September 16, 2005

Report tracks health of Metro Public Schools

Featured Image

Report tracks health of Metro Public Schools

This week, principals from each of the 130 elementary, middle and high schools in the Metro Nashville Public School System will receive a “report card” of sorts from the Monroe Carell Jr. Children's Hospital at Vanderbilt.

In it will be the results of a nine-month project to survey nine key areas that affect the health of students, teachers and staff and the health of the environment within the schools.

Partnering for Healthy Schools is the name of the effort. Results were presented to the Metro Nashville School Board on Aug. 23 by Children's Hospital CEO Jim Shmerling and Amy Casseri, director of communications and community relations.

“This assessment did not look at what's wrong with the current status of health in Metro Nashville's schools but rather what it will take for them to reach the top of healthy schools in the nation,” Shmerling said. “Tennessee ranks 43rd in the country in children's overall health; our goal is to transform the Metro Nashville schools health status to become a role model for other school districts. This will require a collaborative effort between the school administration, faculty and staff, Children's Hospital and the Metro Health Department.”

Tom Cook, Ph.D., director of school health for Children's Hospital and assistant professor of Nursing, Barbara Bruhns Frey, Ph.D., research psychologist for Children's Hospital, and Mary Kate Mouser, director of Children's Health Improvement and Prevention, compiled the report. Cook said there is a lot of good and bad news in the assessment of health practices, but overall, the effort is viewed as positive by all sides. The results, he said, serve as a baseline for what both the hospital and the schools hope is a long-lasting relationship.

“It speaks volumes that it was Metro Schools that asked us to come in and assess every school,” Cook said. “Smaller surveys have been done in the past, but the district wanted us to take an inclusive look at all the schools.”

Cook and a number of volunteers from Vanderbilt and Metro Health went to all 130 Metro Schools, including 75 elementary, 41 middle and 14 high schools. Twenty-two pre-school programs were also assessed.

“We want to use this as a starting point to ensure healthy students,” said Sandra Johnson, chief instructional officer for Metro Schools. “I think it was an outstanding study. We really appreciate the incredible number of hours Children's Hospital gave to the school system. They set a very high standard for where we ought to be that is right in line with our efforts to be among the top performing school districts in the country.”

The Vanderbilt researchers utilized the Centers for Disease Control (CDC's) recommendations for healthy schools, called the School Health Index (SHI) — with some tailoring — as the school survey questionnaires.

The surveys included nine categories: school policies and environment; health education; physical education; nutrition services; school health services; school counseling, psychological and social services; health promotion for staff; family and community involvement; and pre-kindergarten health services.

Once surveys were compiled, scores were assigned. A score of 83 to 100 was considered a “top in health” score. Several individual schools received a score of 83 or above in many areas important in the assessment of school health. However, as a whole, average scores were low. Specifically, the average scores were 70 for physical education (P.E.), 49 for school counseling, 71 for school health policies and environment, 64 for school health services, 55 for health education and 61 for nutrition services. Pre-kindergarten school scores were 59. The average score for health promotion for staff was 41, while the average score for community and family involvement was 42.

A close look at surveys pointed to inconsistencies from school to school. For example, 73 percent of elementary schools scored very well in P.E., but scores dropped off quickly with less than 23 percent of middle and 36 percent of high schools achieving high scores. Many elementary students get two P.E. periods totaling 120 minutes a week. The CDC assessment instrument calls for 150 minutes of exercise each week. However, many of the schools will be able to increase their scores with relatively simple changes. Schools generally did well with social conditions like no bullying policies and no tobacco policies and resources like time to wash hands before meals.

In each of the areas surveyed, critical issues were found that were brought up to the School Board as needing more immediate attention. Some examples were mold in schools, a lack of coordination of health activities between providers and classroom teachers, non-nutritional foods being sold in cafeterias, the proliferation of vending machines, lax emergency training and the absence of a sequential health curriculum in the elementary and middle schools.

“There is some low hanging fruit, as Jim Shmerling said in his presentation to the board,” Johnson said. “Some changes are lower cost and quick fixes, others are longer term. This year's budget funds a health and wellness coordinator. That person will begin soon and we'll provide this survey as a resource to help her begin her work.”

The assessment is the brainchild of Shmerling, who had performed similar assessments when he was the CEO at Le Bonheur Children's Medical Center in Memphis with the Memphis school system. Shmerling emphasized that this has been a collaborative effort among many experts and committed people from Metro Nashville Public Schools, Metro Health Department, and the Vanderbilt community.