When Althea, a student in Mauldin, S.C., started taking Yvonne Mason's senior English class, the pregnant teen only wanted one thing: to graduate.
She had an 85 average, and had just transferred to Mauldin High School. "She was lively and she answered questions," Mason recalls. "She didn't always get everything, but she got a lot of it, and I was real proud."
Then, she began to miss class and didn't make up the work. After a few attempts to help Althea, whose name has been changed for privacy reasons, it became clear that her family had kicked her out. At 17, Althea was not yet independent but living on her own, making access to health care limited. "I knew she wasn't getting the right prenatal care," Mason said. "We talked, she cried, I promised to help her."
Then she stopped coming to class entirely. She never graduated.
Mason hasn't seen her since, but she heard through a friend that Althea's baby was born prematurely. "I'm attributing this to stress and a lack of knowledge about how to get health care," she said. "If students can understand health care, and have more access to it, they'll do better in school."
Mason said the U.S. Supreme Court's decision to uphold President Barack Obama's Affordable Care Act is "brilliant," because it strips limits from health-care coverage, and ensures someone like Althea can't be denied coverage. It also expands health-care coverage for young people through the Children's Health Insurance Program, expands Medicaid, and increases funding to community and school health centers.
For decades, scholars have shouted that changing classroom learning and teacher training are useless if students are hungry, sick -- or not in class. Many teachers cheered the health-care ruling Thursday, saying it may have as much or more of an impact on education than other policies like No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top.
"I think [the health-care ruling] is going to open things up for students who need help," said Jeff Bernstein, a high school social studies teacher in Great Neck, N.Y., adding that he hoped the law would bring more access to mental-health care. "Kids who feel better, who feel better about themselves, will be more successful in school."
Last year, 72,000 uninsured children received health-care under the law, according to the National Education Association, the nation's largest teachers' union. “Children are the big winners in today’s decision,” President Dennis Van Roekel, NEA's president, said in a statement. “The Supreme Court has ensured that we will never go back to a time when insurance company profits are more important than the health and well-being of our nation’s youngest, most vulnerable citizens."
Public health researchers asserted in a recent Preventing Chronic Disease article that health and school are "integrally linked," and that drop-out rates would likely improve if more kids had better health care.
Paul Bruno, an Oakland science teacher, said medical problems are often disguised as academic problems. "I'm not a medical professional, and there are real limits to what I can do," he said. "It can be discouraging."
In response to such problems, the U.S. Department of Education has worked with the Department of Health and Human Services to increase the number of school-based clinics throughout the country. On Wednesday, the New York City Department of Education celebrated a $600,000 grant to connect existing community services with schools.
Mark Anderson, a special-education teacher in the Bronx, said he hopes the new law will help his students. "They don't have eyeglasses, they're not being screened by doctors, they'll come to school sick," he said. "Sometimes it seems like they're malnourished, hungry, and asthma keeps them out of school."
Parents of uninsured students sometimes let the problems fester, said Anderson, for fear of taking a trip to the emergency room. And the effects are simple: Kids who are hungry or sick tend to struggle in class.
Once, he discovered a student with an apparent reading problem could actually read well, but had a vision problem. The student's mother, who spoke little English, had trouble navigating the health-care system. "My hope is, and I don't know exactly how it'll work, that it's going to make the process of all those different parts of healthcare work better together," he says.
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