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No-cost ways schools can improve student health

Published June 04. 2011 09:04AM

As the parade continued and a fire truck approached, I was sure the driver waved directly to me. He blared the horn, smiled.

I turned to my dad and said, "I want to be a fireman when I grow up." I was three, maybe four at the time.

He kneeled, placed his meaty hands upon my meager shoulders. "You can become whatever you want." Then he squeezed my shoulders just a bit, moved his face closer to mine. He said, "But you will go to college first."

My father and my mother probably said something like that to me 50 more times before I reached first grade.

When I asked my dad why, he explained that it was the American way. Not the going to college part necessarily, but the idea, the obligation almost, for each generation to make things better for the next.

It made sense to me then; it makes sense to me now.

Which is why the state budget Gov. Tom Corbett proposed in March containing a $570 million cut to public education funding makes no sense. Absolutely none. And while many say the cut will have to be reduced for the budget to pass, the damage has already been done.

School districts need to pass a budget by June 30, the process is lengthy, so their cuts have already come. As a result, 75 percent of Pennsylvania school districts plan to cut educational programs to balance the budget.

Some other percentages projected by the Pennsylvania Association of School Administrators and the Pennsylvania Association of Business Officials based on the responses of 263 districts are just as bleak: Class size will increase in 86 percent of the districts, 31 percent will cut full-day kindergarten back to half-day or eliminate it, and teachers will be laid off in two out of every three of districts.

The survey contains other dismal statistics, but you get the point. And now it's time for me to make mine.

There are ways to improve the overall health and well-being of students that could be done even during a year of draconian cuts. In fact, the first even saves a school district money: Have more students walk to school.

A study published last year in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise by University of Buffalo researchers found that children who took a simulated walk to school had smaller increases in systolic blood pressure, heart rate, and perceived stress while taking a test as opposed to those who took a simulated ride to school.

Combine that with research published just this May in Acta Paeditrica, a European periodical, that found even seemingly healthy nine-year-olds who weren't as physically active as others had a higher composite risk score for developing cardiovascular disease, and a 15- or 20-minute walk to and from school begins to sound more feasible and less frugal.

School districts are not legally obligated to provide transportation to and from school. While I'm not advocating the abolition of all busing, I believe far more students could safely walk to school than do so presently.

Another consideration though the liability issue might require a parental waiver is to bus students part way in fair weather. In Palmerton, for example, one of the two elementary schools is about a mile and a half from the junior/senior high complex, far enough for the students headed there to get a worthwhile workout especially when much of the walk is uphill.

Another possibility is creating classroom lessons that require actual physical activity. As part of research performed by researchers at the Medical University of South Carolina's Children's Hospital, an academically low-scoring elementary school in Charleston added 40 minutes a day of physical activity through academic classes to the typical once-a-week gym class regiment for first through sixth graders.

Testing before and after the study clearly demonstrated that these active-but-alternate learning periods did not hamper learning.

In fact, before the program 55 percent of the students involved had reached the state testing goal. After the program, 68.5 percent of the students did, an increase of nearly 20 percent .

One final way to improve the health and academic success of secondary school students despite declining state aid is to start their school day later. Scientists now know, for example, that the brain isn't fully developed until the age of 21, that its ongoing development takes place during sleep, and that a collective lack of sleep could be what's increasing the incidence of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder.

Possibly worse for the long term is the relatively recent link scientists have made between a teen's sleep loss and weight gain, a similarity established in adults and children as well. A University of Texas at Houston study, for instance, discovered an 80 percent rise in the chance of teenage obesity for every hour of sleep loss.

Yet according to a University of Kentucky study, high school seniors sleep only a bit more than 6.5 hours a night.

And two different surveys of more than 10,000 students found a startling correlation between school success and ample sleep. A-average students surveyed slept about 35 more minutes a night than D-average students. The B-average students also slept more than the D-average students, about 21 minutes; and C-average students slept about 10 minutes more as well.

Finally, the best evidence for a later start to the secondary-school day comes from Edina, Minnesota where the high school start time was changed from 7:25 a.m. to 8:30 years ago. In the year before the change, the top 10 percent of Edina's students averaged 1288 on the SATs. The year of the change, the top 10 averaged 1500, an increase of slightly more than 14 percent.

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