funding to ensure schools are making the most of the local resources available.

Currently, many of those responsibilities fall on the crowded desk of school nurses, each of whom is responsible for approximately 1,500 students and as a group saw more than 322,000 office visits last year, according to preliminary BPS data.

One nurse from Roxbury’s Madison Park Technical Vocational High School, Opal Hines-Fisher, said that beyond providing health care, she and her colleagues often find themselves serving as liaisons between medical offices and parents who are oftentimes unaware of services like Medicaid.

“We do vision and hearing screenings and send letters home when someone should go see a doctor, but often it’s on us to do the follow up,” Hines-Fisher said.

Hines-Fisher added that while some schools currently receive behavioral mental health counsellors through outside partnerships with universities and hospitals, they are predominantly white females who have a difficult time connecting with young men of color, the largest segment of the school population she feels goes underserved.

Virginia Chalmers, principal of the Young Achievers Science and Mathematics Pilot School in Mattapan echoed many of Hines-Fisher’s concerns, but said that schools must use their position as a crossroad between parents, students, and caregivers to ensure everyone receives adequate health care.

“As public institutions become smaller and smaller, we need to take a larger role [in public health,]” Chalmers said. “We have churches, we have schools, and we have jails. All of the kids and parents are at the school and every parent wants to succeed.”

While forum organizers urged attendees to submit new ideas and identify health programs they felt would benefit the BPS student body, Basch said Boston is in a unique position to redefine the role of schools in the lives of families they serve thanks to the large number of hospitals, schools, and non-profits operating in the area.

“Boston is the place,” Basch said. “It’s small enough, it has the resources, and the leadership to set an example for urban schools across the United States.”