HEALTHY SCHOOL—Founders Hall Middle School, is just one of the McKeesport Area School District schools, taking part in the Healthy Schools Collaboration. (Photo by J.L.Martello)
A healthy school environment is a more productive one. Factors such as air pollution, chemical exposure and biological agents are just as important as making sure students are being given the five food groups. While many may be concentrating on healthier school lunches, a local collaborative is taking local school districts by storm to ensure a healthier school environment.
The Healthy Schools Collaboration, led by collaborators Ellsworth and Jenna Cramer, recently partnered with two school districts, McKeesport Area School District and Allegheny Valley School District.
“We’re working to raise awareness of the issue of environmental health in schools in Pennsylvania, by collaborating with school districts to implement simple and cost effective programs that will lead to improve academic performance and health outcomes,” said Andrew Ellsworth, a HSC collaborator. “Everyone can provide a healthier, safer environment.”
The Collaboration, which is funded by the Heinz Endowments, is an initiative aimed at improving environmental health conditions in western Pennsylvania K-12 schools by providing hands-on assistance and expertise to districts, while offering limited financial support for equipment, supplies and staff time for program implementation.
“Schools should be able to provide a safe and healthy environment for student achievement. Poor indoor and outdoor air quality in the classroom, for example, can threaten our children’s health, development and learning,” said Philip Johnson, senior program officer, Environment Program, The Heinz Endowments.
An environmentally unhealthy school can cause both developmental and physical health issues. According to the American Lung Association reported that children in the United States miss 14 million school days each year because of asthma, which can be aggravated by environmental pollutants found in schools, homes and outdoors.
In schools, some of the unhealthiest environmental practices are the use of toxic cleaning products and pesticides, cluttered classrooms and air pollution. According to Ellsworth and the collaboration’s website, some of the greatest improvements to ensure an environmentally healthy school can be made by reducing the use of pesticides in and outside of school buildings; changing cleaning products to non-toxic alternatives; eliminating or significantly reducing idling of school busses or vehicles while on school properties; and de-cluttering classrooms to improve the quality of air flow.
And like many health issues, African-Americans can be more affected than any other race. According to a report in the May 2011 edition of Health Affairs entitled “Air Pollution Around Schools is Linked to Poorer Student Health and Academic Performance,” “a large and growing body of evidence shows that pollution burdens fall disproportionately on low-income and racial or ethnic minority communities.” Ellsworth agrees, but said there are not well-recognized national statistics on the topic.
Timothy Gabauer, superintendent of McKeesport Area High School, which serves approximately 3500 students, said, “One of our main goals is to try to provide a safe and productive work environment for the students and for the teachers. I think it’s critical that we can either validate things that we are doing well or find areas that need assistance and make the pertinent corrections.”
He said that the Collaboration “helps us to identify what is working, and what may not be and what we can do to make those changes.”
Gabauer said that although the initiative is in the beginning stages at his district, he has begun meeting with a core team and looking at individual buildings to identify what will be their focus, which they decided will be indoor air quality, de-cluttering and looking at the cleaning products they use and their practices. He said the district’s maintenance department has looked at their products and what their practices are and now it will be taken to the classroom, to see what can be done.
Like Gabauer’s school district, Cheryl Griffith, superintendent of Allegheny Valley School District, which serves approximately 1,000 K-12 students, said her district is also in the planning stages also. She said her team is taking a look at the district’s purchasing history of products and learning about other products that may be wiser. They are also doing an inventory of how products are stored and used and the end stage is how chemicals are discarded, making sure that is safe and within guidelines.
“Our goal is to be a more educated school community (which includes students, teachers, staff and parents) and to have a sustained effort that they carry with them to continue to get better at a healthier school,” Griffith said.
Although the Collaboration is in the pilot phase of its initiative, Ellsworth said there are plans to eventually reach out to other school districts within the area. “We want to work with as many school districts as possible. Our goal is to add three to five more within the next year.”
Becoming an environmentally healthy school can happen on any level, it just starts with one. Ellsworth said the Collaboration is always willing to help schools interested in joining the cause.
“Just call us, talk to us. We’ll make every effort in what we have to work with them or get them ready and moving,” he said. “Because this is about the schools, not us. We want to encourage them to take the first step and see it’s a benefit, not a burden.”
(For more information on the Healthy Schools Collaboration, visit www.healtyschoolscollaboration.