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March 1, 2000
Vol. 57
No. 6

Perspectives / Prescriptions for Health

      At a Smithsonian exhibition this summer called "Microbes: Invisible Invaders, Amazing Allies," children had a great time interacting with the multimedia exhibits. They could fire antibiotic ammunition at electronic bacteria or maneuver past microbes in simulated arteries. They could watch what happens in the kitchen to uncovered foods and learn what people used to believe caused the plague (poisonous gases)—and what led scientists to discover that the real culprits were microbes carried by the fleas on rats.
      Bringing the viewers up to date on the state of international health was a large electronic map that could light up the many places in the world where such diseases as tuberculosis, AIDS, and malaria run rampant. Even as we create new drugs, microbes become resistant to them. Even as we learn that our behaviors influence our health, new yet-to-be-controlled diseases materialize.
      The show illustrated how intriguing the subject of health can be. Gone are the days when such a complex, human-interest subject can be relegated to the do's and don'ts of hygiene. The topic of health involves scientific challenges, ethical conflicts, social dilemmas.
      Not the least important of the social questions is how much involvement schools should have in promoting student health. Increasingly, the close relationship between students' healthiness and their capacity for learning suggests that although schools cannot assume responsibility for providing health care, they can be a part of the solution that does so. This issue on health suggests that efforts on several fronts pay large benefits.
      Create more school-based health programs. A new phenomenon has sprung up in the last decade: School-based health centers at which medical and social service agencies provide health care and prevention services on campus. Their number has increased from fewer than 100 in 1988 to 1,157 in 1998. Centers like Molly Stark in Bennington, Vermont (p. 18), provide dental care, immunization, mentoring programs, and after-school classes. Such programs require funding, coordination of efforts, and extensive communication with the community, but ultimately they make it possible for schools to concentrate more effectively on improving the academic achievement of all their students.
      • Almost three-fourths of young people don't eat the recommended number of daily servings of fruits and vegetables.
      • Daily participation in high school physical education classes dropped from 42 percent in 1991 to 27 percent in 1997.
      • Every day nearly 3,000 young people take up smoking.
      • Every year almost 1 million adolescents become pregnant, and almost 3 million become infected with a sexually transmitted disease.
      Hundreds of studies have evaluated health education and concluded that it is effective in preventing the adoption of high-risk behaviors. But its effectiveness depends on teacher training, time in the curriculum, sequential programs, and family involvement. Common sense tells us that it also helps if educators practice healthful habits in the cafeteria, gym, and faculty room.
      Bolster the health curriculum. ASCD and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation have recently awarded renewable grants of $20,000 per year to 10 schools that, with collaborative partners in the community, have plans to increase students' knowledge of issues, methods, and careers in the public health field. The winning program descriptions leave no doubt that health is an academically rich study with diverse applications.
      One program with a three-year track record will now be extended as a result of the grant. Students from Cambridge Rindge and Latin High School in Massachusetts study an "action curriculum" called Future Shock. They study the cholera epidemic, explore the polio vaccine trials, and examine the conflicts in the tobacco wars. They also make their own forays into the world of statistical research.
      Beginning with an observational study on a topic of their interest, students advance to posing hypotheses, collecting data, analyzing verbal and numerical responses, and exploring the implications of their findings for policy or programming. Outside experts provide lessons and supervise internships. Those students judged by their peers to have done stellar research present their projects to health groups in the city.
      "They learn what questions to ask, how confusing it is to sort through conflicting data, and how to distinguish between good science and bad journalism," says project codirector Betsy Grady. "So many of us take our public health for granted. It's important for students to know what's going on in the world and think about what they can do about it."

      Marge Scherer has contributed to Educational Leadership.

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