By Jennifer Wohlleb
Ten years ago, a national panel issued guidelines for improving school health programs and student well-being, citing the link between a child’s health and school performance. About that time, a push began in Kentucky for coordinated school health committees in schools.
Now, despite obstacles like the state’s high child obesity rate and poor overall health ranking, some Kentucky school leaders believe the lessons of healthy living are finally beginning to take hold among students and school staff, becoming more ingrained in school culture and less of an afterthought.
“We’re making significant progress measured in awareness, conversation and future potential work, in spite of minimal policies or legislation,” said Jamie Sparks, the Kentucky Department of Education’s Coordinated School Health project director. “I think when you look at what we’re doing to equip schools, the conversation has continued to build.”
He said childhood obesity isn’t simply a health issue, it’s something that impacts college and career readiness and economic development.
“It’s kind of a gateway condition that causes a lot of other things (heart disease, cancer, diabetes), and as long as Kentucky struggles with that, it doesn’t matter how far along our students are, CEOs of businesses are not going to build companies, invest in communities that have those high rates because they have a vested interest in the workforce,” Sparks said. “That’s the crux of college and career readiness and why health outcomes have to be a part of this equation as we continue to move forward and make all of the advancements we have with education.”
While there is no available state data that points to an overall improvement in student health over the last decade, Sparks said the needle does seem to be moving, but schools need to continue pushing their efforts.
“Obviously that’s something that takes time, but as far as the conversations, the work, the partnerships, to move in that direction, I think we’re starting to see that,” he said.
“Sometimes I think there is this focus on obesity numbers, and obviously there’s a lot of implications with that. But one of the things that I always talk to superintendents and school boards about is, when you improve student activity and nutrition, you’re impacting every student, it’s not just those who are at risk. Those programs and practices impact all students’ ability to learn.”