Systems Struggling to Address Student Health

John Vega checks the eyes of Oedipson Jean, 13,  in a special bus outfitted for vision tests.
John Vega checks the eyes of Oedipson Jean, 13, in a special bus outfitted for vision tests. (Joshua Prezant/ For The Washingt - Joshua Prezant © 2006)
By Valerie Strauss
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 5, 2006

Leonard Turkel couldn't believe his ears when he learned what happened to the results of eye screenings of thousands of Miami-Dade County public school students.

Although the tests are mandated by the state, the businessman-turned-philanthropist discovered that nobody was actually using the scores to ensure that kids could see the blackboard in class.

Today, a vision-laboratory-in-a-bus assembled by Turkel pulls up to schools in low-income neighborhoods, not only providing vision tests for children but also ensuring that glasses, when needed, are made to specifications and delivered within days -- all for free.

The results, school principals say, are remarkable: Many of the kids -- and in some schools it can be as much as half of the student population -- who wear the glasses show improvement in attendance, focus and achievement. Their behavior often improves, too.

The program underscores what many educators point to as a missing ingredient in the debate about school reform today: physical and mental health problems that can leave a student unable to fully participate in even the best academic program.

"When they talk about reform, it's basically all about academics," said Principal Maria Garcia of Thomas Jefferson Middle School in Miami. "This other piece is missing, but it's crucial, absolutely crucial."

In urban school systems across the country, children who live in poverty suffer from higher rates of health problems -- asthma, malnutrition, obesity and mental disorders -- than the more affluent, and the academic consequences are very real, according to researchers who have studied how health affects academic achievement.

"Good dental care doesn't make you a good student, but if your tooth hurts, it's hard to be a good student," said Geoffrey Canada, president and chief executive of the Harlem Children's Zone, a large-scale initiative designed to improve the social, health and educational conditions in entire neighborhoods of Harlem.

With the reauthorization of No Child Left Behind set for 2007, many educators say the emphasis on implementation of the education reform law for the past five years has been too heavily weighted toward assessment.

They say they hope health factors are given more attention by, for example, including physical and health education as core subjects and expanding the requirement that teachers "be highly qualified" in these subjects as well as in reading and math.

At a time when obesity levels are at epidemic proportions in the United States, there is nothing in federal law that requires physical education in school, according to a new report by the American Heart Association and the National Association for Sport and Physical Education.

Across the country, school systems and communities struggle to address many of these issues. Turkel's experience shows how poorly systems have addressed health issues.

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