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December 1, 2009

Health Care for All

Poor physical health creates barriers to learning for many low-income students. This elementary school decided to do something about it.
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When students' basic health and safety needs are unmet, their chances of achieving academic success diminish. As Carter (2007) writes, "A child's educational success is linked to health—in fact, this relationship is one of the core elements of educating the whole child. . . . The reality is that many underprivileged children just need the appropriate medical care to ensure school readiness."
At Kinoshita Elementary School in San Juan Capistrano, California, we've taken a close look at this predictor of student success and developed an action plan to meet our students' health and safety needs. Kinoshita's student population is 97 percent Latino and 90 percent English language learners; 92 percent of our students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch. Although we understand that no single magic bullet can substantially improve the lives of at-risk children and their families, we believe that providing high-quality education for our students means using every strategy available to create not only a challenging curriculum but also a safe and healthy learning environment.

The 100-Percent Campaign

We knew that many of our students were not getting adequate health care. Because many families lacked adequate health insurance, they simply could not afford to take their kids to the doctor. Rather than sit back and hope for the situation to change, we decided to become an agent of change.
During the 2008–09 school year, we hired a bilingual community liaison whose job was to connect parents and their children to the community resources available to them. He collaborated with the Children's Health Initiative of Orange County (CHIOC) to spearhead the 100-Percent Campaign, with the goal of providing affordable health insurance to as many of our students as possible.
To locate students who could benefit from the campaign, the school first sent surveys home asking parents whether their children had health insurance. For those who said no, there was a follow-up question asking whether they were interested in receiving information about affordable insurance programs. We had a 99 percent response rate; about 20 percent of the respondents indicated that their children had no health insurance and that they wanted more information. This meant that about 125 of our Kinoshita families lacked health insurance enabling them to get proper medical attention.
We contacted each of these families to set up a personal meeting with a CHIOC representative, who explained the different programs that were available to them (Medi-Cal for Children and Pregnant Women; Healthy Families, Healthy Kids; Kaiser Children's Health Plan; and California Kids). These programs include full medical, vision, dental, mental health, and hospital care. To qualify for the programs, the family must live in Orange County, the children must be younger than 19, and the family income must be below a certain level—immigration status does not matter. Of the 125 families we targeted, we were able to enroll about 121 (20 percent of our total population). They now have access to affordable health insurance for as little as $5–$8 a month (in some cases free) for all the children in the household.
As a result of the 100-Percent Campaign, about 98 percent of Kinoshita Elementary School students now have access to health care.

Local Partnerships

We didn't stop there. We realized that if our students received regular health checkups and early intervention when ill, they could avoid developing more serious conditions and unnecessarily missing school. To help make regular health care more accessible, we developed relationships with local agencies and organizations. For example, we worked with the local community health clinic to expedite the appointment process for many of our students, who previously often had to wait at least a month to see their doctors because of the high volume of patients that this clinic serves.
We also reached out to other organizations to help meet our students' basic needs. One such organization, the Assistance League of Capistrano, provided free school uniforms (including two sets of tops and bottoms, undergarments, jacket, and shoes) as well as hygiene products to about 200 of our neediest students last year.
Another partner is the Family Resource Center, an agency within Capistrano Unified School District that provides counseling and parenting classes to families. We identified families whose students were at risk behaviorally, academically, or both; and the Family Resource Center came to the school to provide seminars and training to help these families provide a home environment that was more conducive to learning. During our spring 2009 sessions, approximately 30 parents received a certificate of participation in the program.
Finally, through our partnership with the Gang Reduction Intervention Program (GRIP) in San Juan Capistrano, we are working with our most at-risk youth and their families to improve their attendance and school behavior. In addition to holding face-to-face information meetings with parents and students, this program—a collaborative effort of school district personnel, city officials, the sheriff's department, and the Orange County district attorney's office—has implemented a gang, drug, and violence awareness curriculum for our 5th graders, designed to give students the tools to recognize the legal consequences of gang violence and crime. The four-week curriculum focuses on four topics: gangs, the criminal justice system, life in juvenile hall, and self-esteem.
The Gang Reduction Intervention Program also sponsored a rewards program for our 4th and 5th grade students—including a free field trip to an Anaheim Angels baseball game for all students who achieved perfect school attendance (no tardies or absences) from the day the incentive was announced, December 5, until the end of the 2008–09 school year. About 90 of our students were able to attend the game; most of them were visiting a professional baseball stadium for the first time. The students were admitted to the stadium about half an hour before it opened to the general public and had field-level seats behind the Angels' dugout. What made the occasion even more special was that two Angels superstars, Vladimir Guerrero and Torii Hunter, came out to the stands to speak to our kids in a special pregame pep talk. Their message was simple, yet powerful—the key to success, no matter in what profession, is education and a healthy lifestyle.

Agents of Change

Kinoshita Elementary School is not just an institution that provides high-quality education; we are also agents of change for our students and their families. Our students face economic barriers to learning every day. We can either let them struggle alone to overcome these barriers or take action to improve their situation. We have chosen the latter path because we believe, with Sonia Nieto (2003), that "it is only through a combination of personal, collective, and institutional actions that real change can take place" (p. 20).
It is still too early to quantify the effects of our collaborative efforts (although we did see an 18 percent improvement in attendance last year). But we know that the strong relationships we have built with groups and organizations that share a similar philosophy have made a world of difference in the lives of many of our students.
References

Carter, G. (2007, May). Is it good for the kids? Reauthorizing student success in the early years. [Online]. Available:www.ascd.org/news_media/Is_It_Good_for_the_Kids_Editorials/Is_It_Good_for_the_Kids__May_2007.aspx

Nieto, S. (2003). What keeps teachers going?New York: Teachers College Press.

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