Four hundred education and health professionals from across Tennessee explored ways to advance student health and academic achievement at the Better Health, Better Learning summit in Nashville.

The August 28 convening, sponsored by SCORE and NashvilleHealth and led by the founder of both organizations, Senator Bill Frist, MD, was the first of its kind in the country. Attendees heard national and state experts talk about the connection between student health and learning and ways to work together to improve both. Former second lady Dr. Jill Biden, a career educator, delivered the keynote address.

Tennessee’s success in making large academic gains in a relatively short period of time indicates the state is capable of taking on big challenges. Since 2011, Tennessee students have made academic gains that outpace the national averages in math, science and eighth-grade reading according to the Nation’s Report Card.

Still, our state has some large gaps in how students perform. Just 17 percent of students in the state are college-ready in all four ACT subject areas. And Tennessee students trail their peers nationally across a wide variety of health outcomes and behaviors. We have higher rates of obesity, youth smoking, teen pregnancy, asthma, and mental health conditions compared to the U.S. average.

“If we want to continue to excel academically and build strong, healthy brains, we need to think outside the box and consider student health as a central factor driving these outcomes,” Senator Frist said at the summit.

During a TED talk that focused on one student named Brianna, Senator Frist described two possible outcomes for her health, her education, her well-being, and her long-term success depending where Brianna lives and attends school. “It shouldn’t matter what school district you live in or what socio-economic background you come from – we should make health and healthy choices an integral part of our academic culture,” he said.

Nationally recognized leaders in health and education participated in the summit, including Dr. Richard Besser, president and CEO of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation; Dr. Lillian M. Lowery, vice president for pre K-12 policy, research, and practice at The Education Trust; US Congressman Diane Black; Dr. JD Hickey, CEO of BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee; and Commissioner Candice McQueen of the Tennessee Department of Education.

In panel discussions and breakouts, the conversation focused on collaboration, policy implementation, and active intervention to accelerate what is already happening in our schools and address the challenges that are present to create a genuine culture of health in our schools.