By Jessica Bauer Walker
There is much discussion and activity in Buffalo Public Schools about creating positive change for students and families. The district is spearheading a strategic planning process, Say Yes to Education has coordinated a large-scale fundraising effort to support college and trade school scholarships for all students who graduate, and there is growing family and community engagement on many issues.
One aspect of school improvement that is not being given the emphasis it deserves is the health and safety of our children. A snapshot of public health indicators among Buffalo Public School students reflects a troubling picture. Forty-five percent of seventh-graders are overweight. Sexual health risk factors are the poorest in the state, and more than 200 students became pregnant last year. Nearly 30 percent of high school students reported feeling sad or hopeless to the point where it interfered with their daily activities, and 14 percent thought seriously about committing suicide.
Last year, parents and health advocates within the district and community came together armed with this data and our subjective experience that our children were in danger, and that their poor health status was severely impacting their ability to learn and thrive. This simple and common-sense notion was the impetus to collaboratively write a new district wellness policy, based on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention “Coordinated School Health” model. The policy was approved by the School Board in April 2012.
For the past year, we have advocated for this policy to be implemented. We have asked, at minimum, that the district come into compliance with state regulations on physical activity and health education. The Buffalo Public Schools are so far out of compliance with these requirements that it is estimated they would need to hire 30 additional physical education teachers to meet state standards. In the meantime, we have suggested basic, low-cost practices to fill this gap, such as the implementation of recess and the provision of appropriate, sequential sexual health education. We are still waiting.
If our children are not healthy and safe, any change we work to implement to increase academic success and ensure that our students are college and career ready will be doomed. There are complex, hard-to-address factors that are causing Buffalo children to do so poorly academically. There are some other quite basic and easy strategies that could help students to be healthier and better prepared to learn. As parents and community members, we must speak up and ask the Buffalo Board of Education to implement its own policy in order to protect our children.
Jessica Bauer Walker is executive director of the Community Health Worker Network of Buffalo and Health Committee chairwoman of the District Parent Coordinating Council.