Student success linked to student health

California faces a devastating future because too many students are not graduating or are in remediation classes at college, especially children of color and lower income students. Too many kids are disengaged and don’t care if they drop out, stay in school or just get by.

We also know that students need help to address their health and well-being because children who are hungry, sick, unfit, stressed or who feel disconnected from school will not perform or be motivated to learn. That is why we need to make schools more relevant by supporting legislation that links learning with health.

Yesterday, as chairwoman of the Assembly Committee on Education, I had the pleasure of hearing information gathered by The California Healthy Students Project, which linked student health to student academic success, at a joint oversight hearing by the Assembly Committees on Education and Health.

During the hearing, participants challenged the two committees to work together on implementing strategic, cost-effective reforms across health, education, juvenile justice and nutrition sectors so that students are ready to learn and meet high academic expectations.

As was pointed out by State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson during the hearing, student success requires more than great teachers and challenging curriculum. Students also need to be healthy–physically and emotionally – and feel safe on campus so they can attend school ready to learn and thrive.

The research, which was commissioned by The California Endowment, The James Irvine Foundation, and the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, confirms what many education and health leaders have long suspected: academic success isn’t just about academics – it’s about safe campuses, good nutrition, mental and physical health and meaningful opportunities. The research indicates that reforms in education, health and safety for students must go hand-in-hand for students to succeed. The opposite is also true; there is a powerful connection between poor health and academic failure.

Research found that health problems and inadequate school environments affect students’ attendance, grades and ability to learn. Specifically:

• Students who miss school or attend while ill don’t achieve as well as others. For example, students with asthma miss 2-18 school days a year, a condition correlated with lower test scores and poorer academic performance;
• Students who regularly eatt breakfast have 50 percent higher test scores on standardized math tests, and have nearly half the absentee rates of students who don’t eat breakfast;
• Students given access to school-based mental health centers showed a 30 percent decrease in absences and failures, and a 95 percent decrease in disciplinary referrals; and
• Students who feel isolated and uninvolved at school are less motivated to achieve and more likely to engage in risky behaviors, including drug and alcohol abuse.

The bottom line is that students cannot learn well if they are sick, hungry, troubled, physically unfit, afraid or feel isolated and alone.

The California Healthy Students Research Project also highlights the disproportionate impact these issues have on lower-income students and students of color who make up the majority of California youth. The environmental conditions that support regular attendance and academic achievement—including safety, caring relationships, high expectations and meaningful participation—decrease in proportion to the percentage of students at a school who are living in poverty, undermining the American dream for major segments of California youth.

Anne Stanton, Youth Program Director of The James Irvine Foundation, in a statement issued after the hearing, pointed out that student health is critical to our youth’s ability to reach their potential—and to advance California’s economic and cultural prosperity. California needs to couple commitment to education reform with strategic investments in the safety and well-being of our young people to close the achievement gap, prepare for successful futures and maintain California’s place as a leader in the global economy.

As state leaders, we must take immediate action and turn this research into policy and practice at the state, local, district and school levels. By better coordinating the activities of state and local government agencies, and community organizations, California can more efficiently use existing resources that support student health, wellness and safety. And, we don’t need to look far to find models for reform; successes are already taking place in communities throughout California. For example, the City of Sacramento created Student Attendance Centers through a partnership among law enforcement, community based organizations and the Sacramento Unified School District. This program has increased student attendance by connecting truant students with comprehensive services to address the problems that are keeping them from going to school. Services include drug treatment, family counseling, tutoring and mentoring.

I agree with the statement issued by The Endowment President and CEO, Dr. Robert K. Ross. Policymakers at both the state and local level need to use these findings and recommendations as a starting point so that every student has an equal opportunity to realize academic success. Health happens in our communities and only through the support of legislative reform and changes in practice in our schools can we achieve positive health and academic outcomes for all children.

Although some of these health and well-being issues are the result of community and family challenges, schools can do things to address them and help students learn better. Solutions range from partnerships with community resources and better coordination of services, to changing school environments to be more supportive of students and their needs, and to better empowering students and families to be part of the solution.

State and local governments and community partners must all do their part by working together and with schools to improve academic results, and Wednesday’s hearing, along with the research produced by The California Healthy Students Project, has brought us one step closer to achieving those goals.

To view the study, visit

Julia Brownley is Chairwoman of the Assembly Committee on Education.

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