A Tale of Two Schools
Let me tell you about a tale of two schools, both located in the same U.S. city. We’ll call one H. Ealthy Elementary (H.E. for short) and the other Ty Pical Elementary (T.P. for short).
Like 53% of public schools, T.P. Elementary needs to update and replace multiple building systems, such as HVAC. And T.P. is one of a quarter of schools whose buildings overall were rated as poor or fair.1 On the other hand, H.E. Elementary, while old, has updated plumbing, windows, and roofs so kids have accessible drinking water and safe, comfortable learning environments.
While both schools offer at least 15 minutes of recess, H.E. Elementary has recess daily and averages between 21 and 24 minutes per day, depending on grade level. T.P. Elementary, however, averages between 17 and 21 minutes just three days per week. This disparity fits with the data that shows that schools with higher concentrations of poverty and larger populations of minority students are less likely to have daily recess and have fewer minutes on average.2
Both schools are located in a food desert, making it hard for families to access affordable nutritious foods. Most students in the area have never been exposed to foods such as mango, cauliflower, or brown rice, and, like nearly 90% of Americans, they do not eat the recommended servings of fruits and vegetables per day.3 But H.E. Elementary is one of only 26% of U.S. schools that provides required nutrition education—including taste tests of new, healthy foods and take-home recipes for families. T.P. Elementary, like most schools, offers students fewer than eight hours of nutrition instruction, far lower than the 40-50 hours needed for behavior change.4
Schools with mental health services, such as counselors and social workers, have higher attendance rates, better academic achievement, and higher graduation rates and lower rates of suspension, expulsion, and other disciplinary incidents. The recommended staff-to-student ratio is at least one counselor and social worker for every 250 students. Like 70% of U.S. students, students at T.P. Elementary attend a school that does not meet that ratio.5 Yet, not only does H.E. Elementary exceed the ratio, they also do annual staff trainings for all educators in social-emotional health best practices.
Other differences between the two elementary schools are stark. T.P. Elementary, like most schools, still uses traditional disciplinary measures, including zero tolerance policies, that disproportionately harm children of color and children with disabilities. H.E. Elementary has begun implementing a multi-year transformative approach to restorative practices and social-emotional learning that involves faculty, families, and the community in program decision-making. While both schools meet state PE requirements, T.P. Elementary’s equipment is limited, and students don’t get any physical activity outside of PE class and recess. H.E. Elementary recently outfitted a mindfulness room with yoga mats, movement equipment, and art and journaling supplies that teachers can use either as part of their lessons or to help students who may be struggling in the traditional classroom setting. They also incorporate brain breaks into all academic lessons.
Due to state and local funding inequities impacting schools serving students of color nationwide, T.P. Elementary receives $1,800 (or 13%) less per student than H.E. Elementary, totaling about $1M per year for this average-size school.6 Because of this annual shortfall, T.P. Elementary struggles to engage families with the school. They are too short-staffed to offer necessities like childcare or transportation, and the budget only covers one large community event per school year. Conversely, H.E. Elementary created a school wellness committee that includes parents, which has, in turn, brought more families into the fold to volunteer at meetings and events. These parents have also been able to call on their community connections to create fun events and learning opportunities for the school community.
So why compare H. Ealthy Elementary and Ty Pical Elementary?
Because all kids in America deserve to go to H.E. Elementary School. One of the greatest injustices in our country is the inequitable distribution of resources, funding, and policies that make two schools down the street from each other seem worlds apart. Health and educational equity might seem like unattainable dreams, but this injustice is preventable. Of course, it will take systems change, but systems change is built on institutional change, which is built on community change, which is built on individual change. At all levels, we need to consistently—and loudly—raise our voices to push for common sense investments that help our children thrive. If you’re ready, join our movement to take action for healthy kids today.