By Dennis Walto, CEO, Children’s Health Fund
As children’s health advocates, we can’t ignore the relationship between education and health: a child’s physical and mental health directly impacts their ability to learn. Similarly, the quality of education is a strong predictor of health and wellbeing well into adulthood.
Recently, I returned with one of our early investors to PS 36, an elementary school in Harlem, New York. As we walked to the entrance, we were greeted by two brightly colored murals framing the main entryway, near a playground of padded rubber mats and climbing concoctions of all kinds. Inside, bulletin boards display student’s best work, while the sounds of children talking and laughing echo through the hallways. You could feel the energy of the children and a dynamic and caring learning space.
This school is one of two partner schools in NYC for our Healthy and Ready to Learn Initiative (HRL), our comprehensive school-based program that provides the school community — administrators, teachers, parents, and kids — with health services, education, and resources to directly address health issues that impact students’ learning and attendance.
The hosts for our visit were Ginelle Wynter, HRL’s senior site manager at the school, and Deb Brass from Counseling in Schools, our partner organization that provides mental healthcare for students. Educators like Ginelle and Deb get an intimate, daily glimpse into their students’ health and their lives at home. A student who is falling asleep in class, cranky and having trouble concentrating, or angry and “acting out” can be showing signs of deeper physical or mental health issues.
This community, Harlem, is known for its rich and beautiful history as the focal point of black culture, political thought, and as a place of refuge for people from all over the world. But like many historically black and brown neighborhoods in New York City, systemic racism and disinvestment have perpetuated poverty rates for families here. In recent years, gentrification has led to displacement and homelessness for people who have lived in the community for generations.
These kinds of social conditions impact students at PS 36 directly. More than 80% of students who attend the school are living below the federal poverty threshold. Many students may have unchecked health conditions, like asthma, trouble seeing, hunger, or untreated trauma, which can lead them to miss school and fall behind on learning. For many families, financial struggles, homelessness, and other challenges make managing a child’s health issues and getting their child to school every day all the more difficult. Some children live with their families in homeless shelters or doubled up with family or friends.
At PS 36, HRL’s interventions address health needs rooted in social, racial, and economic inequities. The initiative strives to promote student success by providing individual case management to students who are chronically absent, expanding access to mental and behavioral health counseling, coordinating vision and dental services for students, and providing training opportunities to staff and caregivers.
In the 2018–2019 school year alone, more than 2,100 educators, community school directors, school nurses, and parents have participated in 69 HRL workshops — bringing the resources and tools into the hands of the people who need them most.
When Children’s Health Fund began working with PS 36 and PS49, they were on-par with their struggling districts in terms of academic outcomes. But since we began our partnership with the schools, they have seen great improvements and students now outperform their school districts in English Language Arts and Math State Test proficiency rates, as well as school attendance rates. While many factors impact attendance and performance, we know that HRL has likely contributed to this change.
Unlike some of the math calculations being worked out by kids at PS 36, children themselves are not a problem to be solved. Children are dreams to be realized. It is up to all of us to be part of that equation, and part of the solution, in the classroom and beyond.