We were excited when Chicago Public Schools (CPS) appointed Dr. Ken Fox as Chief Health Officer last November. This important position not only oversees critical school health programs —including medical services, vision and hearing screening, dental care, physical education, sexual health education, safe and supportive environments for LGBTQ students, nutrition education, school gardens and recess—but also provides visionary leadership for how schools can promote health and wellness in order to advance their core mission of student learning.
Ever since the district’s first chief health officer stepped down, we and many others advocated to fill this important position. After an 18-month vacancy, we are so excited that Dr. Fox is here! Dr. Fox is a pediatrician and understands the connections between health and learning. “We need kids in school, fully present and ready to learn,” he says. “We want children to emerge as critical thinkers; we need their voices in our democracy. We have an obligation to nurture their emerging agency—their power to think, to make choices and to take action.”
Dr. Fox reports dually to the City of Chicago Department of Public Health and to CPS, and he directs the Office of Student Health and Wellness (OSHW). OSHW is the steward of health matters for CPS and is responsible for providing direct services (vision, hearing and dental screening and care), managing chronic diseases (for examples, asthma and diabetes), facilitating enrollment in public benefits (Medicaid and SNAP) and promoting public health.
In addition to providing care, Dr. Fox wants to advance the conversation around social determinants of health in the city. Among CPS’ 380,000 students, low-income students are more likely than their non-poor peers to suffer from chronic illnesses such as asthma, diabetes and obesity. “Access to healthcare is only a part of the remedy for what ails us,” Dr. Fox says. “Health inequities are not random accidents of history or individual choice. They are designed and produced, forged by the political choices we make as a city and a society.”
As a doctor, Dr. Fox has studied how those inequities become embodied in people and materialized in places. He reports he’s been the beneficiary of thoughtful and loving protection at many stages of his life and career, but as an African American and a gay man, Dr. Fox says he knows what it means to be discriminated against. “Those same aspects of identity, however, also lead me to know about joy. And I work by the light of ideas and actions of heroes.”
One of Dr. Fox’s priorities is to make sure every student has what he calls a “medical home”—a high-quality source of accessible, comprehensive, continuous, coordinated, compassionate and culturally competent care. “I am absolutely passionate about this,” he says. “One of our biggest initiatives right now is to facilitate health insurance enrollment among all CPS students. We want this ‘front door’ of the medical home open to every student in the district. This must happen, and we will make it so.”
One quote that continually inspires him is from the late Jonathan Mann who wrote: “The promotion and protection of health are inextricably bound to the promotion and protection of human rights.”
Dr. Fox adds: “Advocacy is not simply a nice, charitable thing to do. It’s a professional obligation and a moral imperative.”
We’ve enjoyed getting to know Dr. Fox so far and look forward to a long and fruitful relationship working to make sure all CPS students attend schools that support their health and wellness.