Keeping youth healthy, in school and learning

Brandon, a 6-year-old in the Houston Independent School District, had two working parents until his father was laid off. Brandon lost his health insurance when his father lost his job. Brandon’s mother quickly scrambled to try to enroll her son, who has asthma, in new coverage, but met some obstacles and didn’t know where to turn. Then, the school district, which had been working with the Children’s Defense Fund and the School Superintendents Association through a partnership supported by The Atlantic Philanthropies, stepped in and helped her find coverage for Brandon under the Children’s Health Insurance Program.

With his new health coverage, doctors discovered Brandon also had high blood pressure and prescribed medicine to control it. Now, the school nurse monitors his blood pressure every day and Brandon is healthy and happy to be in school learning.

This U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Acting Deputy Secretary Mary Wakefield on behalf of HHS Secretary Sylvia Burwell and Acting U.S. Department of Education Secretary John King spoke recently in Brandon’s school district to encourage other districts across our country to take important steps to ensure children everywhere are in school each day healthy and ready to learn.

The secretaries urged state and local health and education entities to collaborate around five action items:

  1. Helping eligible students and family members enroll in health insurance;

  2. Providing and expanding Medicaid reimbursable health services in schools, including immunizations, health screenings and others;

  3. Providing or expanding services that support at-risk students, including through Medicaid-funded case management;

  4. Promoting healthy school practices through nutrition, physical activity and health education; and

  5. Building local partnerships and participating in hospital community needs assessments.

The Departments of Health and Human Services and Education have created a toolkit of existing resources to support real action in states and communities to strengthen the link between health and education. CDF and AASA’s school-based child health outreach and enrollment model that links health enrollment to school enrollment is one the secretaries highlight as a best practice to increase enrollment in health coverage for students and their families.

After five years of piloting school-based child health outreach and enrollment in Texas, in 2007 CDF began working in partnership with AASA to introduce and expand health enrollment as a routine and ongoing part of school district operations. The model provides a basic question for districts to add to their school registration materials: “What type of medical insurance do you have for this child?”

Parents who answer “none” are noted and able to receive information from school district staff on Medicaid, CHIP or other health coverage options. But it doesn’t stop there. Parents can receive help applying for or renewing coverage for their children and for themselves and are introduced to community partners who can help them successfully navigate the process.

CDF and AASA over the years have partnered with school districts in Texas, California, Georgia, Louisiana and Mississippi, including urban, rural and suburban school systems serving elementary through high schools and hundreds of thousands of Black, Latino, Asian and White students. This work has gotten many children health coverage and led to an increased awareness among school superintendents, staff and parents about the important and positive connection between health and academic success.

In one of these districts, the Edinburg Consolidated Independent School District in Texas’ Rio Grande Valley, health coverage screening has been built into the daily operations of Parental Involvement Assistants, or PIAs. Each of the district’s 41 school campuses has a PIA who, among other responsibilities, calls absent students’ homes every morning to ask why students are missing school. The PIAs make a home visit that same day if they don’t reach anyone, about 80 visits each day. If a child is home sick, the PIA asks about their insurance status and, if the student lacks coverage, offers the parent assistance filling out the application.

Sandra Rodriguez, the district’s PIA coordinator, is especially excited they have a new school-based health center attached to the district headquarters to refer families to through a partnership with the Doctors Hospital at Renaissance.

For many Edinburg families this is the first time they can receive care near their home, school and work, and regardless of their immigration status. Thanks to additional support from another local health system, the 945-square-mile district will soon have two mobile clinics making scheduled visits to school campuses farther from the clinic site.

More students and families need these kinds of supports. It is critically important that school districts and community partners across the country respond to King’s and Burwell’s call to action to connect children to needed health coverage and ensure they’re in school and ready to learn. As Superintendent Lillian Maldonado French of the Mountain View School District in El Monte, California, puts it, “Being in school matters and if we can do something to make sure our kids are in school every day, then that’s what we need to do.”

Marian Wright Edelman is president of the Children’s Defense Fund whose mission is “leave no child behind.” For more information, visit


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