Some of the best ways to enhance the academic performance of our students may have little to do with the classroom, a breakfast gathering of educators and community leaders were told Thursday.
Sufficient sleep, a good breakfast and exercise during the school day – as much as an hour out of the academic day – were identified as critical at the Healthy Kids Learn Better discussion hosted by the YMCA of Greater Providence at the Crowne Plaza. In keeping with the healthy theme, fruit, yogurt and granola were on the menu.
There was no argument that health plays an important role in how children perform in school.
Deborah A. Gist, commissioner of the Rhode Island Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, served up plenty of statistics to support her observation that “low performing high school students have significantly higher health risks.” She said low performing students display higher levels of violence, are three times more likely to smoke and twice as likely to have sex as high performing students. Low performing students also display higher levels of drinking, she said.
Supporting information came from Elizabeth Burke Bryant, executive director of Kids Count. She said there are 223,956 children under the age of 18 in the state, a decline of 10 percent from the 2000 Census.
“There are poor children in every city and town so our work is cut out for us,” she said.
According to the Kids Count report, 16,711 Rhode Island children live in extreme poverty.
While that statistic is daunting, Burke Bryant found many trends showing improvement, including the number of teen pregnancies and obese children entering kindergarten. She also noted more schools are offering universal breakfast.
“These are good trends,” she said, “we’re moving in the right direction, only we need to go faster.”
Actually, panelists suggested improving the chances for our children and their academic outcomes would require some school operational reforms as well. While extending breakfast programs across the state so that children aren’t starting class hungry has been advocated for years, Dr. Megan Douglas said that sleep “is as essential as water and food.”
The internist-pediatrician said that sleep allows the brain to sort out all the information it has taken in while awake and this is critical to taking on new tasks. She said that studies show adolescents and college-aged students need nine hours of sleep a day, but that on average they are getting seven hours.
“The only way to get sleep back is to sleep,” she said.
Douglas noted that most high schools start before 8 a.m. and given bus schedules, many high school students start their day by 5:30. She proposed changing high school start times so that students would be “ready to learn.”
Not only was a later start to high school recommended, but taking an hour out of the academic schedule for physical activity.
“Do not be afraid to take a little bit of academic time and give them exercises,” Dr. Gregory Fox told educators. He said that studies have shown using as much as 60 minutes of the school day for physical education has “no negative impact” on academics. He said physical activity breaks help students concentrate on their work. And he touted the importance of after-school athletic programs that have been shown to reduce dropout rates and adverse behavior.
“No child left on their behind,” he said to applause.
In an interview Monday, Gist said she has seen research on the effect of sleep and exercise on academic performance and she is in agreement that schools should be looking at this.
“I think it is something school districts should be paying attention to,” she said.
Gist encouraged districts to use information available to them and “design schools around what our kids need.” She observed that schools haven’t changed dramatically for decades, if not longer, and in the case of high school, should be structured for teens. This might include more flexible schedules, for example.
As for cutting into academic time to provide exercise, Gist said she sees a lot of movement, a lot happening, in the successful schools she visits. She urged principals, teachers and parents to draw upon the information available to make for better schools.
Lt. Gov. Elizabeth Roberts, who closed out the panel discussion moderated by Jackie Ascrizzi of the Department of Education, found the session refreshing.
Referring to health care, she said, “Too often we talk about paying and not in the broader definition of what it means to our children and what happens to society.”
She talked about strides made in public health and how immunization programs have virtually eliminated certain diseases. She also cited how, as a society, we pay attention to oral health.
Pointing to those successes, she said, “We need to take the opportunity to build on our successes rather than lament our failures. We’re talking about resetting our thinking.”