Systems Struggling to Address Student Health
Lack of Focus on Mental and Physical Problems Threatens Achievement, Especially in Poorer Schools, Experts Say

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.

It was in the mid-1990s that Turkel started the vision program almost by happenstance. Instrumental in opening a primary care center in the low-income Miami community of Overtown, Turkel said he was told that the vision screening he was planning for children was already being done by the school system.

But then he learned that the results of school screenings -- mandated by the Florida legislature to be performed several times during a child's schooling, along with tests for hearing and scoliosis -- were essentially sitting in drawers. The school system could tell anybody who asked how many kids had failed vision screenings, but nobody was getting the kids help.

Turkel decided to change that.

"Once the kids who need help are identified, there had to be a way to go to the schools and provide them with whatever they needed," said Turkel, president of the Miami-based nonprofit Turkel Resource Foundation and co-founder of the University of Miami business school's Center for Nonprofit Management.

He worked with the school system and a coalition of others, especially the Miami-based nonprofit Heiken Fund, to make sure children in high-poverty schools were regularly screened in school and received glasses. Turkel purchased a bus and packed it with equipment to transform it into a traveling vision laboratory.

Initially, kids got "instant eyeglasses," put together on the spot after their vision tests from lenses pulled from an inventory to match their needs. Later, kids were able to choose from a selection of frames -- increasing the percentage of students who actually use their glasses. Now they receive their glasses within days of the screening. A child with an eye problem that needs special attention is directed to a doctor who has agreed to take the cases pro bono.

"The glasses make a big difference," said Tina Simmons, health technician at Lillie C. Evans Elementary School in Miami. "Many kids have bad vision, and the parents just say to them, 'Just tell the teacher to put you in front of the board.' "

The program, which at its height has served about 6,000 students a year, has faced financial hurdles but is operating today under a new grant and with the help of 14 organizations. All schools in the 360,000-student system are now covered by the program.

Garcia said she has seen the program work at two schools and is a big fan. "A lot of kids don't like nerdy glasses, but these aren't. The kids who have gotten glasses love them."

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