Public Health Community and Schools

How the Public Health Community Can Better Work with Schools

By Dia Adams
Project Associate, National Association of State Boards of Education 

The fields of Education and Health are inextricably intertwined. Children who are healthy learn better, and schools serve as a primary vehicle for spreading public health messages to youth. Thus, in order for the public health and education communities to fully meet their goals, they must partner with one another effectively. For some members of the public health community this can be a daunting task, as they may not know how best to utilize and work with schools. This article will highlight strategies for building positive public health-education relationships.

To successfully advocate for the inclusion of health initiatives in schools, health professionals must first understand that the overwhelming concern of all educators—and the central mission of schools—is to ensure that every student demonstrates good performance to challenging academic standards. Community professionals who understand this core mission are more likely to forge productive working relationships with schools[i].

In addition to understanding the mission of schools, public health partners must also understand how education is structured. Generally speaking, education is the purview of state and local governments, with minimal (albeit growing) input from federal agencies. At the state level, education policymaking typically takes place through the governor, the state legislature, and the state board of education. State education agency staff, under the direction of chief state school officers, then works to implement state education policies. At the school district level, policies are made by local school boards, which rely on local superintendents and school district staff to implement their directives.

The public health community must also be adept at reading the broader political climate under which schools currently operate. With passage of the 2001 No Child Left Behind Act, schools are under increased pressure to raise the performance levels of all students and eliminate academic achievement gaps. Greater educational accountability has largely taken shape in the form of sanctions (and sometimes rewards) for schools and districts depending on how many of their students are achieving to state-adopted academic standards. This means states are clearly articulating what students are expected to learn and testing students to gage how well they meet such goals.  

With increased educational accountability has come a shifting of educational priorities, and in some instances this change means that public health professionals must work harder to justify health initiatives, and to construct them in such a way that educators don’t feel overwhelmed. With respect to health curricula, for example, this might mean making sure they are aligned with existing state standards. In this way students can gain health literacy skills while simultaneously strengthening skills in core subject areas on which they will be tested. Health advocates should also use partnerships with outside entities to build schools' capacity to deliver health services and curriculums. Such arrangements allow educators to view health curricula not as an impediment to state education goals, but as a vehicle through which to meet them.

When presenting proposed health activities to education leaders, whether school administrators, local school boards, or state boards, it is critical to first garner widespread support for the proposed initiative. Allies could be teachers, parents, community members, school nurses, or health researchers. Many schools and local and state education policymaking bodies also have school health advisory councils, which are natural places to solicit support and to generally remain active.

Once support is secured, health professionals should approach decision-makers with a detailed plan that provides accurate anticipated costs, legal considerations, and potential implementation problems.[ii] The proposal should also include research evidence as to why the initiative should be adopted, and information on how it will help schools better educate children.

To learn more, visit the National Association of State Boards of Education’s website to purchase a copy of the the publication, “How Schools Work and How to Work With Schools.” 

[i]  National Association of State Boards of Education, “How Schools Work and How to Work with Schools,”

[ii] ibid