New area program aims to improve children's health
BY JANET PEARSON Associate Editor
Sunday, September 04, 2011
9/04/11 at 2:43 AM
Judging from the following findings, Oklahoma doesn't seem to care much about children.
About 196,000 Oklahoma children - 22 percent of the state's youngsters - live in poverty, making them potential victims of just about everything bad.
According to the Oklahoma Children's Health Plan, released earlier this year, the leading causes of death for children and teens in Oklahoma no longer are the predictable ones, such as illness and birth defects, but are now "preventable causes, including injury and violence."
The report, a blueprint for improving children's health, also found: One out of every 10 Oklahoma youngsters might have a substance abuse disorder. An estimated 90,000 children between the ages of 9-17 have a mental or behavioral issue.
About a third of the children in the state lack access to both medical and dental care.
Tobacco use, which almost always starts in childhood or adolescence, kills more Oklahomans than alcohol, car wrecks, AIDS, suicides, murders and illegal drugs combined.
About 30 percent of Oklahoma children are overweight or obese; half of those ages 10-17 fall into those categories. If the current trend isn't interrupted, these youngsters soon will join the 67 percent of Oklahoma adults who are either overweight or obese.
Teach the children
Despite the fact these findings have been reported and publicized repeatedly for years, there's not much evidence of progress.
Maybe we're talking to the wrong people. Maybe information should be directed to those most likely to act on it and benefit from it: the children.
Certainly there are already many worthwhile and effective educational health initiatives in our schools. But are they adequate to make a big dent in child health issues?
An innovative new program being launched this fall in a nine-county area of northeastern Oklahoma aims to take health, safety and wellness lessons to an estimated 180,000 students, from the time they arrive at kindergarten all the way through high school.
St. Francis Health System has committed $1 million to the HealthTeacher initiative, an on-line teaching program that already is in use in 10,000 schools across the country, including seven of the nation's 10 largest school districts.
The HealthTeacher curriculum features 300 individual, age-appropriate lesson plans that focus on a wide variety of health, safety and wellness issues. The lesson plans cover just about everything a youngster in America today might face, including: alcohol and drug use; environmental health; injury prevention; violence; mental and emotional health; bullying; body image; nutrition; physical activity; tobacco use; and sexuality.
The program is intentionally flexible, so that each individual school district can tailor its use as it sees fit. HealthTeacher can serve as a supplemental resource or a free-standing curriculum. There is no limit to the number of teachers who can access the on-line resources, which are crafted so they can even be utilized by such nontraditional health educators as math, language arts and social studies instructors.
Tulsa Public Schools was the first district to sign on to implement the program, in use in all 50 states.
"We all recognize that children's health is a huge national issue. Childhood obesity is a national epidemic," said TPS Superintendent Keith Ballard. "But we really haven't had that vehicle that takes us forward in a systematic manner.
"HealthTeacher provides teachers with the tools that they need. We welcome this program. We will get out front with the use of this program," declared Ballard. "We intend for every student to be touched by this."
Poverty to blame
St. Francis CEO Jake Henry Jr. said the health system's interest in pursuing this intiative stemmed in part from its mission at the Children's Hospital.
Though St. Francis has participated in other health education efforts, "we were not completely satisfied because we had really not encountered anything that was complete."
A major reason Oklahoma has so many childhood ills, Henry noted, is poverty. "There is a huge correlaton between poverty and those things that get you into the Children's Hospital," said Henry, noting that 60 percent of the hospital's patients are covered by Medicaid.
Eight-five percent of TPS students come from economically disadvantaged backgrounds, noted Ballard.
"We felt like if we could partner with a huge organization like TPS, using a proven product like HealthTeacher, we wouldn't waste a lot of time trying something that might not work," Henry said.
The Oklahoma initiative will feature a health education coordinator assigned to this region, who will help schools with training and implementation of the program. The St. Francis funding will provide for three years of operation of HealthTeacher. After the three years, officials will assess the experience and decide whether to continue with it.
Now for the obvious question: Will there be controversy? After all, "family health and sexuality" is an element of the curriculum. These lesson plans cover such issues as growth and development; responsibility; respect for self and others; family roles and diversity; HIV and AIDS; abstinence; physical changes in adolescence; how to say no; and date rape.
Noting that TPS is "used to a bit of controversy in everything we do," Ballard said school officials are "prepared to deal with" any objections raised over such instruction. Parents will have the opportunity to keep their children out of sessions they object to, and parents will be kept informed about the program through a monthly newsletter.
Henry said the curriculum was closely reviewed by St. Francis nuns, who had no problems with it.
Scott McQuigg, CEO of the Nashville-based program, said HealthTeacher is "controversy-free because it is a local decision in what and how it gets utilized."
It's also effective. McQuigg said in the 12 years HealthTeacher has been in use, three different types of assessments have shown it is successful in modifying health behaviors.
What's more, HealthTeacher has proven effective in modifying the behavior of others who are exposed to it. "We've had teachers tell us it's changed their health practices," said McQuigg. "That's a really powerful message to kids."
Experience suggests that children can even be instrumental in changing the behavior of others in their households. "That's what happened with recycling," noted McQuigg. "It was brought into homes by kids who learned about it and went home and activated it with their parents."
It's an unfortunate fact of American life that schools have to shoulder many burdens that ought to be the province of parents. But if educators can find the time and are willing to make the effort to impart these lessons, then all of society will be the better for it.
Original Print Headline: Healthy progress
Janet Pearson 918-581-8328
B.J. Dacosta does an excercise called bananas as part of the game bean bag bonanza at Sequoyah Elementary School earlier this year. As part of their efforts to help students stay healthy, Tulsa Public Schools has signed on to St. Francis Health System's HealthTeacher initiative. MIKE SIMONS/Tulsa World file