Education + Health: A Critical Link

February was National School Based Health Center Month. Although the month has passed, LACEF is committed year round to the cause of School Based Health Care.  LACEF is proud to recognize the 62 school health centers throughout Los Angeles County and the care they provide our students and their families.

Every day we are reminded that the life circumstances of children and youth are far from equal. Whether it is noted in research studies, in the daily news, or in the results of school test scores, we are aware that the young people of Los Angeles County very often lack the solid foundation that will promote their healthy development and educational success.  According to statistics, nearly 60% of African American and Latino families have limited access to care. As a result, our youth often attend school sick and unable to learn. Whether it be a persistent cough, poor vision, aching teeth, or depression, any system of poor health jeopardizes the ability of our youth to learn.  

Yet, maintaining the health and wellbeing of Los Angeles County’s resident population is a daunting challenge.  To meet this challenge, numerous entities throughout the County provide countless services to address the preventive, dental and mental health needs of its residents.  Despite the increased number of resources and services available to families and their children, it is estimated that 27% of adults and 15% of children have difficulty accessing medical care, for a number of reasons, one of the most prevalent reasons is the distance a family must travel to access its primary care facility.  

The impact of this on students is devastating. Chronic diseases such as asthma, tooth decay, obesity and diabetes contribute to high absentee rates which in turn exarcebate already existing achievement gaps as students are unable to make up the valuable time lost in the classroom. Data show that nearly 50% of students in grades 2-11 were not proficient on statewide literacy exams in 2010-11.  Among high school students in the same year, less than 35% were deemed proficient in algebra, an essential course needed for college enrollment. Even more alarming is the average percentages of African American and Latino students that are proficient which are at a low of 40% and 30%, respectively.  Poor health has been found to contribute to these low academic achievement, specifically poor grades, the need to repeat grades, and high dropout rates.

Schools have long played a pivotal role in arresting the affects that a lack of access to care can produce. The 62 school health centers in Los Angeles County often serve as the default medical home of many community residents, providing patients with primary, mental and dental care in a location that is both familiar and safe.  SHCs co-location on school grounds make them readily accessible to families whose access to transportation is limited and to children who do not have to lose an entire school day to receive routine checkups.  Students who access SHCs have been shown to have decreased school absences, failing grades and disciplinary referrals. For the broader community, studies show that SHCs are more likely to attract harder-to-reach populations and increase their access to crucial services.

School health centers, however, face mounting challenges to survive. Los Angeles County has the largest share of SHCs in California, serve nearly 50% of students on school campuses, and provide access to care to a significant percentage of Los Angeles County’s underserved and uninsured.  Yet these vital medical centers are islands unto themselves, lying on the periphery of the system of care in Los Angeles County and relatively unknown within the system of education.  SHCs rely on a patchwork of funding streams that, in times of economic hardship, threaten their ability to operate.  Co-location on school grounds does not always lead to close partnerships with schools leading to the underutilization of services by school and community members.

LACEF’s Stay Well Learn Well School Health Centers Initiative maximizes the unique role school health centers assume within schools and strengthens the critical link between health and education. LACEF’s Stay Well Learn Well initiative aims to catalyze change in existing systems, policies and practices that impact the health outcomes of children and their families. Change began in Fall 2011 with the launch of the Stay Well Learn Well School Health Center at Lennox School District in partnership with the T.H.E. Clinic in Lennox, California.  Change continues in 2012 with a series of dialogues, convenings and launch of a new model demonstration site that address the barriers facing school health centers, promote new models of SHCs for the 21st century, and identify opportunities for innovation. We welcome you to join LACEF and reduce barriers to learning by recognizing February 2012 as the kick off to a year long commitment and the months following as the year of the school health center.  

Dr. Leticia Bustillos, LACEF Director of Programs

The First Lady, Health and Inglewood

LACEF’s mission is to seek out opportunities to address the needs of underserved children and teens.  LACEF looks at the whole child – educationally, emotionally and physically. To that end, we applaud the stance the First Lady has taken by focusing on health.  She has said “The physical and emotional health of an entire generation and the economic health and security of our nation is at stake.” This is true. According to the Center for Disease Control, Childhood obesity has tripled in the last 30 years.

Earlier this week Mrs. Obama was in Southern California promoting “Let’s Move”, her campaign against childhood obesity.  One of her stops was in Inglewood, the city in which I live.  She discussed, (along with one of our partners, The California Endowment), efforts to provide healthier food options in “traditionally” underserved areas. What I know about Let’s Move is that it is dedicated to solving obesity among children in the next generation.  What I know about the options in my community is that children and families don’t have many options when it comes to eating healthier.  From the standpoint, of acting as Chief Operating Officer for LACEF, it ties in with our Stay Well Learn Well school-based health center initiative promoting and funding health clinics for students and families on school sites in their communities. From a personal standpoint, I recognize the challenges that I and other people who live in my community face when it comes to healthier options.

For example, I don’t shop for food in the community in which I live.  I travel to Marina Del Rey to shop a farmer’s fresh market for my vegetables and fruit and either drive to the Whole Foods in El Segundo or Ralph’s in Ladera Heights for fish and other food staples.  However, not everyone has the time or the means to do this.

Thankfully, part of the reason the First Lady was in Inglewood, was to celebrate the effort to bring fresh food to impoverished neighborhoods. Mrs. Obama visited an abandoned warehouse in Inglewood, where a new grocery store is set to open in April.  With The California Endowment leading the way, The FreshWorks Fund -– a coalition of health organizations, banks and groceries -– has committed $264 million in public-private loans to help the stores get underway. Northgate Gonzalez Markets will receive $20 million in financing to open the Inglewood store and two other markets in City Heights and South Los Angeles. For Wednesday’s event, the market franchise set up bins of fruits and vegetables and shelves of cereal, juices and rice. Following the speeches, residents filled up bags with free groceries. The market is part of a statewide push to reduce obesity by attracting grocers to disadvantaged communities and making healthy food more accessible.

Lack of healthy eating options combined with lack of exercise contribute to obese children. Having the First Lady address healthier food options for children and families not only in schools, but within the community goes a long way. We, as a society, cannot not afford to have another generation of obese children, it puts a tremendous strain on the individual person as far as their quality of life and on society as a whole.

LACEF supports INVESTING in LA’s children via healthier options. We BELIEVE our children are worth it. We CHAMPION those who are committed to improving conditions for the benefit of LA’s children and teens.

LACEF stands with the First Lady in her the efforts towards healthier children and communities!

Dawn Turner, LACEF Chief Operating Officer