CPS officials plan to release in June recommendations for improving student health—the third such effort since 2002. Observers in Chicago’s health community have their fingers crossed that this effort will get off the ground.
The latest plan will encourage schools to adopt a strategy called coordinated school health, which was developed by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The idea is to expand the responsibility for healthy children beyond the school nurse, says Allecia Alexander, CPS director of coordinated school health.
For instance, asthmatic children might need not only nursing, but also counseling, modified physical education and attention to building conditions that might set off an asthmatic attack.
The strategy calls for schools and school districts to coordinate their efforts around eight areas found to impact student health and academic achievement, including physical education, health education and even the health of school staff.
Schools will not be required to adopt the strategy, but rather are encouraged to and offered extra support, says Alexander. Her office already has set up partnerships with health service providers for 15 schools. Ideally every CPS school would get an extra staff person to coordinate health services and planning, “but financially that would be quite a challenge,” she says.
Coordinated school health got a foothold in CPS in 2002 when Margie Schaps, executive director of the non-profit Health and Medicine Policy Research Group, approached Sue Gamm, then chief officer of specialized services.
The two quickly organized a committee of 50 from inside and outside the district to talk about getting coordinated school health going in Chicago. As a start, they picked a health problem to tackle jointly. Gamm says they chose obesity. Participants had a range of expertise, including food service, physical education and school operations, says Gamm. “It got people connecting in a way they never had before.”
About the same time, a Student Development Planning initiative got underway under the direction of Melissa Roderick of the University of Chicago. One of its working groups was on student health.
That group, also made of district staff and outside agencies, had a different focus, says Roderick: to identify health issues that interfered most with student learning. The group chose asthma, poor vision and hearing, and mental health, she recalls, and then sketched a framework for further planning.
The Gamm-Schaps work ended up on a shelf after Gamm left the district suddenly in April 2003 and her successor, Renee Grant-Mitchell, disbanded the group, saying she needed time to orient herself.
The following October, Grant-Mitchell created a Department of Coordinated Student Health; in April 2004, she tapped Alexander for director. Alexander also formed a committee, made up mostly of central office employees (whom she declined to identify) to hammer out a new plan, with input from school staff and outside agencies.
Alexander says she is using the work of the previous two committees to inform her process “but a different model is developing.”
Schaps says she’s hopeful. “I think Arne Duncan has made a commitment to coordinated school health.”
But another observer questions whether Alexander’s position as department head carries the necessary authority to make coordinated school health a priority. Duncan should have appointed a chief health officer, says the observer, a move that Roderick’s health working group also recommended. “In order for this to work, it has to have some teeth behind it.”