Reflections on Minority Health Month

April 21, 2015

April is National Minority Health Month and it’s a great time to highlight this important issue.

By Rochelle Davis, HSC President + CEO

April is National Minority Health Month and given the health disparities that exist in our country and in Chicago, we wanted to use this opportunity to highlight this important issue and rededicate ourselves to making sure all students have the opportunity to be healthy and ready to learn.

At Healthy Schools Campaign, our work stems from the core belief that healthy students are better learners and all students — regardless of race or socioeconomic background — deserve a healthy school environment that supports students’ well-being and builds a foundation for learning. In a healthy school, students are able to thrive with access to good nutrition, physical activity, basic safety, clean air and water, health services and education about how to make healthy choices.

A healthy school environment is especially important for low-income students of color, who have higher rates of health conditions that can impact learning. For example:

  • African-American and Puerto Rican children have much higher rates of asthma and asthma-related mortality than their white peers.
  • Low-income children, black non-Latino children and Mexican children have higher rates of untreated dental disease than their white, non-Latino peers.
  • Teenage birth rates in black and Latino communities are three and four times higher than in white communities, respectively.
  • 22.4 percent of African-American children and 24.2 percent of Mexican-American children ages 6 to 17 are obese compared to 17.5 percent of white children.

In our hometown of Chicago, many of these statistics outpace the national averages. For example:

  • In the Humboldt Park neighborhood, Puerto Rican children have the highest asthma prevalence rate (34 percent), followed by non-Latino African-American children with 25 percent — compared to the national average of 10 percent.
  • Chicago third graders, many of whom are low-income students of color, have a 35.6 percent rate of untreated dental caries compared to the national average of 28.8.
  • In 2007, the birth rate among African-American and Latina teens ages 15-19 years are 6.9 and 6.1 times higher than among whites.
  • In Chicago Public Schools, 34.4 percent of Latino sixth graders and 26.8 percent of African-American sixth graders are obese compared to 18.7 percent of white sixth graders.

Health disparities can exacerbate, if not lead to, academic failure. Dr. Charles Basch, a researcher and professor at Columbia University Teachers College, has outlined seven disparities that impact student learning, which include vision problems, asthma, teen pregnancy, aggression and violence, lack of physical activity, skipping breakfast and ADHD. As outlined above, these issues affect students of color more often.

The conditions of schools in low-income communities of color often only serve to widen these health disparities by having poorer air quality, less access to physical activity, higher exposure to environmental toxins and less access to healthy foods and water during the school day. Such environments are challenging settings for learning even for healthy students, and more so for students with health issues. Addressing these disparities in schools and student health could help close the achievement gap and help all students reach their potential.

Given the health disparities and the achievement gap that exists in Chicago, HSC has a special commitment to the city’s schools and students. Over the past several years, CPS has committed to higher nutrition standards, the reinstatement of daily recess and high-quality daily physical education. We are now starting to rethink school health services so that students can have access to more coordinated and comprehensive care.

But we didn’t do this alone. We’ve only been able to support these changes through engaging the entire community: parents, teachers, principals, partner organizations and community members. We also know that the secret ingredient to school-based change is the power of committed parents and community members.

As we acknowledge National Minority Health month and rededicate our work to address the health and educational disparities that exist in Chicago and across the country, we want to recognize and acknowledge the tireless efforts of our partners — thousands of parents, hundreds of educators, hundreds of school administrators amd officials and many political and civic leaders.