You get what you measure. When schools measure their success by the answers on test results, the importance of other factors, like physical, social, and emotional health can be left out of the equation.
Study after study will point out the importance of exercise in improving the health and learning of students, but physical education and recess are reduced to add more time and resources to tested subjects.
Study after study will detail the importance of school conditions on the health and learning of students, but districts often fail to make needed repairs and renovations which could improve those conditions. This is particularly true in poor school districts like Baltimore City Public Schools, which have suffered frequent budget cuts.
Heating and Cooling
It is inadequate heating and air conditioning in Baltimore City Public Schools that has grabbed headlines. Last winter when boilers failed, several schools closed for emergency repairs. This year, many schools were closed half days for a week due to inadequate air conditioning. It is stunning when our schools cannot provide moderate temperatures for our children which we would expect in any store, government or office building or prison. The loss of classroom time and the disruption of academic and family schedules is tragic. But temperature is only one of the factors that affects student performance.
Ventilation rates in many Baltimore City Public Schools are inadequate. High Co2 levels can reduce student performance; inadequate air exchanges leave students breathing higher levels of indoor pollutants, increasing the likelihood of illness and asthma attacks. In freezing winter days, you can see whole lines of windows open at some schools as teachers are trying to lower the temperatures in their overheated classrooms. I used to squirm at the thought of the energy this wasted. I still squirm, but I’m at least comforted that students are getting ample fresh air.
Dust, pests, mold and chemicals are frequent triggers of asthma attacks. Schools with poor maintenance are more likely to have more asthma triggers. Leaky roofs and plumbing can produce mold hazards, inadequate cleaning and pest control can result in airborne dust and pest allergens. Children in Baltimore are twice as likely to have been diagnosed with asthma than children in Maryland as a whole, so asthma triggers in Baltimore City Public Schools may be sending a disproportionately high percentage of Baltimore children home or to a hospital with an asthma attack. But we don’t know, because the school district does not track absences due to asthma.
Baltimore City Public Schools offers free breakfast and lunch to all students, but not all students are eating these meals. Many students arrive after breakfast service has ended. Students often suggest that schools should offering fresher, more appealing food items.
Classroom lighting is often cited as having a strong correlation to student learning and performance. Most studies find that proper lighting, particularly from natural light sources (windows) is strongly correlated to student learning. Some classrooms don’t have sufficient window light, but in many others, teachers are choosing to block out natural lighting for a variety of reasons: to project lessons on a screen, to control student behavior, to control classroom temperatures, or the blinds are inoperable.
Building awareness of the effect of lighting in classrooms and developing appropriate choices for teachers could improve student health and learning.
Classroom acoustics determines whether students can hear the instruction, collaborate with each other, and focus on their work. Loud fans, noise from other classrooms, loud announcement systems and bells can detract from the learning environment.
A STEM Learning Project which connects schools to the needs of their students.
When students and teachers study how they can improve the health and learning conditions at their school, they are emerged in a hands on scientific investigation into improving their own environment and performance. This can help connect the school to the physical, emotional, social and academic needs of students.
Here are some projects students could do at their schools.
What is the optimal amount and source of light in classrooms?
- Test Light levels in 4 classrooms
- Test students
- Alter light levels (open blinds in 2 classrooms /turn off lights in 2 classrooms)
- Test students
- Survey students/teachers on their preferences for lighting
What is the existing range for temperature and humidity in our classrooms? What is the optimal range?
- Select rooms to test
- Collect temp, humidity data
- Test students
- Control temp/(or wait until cold/hot temperatures)
- Test students
- Compare results.
- Survey students on the best temperature ranges.
What is the existing water quality at our school?:
Test bacteria in water dispensers
Test lead in water supply
Test from inside school
Test sidewalk near bus
Can students improve nutrition at the school?
How old is the food?
How much food waste?
Are there other sources for food or ways to improve freshness and nutritional offerings?
How many students refuse or choose not to eat?
Survey and/or observe which students eat, which don’t.
What effect do the vending machines have on student nutrition?
How can we increase the number of students who eat breakfast?
Test group of students in 1 or 2 classes.
Note: mice and cockroaches love leftovers. If students eat in classrooms, they need to clean up.
How do asthma triggers affect student health and learning at our school?
Who has asthma?
How many asthma absences?
What are the asthma triggers in school?
Chemicals, cleaning agents, pests, dust, air quality.
How to quantify pests?
Survey, Pest Log, glue traps,
How do locked, dirty bathrooms affect students?
Are bathrooms available to students when needed?
Are bathrooms supplied and clean?
Survey students and teachers
Interview bathroom monitors, staff.
Can plants and air filters improve air quality in our school?
Measure and monitor air quality in classrooms
Introduce plants which clean air into one classroom
Introduce mechanical air filters into another clasroom
Remeasure the air quality in the classrooms
Compare the air quality in the test and control rooms.
Survey students and teachers on their opinions on air quality.in their classrooms.
Reporting Findings and Recommendations
The key to these projects are in the final steps: how do students innovate to try to solve these issues, how they report on their findings to their class, and to school and government officials.
How schools can improve the health of students and their communities
The 2017 Neighborhood Health Report by the Baltimore City Health Department is hard to read. It spells out the stark disparities and desperation in our city with a clarity that is hard to confront. We don’t want the details about homicides, increasing overdoses, and low life expectancy to be about our city–but they are.
It is no secret that death comes easy in Baltimore. Average life expectancy here is 73.6 years, about five years less than the national average of 78.8 and six years less than the Maryland state average of 79.5. This is disturbing, but when we compare life expectancy of our neighborhoods, the disparities are glaring.
