From the Dinner Table to the State House

Article excerpt

A Tennessee lawmaker, moved by his wife's tales from her job as a school nurse, has taken a stand to improve school health programs.

Tennessee Representative Ken Givens doesn't remember the exact moment he decided to take on school health as an issue, but he does remember casually discussing the topic regularly over dinner with his wife Connie, who worked as a school nurse for 27 years.

"Some of the stories she's told me have been just remarkable. Connie's worked in a school system that had almost 8,000 kids, and she's seen it all," he says.

Representative Givens remembers one story in particular. A teacher at Connie's school told her that one little boy hadn't shown up for school and that the attendance office hadn't looked into the absence. The school asked Connie to check it out, to see what the problem was. She went to the house, thinking the kid probably was sick.

Was it a cold, an earache or a sore throat? Unfortunately, the problem was a little more basic than that. "He didn't have any shoes," explains Givens. "The little boy's mother lived in public housing and received public assistance. She just said simply that he had worn out his last pair of tennis shoes and was not in school for that reason. He missed two or three days of school before they checked on him."

Givens and his wife didn't just file away the story as another "don't we have things to be thankful for" tale. Instead they decided to take some action to get the child back in school quickly. "Connie and I went out on our own that night when she told me the story and bought the kid some shoes, socks and underwear, that type of thing. We took them to him the next morning, and he was back in school," he says.

Though they stepped in for that particular instance, Givens and his wife knew they couldn't solve every child's problem in the state. They also knew from Connie's experiences that many kids' difficulties are caused by more than the lack of shoes. So at one point, Connie began to tell Ken about a concept known as coordinated school health.

A COORDINATED APPROACH

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) developed what's known as a coordinated school health program in 1987 to promote a more balanced approach to health systems in schools. The program includes eight components: health and physical education, health and nutrition services, counseling and psychological services, special health programs for staff, healthy environment, and parent and community involvement. CDC officials acknowledge that schools cannot and should not be expected to address serious health and social problems, but can provide a critical place in which agencies can work together to maintain the well-being of young people.

The concept made complete sense to Connie Givens. In addition to her training as a registered nurse, she holds a degree in health education. As coordinator for programs like Safe and Drug-Free Schools, she has managed projects that address nutrition, physical education and the environment.

Through her house calls, the model began to make more and more sense. "When I made a visit to a child's home about health and I began to see that the family needed parenting skills or maybe they needed nutrition education or maybe there was a mental health concern, I saw how the coordinated health program might help," she says.

During one visit, Connie says she remembers the mother in the family was seriously depressed. "I knew that was affecting the child, and I knew I could not address something like that. I couldn't do it alone as a nurse," she says.

Connie's skills and knowledge in coordinated school health have been beefed up by her participation in the American Cancer society's School Health Leadership Institute. Designed to help people apply leadership skills to make a difference in children's health, the institute targets school districts across the country and seeks nominees from state education departments. …