School children sit on a colorful carpet

Calm, safe and healthy: solutions to keep our kids in school

Healthcare and education: This opinion piece first appeared in The Dallas Morning News on February 7, 2024.

We offer child-centered problem-solving with some examples already in place.

By Michael Horne and Abigail Williams

Photo: Ben Torres, Special Contributor, The Dallas Morning News 

Walk any elementary school campus and you’ll hear it — a sneeze here, an extra cough there. It’s clear, the winter cold season is upon us. Children are feeling it, and educators are worried kiddos could miss out on critical learning time.

We share a fundamental vision: We wish every child could start the day feeling calm, safe, and healthy enough to engage in story time or run around on the playground during recess.

We all know that healthy children learn better. And health care issues keeping kids home will only make achieving our region’s needed outcomes more difficult: 70% of children will need more than a high school education to achieve success. Currently across Dallas County, less than 4 out of 10 third-graders are reading on grade level and only 22% of eighth-graders are on pace to get that college or career-ready degree, according to nonprofit Texas 2036.

Why is this happening? Far too many children across Dallas are not reaching their academic potential despite the heroic efforts of educators for reasons outside of schools’ locus of control. Systemic inequities such as limited health care access, lack of affordable housing, food deserts, and the cost of reliable transportation create a disproportionate and compounding challenge before students reach the classroom.

A single mom of three children often battles the impossible choice of feeding her family or paying rent. Unfortunately, 90% of the children in Dallas ISD live in poverty, and 92% rely on school for a healthy breakfast and lunch.

The vast majority of families experiencing poverty or lacking adequate health insurance are forced to use emergency rooms and hospitals for everyday seasonal illnesses, more common in colder months. This drives up the societal cost we all share in taking care of our most vulnerable.

Exacerbating this problem are mental health concerns. One in 5 children in the United States have a mental, emotional or behavioral disorder, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Only 20% of those children receive care from a specialized mental health care provider, which means that 80% go untreated or undiagnosed. Children with undetected and untreated behavioral health needs are at greater risk for school absenteeism and lower scholastic achievement.

If we do not take action to reverse the trajectory of our city’s under-resourced communities, the alarming stats will overtake our pride in Dallas’ miracle story of booming economic growth.

So let’s say that’s last year’s news. How can we make 2024 different?

We offer a hopeful solution. Let’s channel our pride in the region’s booming economy and take care of our kids! Let’s double down on partnerships with private and public institutions to fill opportunity gaps and promote community networks of support so that we can get kids to school and keep them there.

Here are some examples of child-centered problem-solving:

What if we flipped the model of health care access? Instead of families traveling to health facilities, we can bring health care resources to them. Let’s invest in data-driven scaled solutions like C.V. Roman Health Center at RedBird Mall, Crossroads’ nutrition-stable communities, and Dallas ISD’s Student and Family Resource Center South. Centers like these not only meet demonstrated needs but offer resources to educate and inform families before child illnesses progress into a crisis. This creates a system that strengthens public health and health care infrastructure that ultimately aligns to a child’s ability to attain success.

In the 1980s, Parkland pioneered the now national community health center model — providing individuals access to comprehensive and preventive healthcare close to where they reside and work. More recently Parkland has expanded the scope of health services offered to children in our community health centers including pediatric behavioral health services. Parkland aims to ensure that all 50,000 pediatric patients who receive care at Parkland will have access to universal behavioral health screenings and the care they need. Normalizing mental health screenings just as we do vision and dental screenings in a setting that is accessible and familiar helps to mitigate the number of children falling through the cracks.

What if we put child wellness at the center of education? Stepping in where public dollars stop, community support can meet a child’s fundamental need to feel calm and safe, be physically healthy, and ready to learn.

  • Food pantries, such as the ones operating at Jack Lowe, Pease and Foster elementaries, provide nutritional support to the child who has scarce nutritional options at home. Community groups can partner with schools to ensure children get the nutrition they need, including sending food home on weekends.
  • Care closets, like those established at Truett, Hotchkiss and Anne Frank elementaries, offer hundreds of warm winter coats to protect children in cold weather and help stave off seasonal illness. These corporate partner-stocked closets might also offer a clean uniform, hygiene supplies, or fresh socks after anxious accidents or a jump through a mud puddle.
  • Mindfulness corners, such as ones set up by volunteers at Dunbar and Cigarroa elementaries, allow a child to process emotion or take a moment to calm down, reinforcing effective mental health practices that can be incorporated into the learning day.

It takes wrap-around support, i.e., mental, physical, emotional and social, to ensure every child is set up for long-term success.

Consider acting locally, volunteering at a school, advocating for education, health and wellness, and making a difference in the life of a child so they can be healthy and ready to read during story time.

Michael A. Horne is president and CEO of Parkland Health Foundation. Abigail Williams is founder and CEO of United to Learn, an education nonprofit focused on accelerating student achievement.