The Clifton-Berea (94.9% African American, median income $25,738) has a life expectancy of 66.9 years while Cross-Country/Cheswolde (72.9% White, median income $54,868) has a life expectancy of 87.1 years.
This is a 20-year difference between life expectancy in a predominantly white, middle income neighborhood and a black, lower income neighborhood. We know that our neighborhoods have long been divided along racial and economic lines, but this gap isn’t just the shadow of our segregated history, it’s the misery of life in poor, segregated neighborhoods today.
Chronic diseases like heart disease, stroke, cancer, type 2 diabetes and obesity are the leading causes of death in Baltimore and the nation. In 2014, approximately one third of Baltimore City residents were obese. Obesity is linked to high blood pressure, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease.
Drugs and alcohol overdose deaths increased 56.6% from 2015 to 2016 when 694 people died. Homicides, most related to drugs, add to this total of drug related deaths. There were 318 Homicides in 2016. On the 300th day of 2017, 291 homicides have been recorded, a rate of nearly one a day.
How long will we allow this misery to exist? What will we do now to change these brutal statistics in the years ahead?
If our schools are truly preparing children for life, we need to ensure that they won’t suffer the same chronic diseases, addictions, and violence a few years into the future.
Growing the mind, body and spirit of our children, their families, and their community should be the primary goal of our schools. This is a key shift in how we now view the mission and role of schools.
Here is a quick checklist. How is your school doing?
- Is every child getting good nutrition and learning to create healthy meals?
- Is every child getting an hour of exercise every day?
- Is every child getting regular medical, dental, and vision checkups?
- Is every child offered mental health services?
- Is every child offered meditation or yoga training to relieve stress?
- Is every child connected to trusted adult mentors?
- Is every child offered time to learn and play in nature?
- Is every child learning conflict resolution and peer conflict mediation?
- Is every child taking health information home to their families on health access, addiction treatment programs, jobs and social services?
- Is your school free from asthma triggers like mice, cockroaches, dust, bus idling, air fresheners and toxic cleaning materials?
- Are classroom temperatures between 65 and 78 degrees?
- Do students have free access to water and bathrooms?
Some of this is happening now.
Some schools have yoga and meditation centers; some are improving their nutrition and outdoor education programs; some are instituting peer conflict mediation programs; some have health suites and vision care for students. Some schools are involved with THREAD, which provides mentors for at risk students.
Some is not enough.
Every school needs to meet the human needs of every child. This isn’t easy, and schools are already overwhelmed. Expanding out of school programs, integrating community programs, and bringing in more volunteers from the community can help create this change.
If we realign education to the needs of our students, they will do better in school–and in life. They will be ready to reclaim Baltimore and the years of life which are rightfully theirs. -shan
Want to learn more about health in Baltimore City?
Here is a link to the 2017 health report on Baltimore City as a whole.
Here is the link to download the individual neighborhood profiles:
Here are links to a variety of health maps.
2013 life expectancy:
Teen birth rate
Violent crime 2013
Avertable deaths 2011
2015 homicide epidemic
Students Test their Schools
Students at Patterson High School and Baltimore Polytechnic Institute are about to get new science and environmental health laboratories: their schools.
Johns Hopkins and Cool Green Schools are partnering on a community research grant to provide three classes of high school students with mentors, testing equipment, and funding so they can study and improve the health and learning conditions in their school environments.
Students will work with Keith Madigan, a building engineer, to collect data on environmental conditions which affect their health and learning. They will monitor several conditions including: temperature, humidity, acoustics, lighting, asthma triggers, VOC’s, 2.5ppm and Co2.
Two public health students from Johns Hopkins, Arshdeep Kaur and Madison Dutson, will introduce students to environmental health research, demonstrate an environmental health study, and mentor students.
The high school students will propose and conduct their own research projects. The grant provides students with testing equipment, $4,000 dollars to study and improve their school environments, and $1,000 dollars to communicate their findings.
This student research project will offer innovative STEM learning opportunities for students, but school facility staff, researchers and educators may learn important lessons from this project as well.
Stay tuned, we will post updates on this project as it evolves.
The New Scientific Breakthroughs:
How and Who
When we list our most important scientific breakthroughs, we usually note the discoveries of new evidence: ancient bones, DNA, black holes and medicines.
But could our biggest recent breakthrough be not what have found, but how we collaborate in our research?
There is a new paradigm for scientific research that could change how we study, what we study, and whether our research is useful in solving the problems it identified.
Community research grants offer communities and organizations a collaborative role in researching health and social problems, training in scientific investigations, and a shared communication of the results and implications of these studies. For communities, which have never been offered a role in research studies other than unpaid lab rats, this is a big deal.
These partnerships can help communities develop research and design interventions to improve the lives of their members and clients. For scientists, these partnerships offer keen insights into the social, economic and cultural factors which affect these issues and ongoing access to these programs for follow up research opportunities which can test the effect of interventions as they are implemented over time.
My favorite opportunity for these grants is at K-12 schools where students and college researchers could collaborate on issues which affect the health and learning of students, their families and communities. These collaborations could help enrich the science curriculum, develop mentoring partnerships that create bridges to colleges, and help schools become a locus for building healthy communities.
I love science and scientists, but I will not miss the high holy research design where lab coats and equipment appeared and disappeared without a trace save for a mention in a scientific journal or conference. The job of science is to create better understanding and better outcomes. When it descends from the tower of science, it is a valuable tool of positive social change.
I’m excited to see what we will learn, when we are learning together.
Associate Dean, Public Health Practice & Training at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, talks with students about health disparities in Baltimore City during a Youth Summit at the Cylburn Arboretum. A recent report on health indicators in Baltimore found that there remains a 20 year disparity in life expectancy between neighborhoods in Baltimore City.