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Wen and Thornton: Investing in children’s health is an investment in education

It is often said that education must be the foundation for building a better future. But if a student cannot see the board without glasses, chronically misses school because of illness, or is unable to focus in class due to a traumatic experience at home, our youth will not develop into the leaders of tomorrow.

By taking care of our students where they already are, we can keep Baltimore’s children in school and ready to learn. We understand that parents and caregivers are not always capable of leaving work to take a child to a doctor, but we also know that it should not stand in the way of getting children the care they need. That is why the Baltimore City Health Department and Baltimore City Public Schools strive to provide health services in every school. BCHD’s staff work in health suites in more than 180 schools to provide 44,000 hearing and vision screens and 11,000 doses of immunizations annually, which have helped our city achieve a 99.9 percent student immunization rate — one of the highest in the country. Additionally, in collaboration with Behavioral Health System Baltimore, our agencies provide mental health services at over 120 schools. In the next step to provide care for our students without them leaving the classroom, we will be launching a pilot  program to provide on-site delivery of glasses later this spring.

We also know that the important link between health and educational achievement begins before school enrollment. Studies show that early childhood programs like Head Start and BCPS’s pre-kindergarten improve a child’s ability to learn when entering grade school. Judy Centers, a partnership implemented in 12 city schools, provides adult education, food access, professional development, and mental health support. Similarly, home-based visitation programs for pregnant mothers have been shown to increase math and reading achievement test scores in grades 1-3 as well as decrease arrests under age 15 by nearly 60 percent. Elevated lead levels in young children, conversely, are associated with decreased educational attainment and increased rates of school violence.

Progress, but work remains

In recent years, our programs have made remarkable strides that have improved educational outcomes as well as our health priorities. BCHD’s B’More for Healthy Babies initiative has brought 150 public and private partners together to drop the city’s infant mortality rate to its lowest point in history, while also driving an unprecedented 36 percent reduction in teen birth rates. Meanwhile, by offering expanded opportunities for home-based intervention, the number of children with lead poisoning has been reduced by 82 percent over the last decade. Additionally, BCPS’s Local Wellness, Nutrition and Physical Activity policy, approved by the Baltimore City Board of School Commissioners last spring, is now providing our students — and their families — with the comprehensive wellness education skills necessary to make healthier choices. Together, BCHD and BCPS received $8.5 million to expand student access to comprehensive reproductive health education. Through this new collaboration and the implementation of our innovative Youth Health and Wellness Strategy, we are setting an ambitious goal of another 30 percent decrease in the teen birth rate by 2021.

This is all impressive progress, but we must do even more. We must expand reproductive health education to combat a teen birthrate that is still 1.5 times higher than the national rate, so that more teens finish school. We must ensure that we offer not only physical health services but mental health services in schools, including recognition of serious trauma that many students experience and the development of resiliency programs.

We must offer 21st century care in our 21st century schools. Right now, only 15 schools have school-based health centers staffed by a nurse practitioner or a physician. Through telemedicine, we can have mental health providers and other medical specialists accessible to every one of our 84,000 students. Such programs will lower barriers to healthcare, continue to decrease absenteeism rates, and further improve students’ performance. Failing to provide adequate resources now will end up costing more over the long term.

While we agree that education is a key to building a strong foundation, we recognize that the well-being of our students is absolutely critical to our aspirations for a stronger future.

By continuing to invest in proven efforts that make a difference and celebrating our shared accomplishments, we can ensure that all of Baltimore’s students have the quality of care they need to thrive, graduate, and pursue their dreams.

Dr. Leana Wen is the Baltimore City Health Commissioner. Dr. Gregory Thornton is the CEO of Baltimore City Public Schools.