GUEST COLUMN: Strong schools, better health outcomes go hand-in-hand

Published 8:00 am Wednesday, October 18, 2023

By Antonio Castanon Luna | Guest Columnist

Most of us recognize that Mississippi has lagged behind other states when it comes to prioritizing public education; increasingly, we do so at our peril. We know that it’s in all of our interests to ensure our public schools are as strong as they can be because strong schools today mean a stronger Mississippi tomorrow. But there’s another element to the conversation that goes undiscussed: 

There is a direct relationship between strong public schools and better public health outcomes. 

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Mississippi continues to grapple with pressing healthcare issues, such as a high prevalence of chronic diseases and dwindling availability of accessible, affordable healthcare. Lifting up the link between health and well-resourced public schools is critical in attacking these issues head-on. Raise Mississippi is championing a new vision for public schools that accentuates the need to incorporate common-sense health initiatives and services in our public schools.

A study by the National Association of School Nurses found that every dollar invested in a full-time school nurse yields a return of $2.20 in teacher productivity. In-school support from school nurses, school counselors and psychologists aren’t just nice-to-have enhancements to our public schools; they’re a direct boost to student well-being and academic productivity. 

Including healthcare components for our public schools aligns seamlessly with Raise Mississippi’s vision of ensuring students not only receive traditional academic instruction but also a wide range of in-school support to ensure better academic outcomes. 

The Center for Disease Control’s Institute of Medicine documented findings on the health benefits of early public health interventions, providing a potential 7 percent reduction in childhood obesity and mitigating the harms of childhood hunger. We know intuitively that hungry children have a hard time concentrating on learning, but class and test performance tend to prove it.

Investing in public school healthcare services not only contributes to student well-being and lays the foundation for long-term health and wellness, but the investment will also reduce future strains on Mississippi’s healthcare system and increase our statewide quality of life. 

Safe, clean and modern school buildings also play a significant role in student health and learning outcomes. Improved learning environments boost student morale and reduce health risks, all of which promote lifelong success.

For Mississippi to have the best educational outcomes, it must retain its top educators and school staff. By offering competitive, living income, as Raise Mississippi advocates, qualified and gifted educators can remain dedicated to nurturing the state’s future generations. This continuous support will not only positively impact the mental health of educators and staff, but it will help nurture a sense of community as they work with parents to ensure that our students can take advantage of a comprehensive educational experience.

In addition to serving educators across the state as the Executive Director of the Mississippi Association of Educators, I hold a master’s degree in public health from George Washington University. These intersecting experiences provide me with a unique perspective on improving student success, increasing quality of life and boosting our local and state economy by incorporating common-sense health initiatives and services in our public schools.

I know that if we want to foster a healthier, more prosperous Mississippi for generations to come, a multi-pronged approach to elevating our students’ health and well-being while ensuring a high-quality education is paramount.

We ask all community members to join Raise Mississippi and help lead Mississippi toward a brighter, healthier and more prosperous future. It is on all of us to make sure it happens. Together, we can ensure that stronger, healthier schools will make a stronger, healthier Mississippi.

Antonio Castanon Luna is the Executive Director of the Mississippi Association of Educators. He holds a master’s degree in public health from George Washington University.