By ELIZABETH FERGUSON
Capital News Service
LANSING — Newberry Elementary School in Luce County doesn’t have a school nurse, but it has a school health team that gets tips from hospital experts on how to teach nutrition and respond to flu season.
This coordinated school health team maximizes limited resources by bringing together health and physical education teachers with experts in the community, said Principal Stacy Price.
“Who we call on depends on what direction we are going,” Price said. For example, a hospital dietitian attends meetings when school nutrition is being discussed.
About half of Michigan’s school districts rely on coordinated health teams to meet unique needs in their areas. Charlie Yeager, who oversees health education in seven central Upper Peninsula districts as one of Michigan’s 24 regional health coordinators, believes that schools across the state could benefit from their own coordinated health teams.
Coordinated health in schools should ideally incorporate eight components, including health education, health services, physical education, nutrition and mental health, Yeager said.
“Things like math and science take priority over health, but yet if a student isn’t healthy, they’re going to have a hard time learning,” Yeager said.
In 2013, a reported 27 percent of students experienced the symptoms of depression and more than 28 percent of students were overweight or obese, according to the Michigan Youth Risk Behavior Survey.
Because resources and needs are different for each school, it is difficult for the state to recommend a single plan for all schools to address students’ needs, said Bree Anderson, associate director of the Michigan Council for Maternal and Child Health.
Coordinated health team members have the common goal of trying to structure the best usage of health resources, time and money to improve students’ health, Anderson said.
The teams may make cafeteria meals more nutritious, host community walks to increase physical activity, or train staff to recognize mental health conditions in students.
Chris Marana, now a principal of Aspen Ridge School in Ishpeming, helped develop a coordinated health team when he was a teacher in the Manistique School District.
Marana said his school’s team focused on basic health needs of students, especially nutrition, because many children were in the free or reduced lunch program at the time.
“It was hard to focus on improving student learning when some kids didn’t even eat breakfast,” Marana said.
With the help of a community health expert, the team was able to introduce more healthy options to students in the cafeteria, Marana said.
Price, principal at Newberry, agreed that outside resources are beneficial and provide her team the ability to learn about state and national grants they could apply for.
This summer, new sidewalks will be added in Newberry with funding from the state’s Safe Routes to School grant.
Price said these new walkways will give children safer routes to school, allowing them to be more active.
“If students don’t feel well, they can’t do their job, which is learning, growing and preparing for the next phase of their life,” said Kim Kovalchick, supervisor of the Coordinated School Health and Safety Programs Unit of the Michigan Department of Education.
State funding determines the improvements schools can make to students’ health, and because the Legislature approves this budget each year, Yeager said it is always important to educate lawmakers on the health needs of their district’s students.
For this reason, health experts like Yeager are holding local forums to educate their legislators on the current status of student health in their communities.
Last month, a forum in the Marquette-Alger area revolved around the importance of coordinated health on a district and regional level, and specifically the value of coordinated school health teams, Yeager said.
“Rather than having legislators at the Capitol, it brings them back to their own districts, it makes it more personal and more related to what’s going on with their constituents,” Anderson said.
Rep. John Kivela, D-Marquette, who attended the Marquette forum, said, “It is always beneficial to get information directly from locals, and the U.P. legislators always work together on this.”
Yeager said he and other regional health coordinators also work to help schools understand the value in setting up a coordinated school health team.
Schools can assess their own need for improvement using the online Healthy School Action Tool, provided by the Michigan Department of Community Health.
When the Newberry Elementary School’s health team first used this tool, Price said “our eyes were wide open about how much we did not have in policies here at the school.”
The coordinated health team helped change that, she said.
By ELIZABETH FERGUSON