Nov. 24 2015

Reading, Writing, Arithmetic. And Health?

Caroline Volel says schools are the perfect place to improve community health

Community schools are a centerpiece of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s education agenda. The Mayor has committed to creating more than 100 of these schools by 2017. Expanding our expectations of what schools can deliver to people in need, the new model works to help children, families, and whole communities thrive in the face of challenges in and out of the classroom.

Caroline Volel, a part-time assistant clinical professor of Pediatrics and Population and Family Health, is also a field physician for New York City’s Office of School Health, serving 25 schools in Central and East Harlem. As director of the Mailman School’s academic School Health Program, Volel is on the frontlines of this transformation.

In a new video, Volel says schools can and do offer much more than reading, writing, and arithmetic; in New York City, their sheer magnitude makes them ideally situated to improve community health. New York’s Department of Education—by far the largest public school system in the country—serves 1.3 million students, for whom attendance is compulsory from age 4 to 18, 180 days a year plus summer and afterschool programs. Community schools build on this system by opening community gardens, for example, or hosting afterschool programs for adults who want to learn English. The goal: improve the health and wellbeing of entire neighborhoods.

Expanding the purpose of schools won’t detract from education, she says. Quite the opposite: “Until you address the social issues, you really can’t have a successful school,” says Volel.

To accomplish this ambitious transformation, schools must properly address even common issues like asthma, obesity, and mental health. To help them bolster this capacity, Volel enlists Mailman School students in her Issues in School-Based Health Seminar to export their expertise to schools in low-income neighborhoods where they assess the school’s needs and create linkages with community partners from local hospitals to gyms.

“Public health is the integration of systems,” says Volel. “I think that’s what we do best.”

Read a feature story in Columbia Public Health magazine about Volel’s School-Based efforts and how they might make a difference in mitigating the effects of urban poverty.