Schools and the Public Health Challenge

Last year, I attended the Council on Foundations conference in Seattle, Washington. Although I oversee the education programming at my office, I followed the Public Health track to discover new learning opportunities.  I quickly realized that the discussions my colleagues in the philanthropic sector were having on reforming education in the State of Ohio was too narrowly focused and, if I dare say, not terribly innovative. In Seattle, I had the pleasure to meet with the director of the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) Dr. Julie Gerberding who happens to have Ohio links (Case Med School grad). In her brilliant talk, she discussed the need to have whole communities involved in the public health of the population, especially schools which means, addressing obesity, violence, childhood obesity, tobacco and other drug use, diabetes and the varieties of mental illness that plague are issues in any school in this country. The CDC produced a report suggesting ways in which communities can create healthy schools.

I think that many of our teachers deal with children who either they or their families struggle with any of the public health issues listed above. How many of our children come from homes where violence is commonplace? How many of our children are addicted to tobacco promising a life of illness and compromised health? How many of our children are obese and have no access to sports or any kind of physical activity. If you are not well, you can’t perform well in class. Are we missing something in our recommendations?
Dr. Gerberding stated that she envisions a community that would one day hold the mayor and city council as accountable for the public health of the community. It would be interesting if we could hold the governor as accountable on this issue as the mayors.
Another illuminating part of the panel discussion focused on how the public health system in the United States was organized more than fifty years ago around an organizational response to infectious disease. Fifty-years later, the medical/health sector addresses infectious disease for the most part, whereas the public health system is straining to respond to chronic disease. I was reminded of previous conversations about the antiquated model for public schools in this country. Based on an agrarian model that includes three months off in summer for the harvest, this system does not seem to serve our young people well. It is my hope that these conversations will give rise to new ways of thinking about merging the public health systems (including departments of mental health, Drug and alcohol, tobacco and firearms?) to link be more proactive and supportive of public school teachers and administrators who are not equipped to deal with the issues they confront in the classroom each day. If we were to think of schools as the logical catchments area for families to address chronic public health issues, what would those schools look like?
PLEASE post your thoughts and comments.