Creating a healthy future for all children while closing the achievement gap

ST. PAUL, Minn. – Recent academic studies confirm what most parents and educators have long known: healthy, happy and well-nourished children are more likely to attend school, stay attentive while there and do better academically. Now it’s time for Minnesota to set common-sense standards to support children’s health and set the stage for academic success.

It is well-documented that children who arrive at school each day hungry don’t do well, no matter how bright they may be. Recent media attention has spurred the Governor and the legislature to end a troubling practice of denying food to school kids who don’t have lunch money.

But even more can be done to improve nutrition in schools, and there are other health-related barriers putting many students at a disadvantage.

For example, one in five school-aged children has some sort of vision problem that impairs their classroom participation and academic growth. Failure to treat vision problems often leads these children into costly special education programs that are not designed to deal with vision problems that can affect reading.

This underscores a detrimental ripple effect of failing to recognize the link between health and learning: no matter how many tests we administer, how brilliant our teachers are, how many inventive accountability measures legislators pass, or how much funding we invest in education, school children will not be able to learn if they are impeded by factors such as poor nutrition and physical health.

With this in mind, I am joining forces this legislative session with educators, health care providers and parents to support the larger effort to close the achievement gap by combating non-academic barriers to learning. Specifically, we will evaluate ways in which schools can provide more nutritious food, greater opportunities for physical activity, improved vision screening and new lessons that support lifelong healthy habits.

Our goals include launching a vision therapy pilot project to test the eye sight of second and third grade students to determine if they are one of 20 percent of all school children with vision problems significant enough to impair academic performance. Treating a student’s underlying medical condition, rather than misdiagnosing reading failures as a learning disability, will save scarce special education resources and—more importantly—immediately enhance the student’s ability to learn at school.

We are also aiming to overhaul school breakfast programs to encourage breakfast as part of the educational schedule for all students. This vitally important meal lifts so many barriers to learning and is proven to improve discipline, academic performance and attendance. By providing the relatively small amount of funding needed to guarantee all schools can offer free breakfast to students we will get so much more out of our other investments in education.

Additionally, implementation of the anti-bullying legislation currently under consideration by the legislature will help ensure the safety and well-being of all students. Kids who are bullied in school face immeasurable roadblocks to thriving at school as feelings of insecurity and alienation lead to poor attendance and diminished academic achievement. Students don’t learn when they don’t feel safe.

A coordinated, aggressive effort to remove these and other non-academic barriers to learning should go beyond the measures mentioned above. Taking these steps and working with policy makers, teachers and school leaders to develop more ideas and new approaches to address educationally relevant health disparities is essential to closing Minnesota’s achievement gap.

If we believe in giving all children an equal opportunity to succeed in school, we have an obligation to ensure their nourishment, health and safety.

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Senator Alice Johnson
Sen. Johnson represented District 37, which includes Blaine and portions of Coon Rapids in the northern Twin Cities metropolitan area.

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