Aug 28 2012

Donald Yu of the Department of Education: National Prevention Strategy Q&A

Donald Yu Donald Yu (second from right), Department of Education, at a Green Ribbon ceremony with representatives of partner organizations

As the National Prevention Strategy is rolled out, NewPublicHealth will be speaking with Cabinet Secretaries, Agency directors and their designees to the Prevention Council about their prevention initiatives. Follow the series here.

We recently spoke with Donald Yu, Senior Counselor to the General Counsel of the U.S.Department of Education and designee to the National Prevention Council, about the connection between health and education.

>>Listen to a related podcast with the Secretary of the Department of Education, Arne Duncan.

NewPublicHealth: What is the connection between education, high school completion, employment and health?

Don Yu: Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has always said that education is the civil rights issue of our generation, and that concept has really infused all of our work in all of our areas. In terms of the question about how health relates to education, high school completion and employment, I think it’s intuitive but also backed up by emerging research that there is a strong correlation between good student health and improved performance on academic assessments. Obviously, if students are hungry they cannot focus in class; much less perform on a test. Or if they can’t see well, can’t see the blackboard, they obviously can’t learn as well, and my point about the civil rights issue is that those kinds of health disparities impact low income and minority communities the most.

NPH: And what are some of the initiatives and innovations already underway at the Department of Education to support the National Prevention Strategy?

Don Yu: When the administration first started we were tasked with reauthorizing the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) of 1965 and we had very specific ideas about what the reauthorized ESEA should look like. We proposed a $200 million program called Successful, Safe and Healthy Students and that was our main lever for improving student health, and I say health very broadly to include improving school climate by reducing drug use, alcohol use, bullying and harassment in school, as well as improving physical health, general emotional well-being and making sure that students had access to mental health counseling.

Secretary Duncan has often said we can’t wait for Congress to act because students only get one shot at an education so we’ve got to do everything we can administratively. So, we’ve been working a lot with our older programs to promote these goals.

We have a program called the Carol M. White Physical Education Program (PEP), which is an $80 million program through which we provide grants directly to school districts and community-based organizations to improve their physical education programs. In recent years there is more professional development for teachers and physical activity, and a nutrition education component.

NPH: The Safe Schools-Healthy Students Initiative is a collaboration among the Department of Education, the U.S. Department of Justice, and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Green Ribbon Schools recognizes schools that meet certain environmental standards. How do these initiatives offer an important model for collaboration among agencies for improving health?

Don Yu: I think both of these have been great examples of how important it is to break down silos. All of the involved agencies have faced significant budget cuts and the only way that we can still accomplish many of the present priorities is if we pool our resources. Green Ribbon Schools has been a great example of collaboration, and we’ve really relied on our sister agencies. The program recognizes schools that save energy, reduce costs, feature environmentally sustainable learning spaces, protect health, foster wellness, and offer environmental education to boost academic achievement and community engagement. It’s not a funded program, but it showcases schools around the country.

We’ve collaborated very closely [on Green Ribbon Schools] with the Environmental Protection Agency, the White House Council on Environmental Quality, the Department of Energy, HHS; they’ve all given us their feedback and technical assistance in getting our program set up. We could not have gotten it done as well as we did without support from those other agencies, so we’ve been grateful for that.

NPH: Let’s talk about physical activity in schools and how that plays a role in the National Prevention Strategy and the initiatives of the Department.

Don Yu: We may not have that many funded levers across the federal agencies to help promote physical activity, but what we do have is the bully pulpit and it’s also important to get out the message. Our mission is improving student achievement. So, of course, improvements in math and reading are among our top goals. But at the same time, Arne has always said to be tight on the goals and loose on the means. That means states, school districts and schools should have the flexibility to do whatever they think is necessary to improve student outcomes. It’s pretty clear intuitively and from emerging research that incorporating physical activity throughout the school day actually improves student academic outcomes. And if that’s the case and if that’s what research is saying, we should all be in favor of school districts making sure they incorporate PE and recess.

NPH: And what about healthier foods in schools?

Don Yu: That is something that the Department of Agriculture takes a lead on, but that doesn’t mean education doesn’t have a role. We obviously have a very strong voice with school districts and promoting and highlighting the importance that good student nutrition has in helping students get more focused and do better on tests. We certainly have promoted the concept, such as a public-private partnership with for a healthy student’s recipe contest. The winners were announced this month.

NPH: The Healthy Schools Campaign and Trust for America’s Health recently presented health and education policy recommendations. What do we know so far about those recommendations and what they might do in the future to help the schools?

Don Yu: Well, they were great recommendations, and very thoughtfully crafted. They held a series of summits on a number of issues and brought in experts from around the country and collected feedback on a number of issues such as school nurses and professional development for teachers. We are in the process of taking a hard look at those recommendations and seeing which ones we can take on right now.

Tags: Education, National Prevention Strategy, Public and Community Health, Q&A, Social Determinants of Health