Earlier this month, the Office of Research and Education Accountability (OERA) released a set of infographics on physical education and physical activity in Tennessee public schools. State law currently requires 90 minutes of physical activity per week for students in seventh through twelfthgrade. For the 2013-14 school year, the latest year that data are available, 85 percent of Tennessee public school districts reported they provided the required 90 minutes of physical activity. Districts noted some common obstacles to implementing physical activity in schools such as lack of consequences for not complying with the law, lack of time, and concerns about decreased academic time.
The OERA report joins a larger national conversation about the link between health and education outcomes for our students. Research shows that physically healthy students tend to have better grades, school attendance, and classroom behavior. The impact is especially profound for students from historically underserved backgrounds. Participation in a free school breakfast program, for example, has been positively associated with students being on time; missing less school; and having better attention, behavior, math grades, and standardized test scores. Promoting student physical and mental health is a promising strategy that could have an impact on student achievement.
Eight years ago, Johnson City Schools (JCS), a 2015-16 SCORE Prize finalist, implemented the Helping Everyone Reach Optimum Excellence and Success (HEROES) initiative, a comprehensive set of services designed to meet a range of student mental health and safety needs. The initiative has provided several wellness services, including therapeutic counseling in every JCS school as well as access to nutritious meals and snacks. The program also includes an option for economically disadvantaged students to opt into a backpack program that sends food home on Friday afternoons. JCS reported a decrease in use of alcohol, tobacco, and marijuana among students as well as strong growth in math and science scores. Although it is difficult to attribute student achievement gains in JCS solely to the targeted focus on student health, there is little doubt that healthy students are more likely to be successful in school.
Over the next few months, the SCORE team will dig deeper into the connection between education and health. We will also explore possible areas of collaboration with other partners. One such partner is NashvilleHealth, an initiative focused on improving the health of the citizens of Davidson County. NashvilleHealth is chaired and was created by former U.S. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, who also founded SCORE. Tennessee, and particularly Nashville, can play a unique role in leading the national conversation about the intersection of health and education because it is home to an active education reform community as well as a large health care sector. The presence of both these sectors also provides an opportunity to facilitate public-private partnerships that could potentially change the trajectories of children in the city and across the state.
Over the last several years, Tennessee has led the way in improving educational outcomes for students. Meeting the physical and mental health needs of Tennessee students could continue this upward trajectory and ensure lasting gains for all students.