BY JANICE D. KEY and KATHERINE RICHARDSON

Kudos to Todd Garrett, a Charleston County School Board member who in his March 6 commentary addressed the fact that too many of our students are falling behind. Despite investing a tremendous amount of money and energy in different academic programs, not enough of our students are achieving grade level results in math and reading. These students will not qualify for the good jobs that companies, such as Boeing, are bringing to Charleston County.

We hope that all children in Charleston County will succeed in school. However, as physicians, we have an additional perspective: healthy children are ready to learn. Children need to have healthy nutrition and frequent physical activity before they can benefit from education. A child who is hungry or who has eaten a non-nutritious meal (high calorie, high sugar, high fat foods) cannot fully benefit from the best teachers and curricula. Children who are forced to sit still for as short a period as only 45 minutes have brains that are less alert and focused.

The Charleston County Medical Society School Health Committee has partnered with the Charleston County School District for over 30 years in an advisory capacity about anything to do with health. Over these years we have worked on many, many issues such as vaccinations, school nursing, medication safety, and emergency plans.

However, in the last 10 years we have specifically focused on nutrition and physical activity. The reason is that these days many children are overweight or obese.

Numerous scientific studies demonstrate that overweight/obese students do not perform as well as healthy students. This is a particular problem in South Carolina, where we have been ranked as high as the second fattest state in the country in regards to childhood obesity.

In Charleston County we have found that over a third (38 percent) of our 5th graders are overweight/obese, including almost half (46 percent) of those in Title 1 schools, further contributing to the likehood that Title 1 students would fall behind.

It takes time to turn the tide on such an overwhelming problem. We have worked diligently since 2007 to address these health issues. We have helped schools establish wellness committees and paired them with volunteer doctors. In our Docs Adopt School Health Initiative, schools have put in place innumerable evidenced-based systemic healthy changes.

In fact, this effort has been embraced so enthusiastically by schools that it has now spread to 12 school districts, is promoted by two other children’s hospitals (McLeod and Palmetto), and is used in a community as far away as Pennsylvania. It was awarded the 2016 Wellness Frontiers Award from the Healthcare Leadership Council. Evaluation of the Docs Adopt School Health Initiative by the Charleston County School District has found that schools that make more healthy changes, especially concerning nutrition and physical activity, have students who miss fewer days, have fewer behavior problems, and come to school better prepared to learn.

Better yet, Title 1 schools who participated in our Docs Adopt were just as likely to implement healthy changes as were non-Title 1 schools and closed the gap of disparity regarding the number of initiatives that promote health.

Everyone in our community must help all of our children succeed. As physicians, we can contribute our knowledge of health and wellness so that students are ready to benefit from what their teachers have to offer.

We welcome school board members, parents, and community members at our annual celebration of this work. Please join us at the Charleston County School District Wellness Achievement Celebration at 4 p.m. on May 11 at 75 Calhoun Street.

Janice D. Key, M.D., is a professor of pediatrics at MUSC, and director of the Boeing Center for Children’s Wellness. She is co-chair of the CCMS School Health Committee. Katherine Richardson, M.D., MPH, is medical director of the Lowcountry Public Health Region, and a member of the CCMS School Health Committee.