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Harrison High students will get a dose of 'health literacy' in all classes

July 15, 2011

One day in the not-too-distant future, Harrison High School students will walk into a business or English class and learn about something not obviously tied to the subject matter at hand: health.

In a partnership with El Paso County Public Health, Harrison officials hope to improve their students’ “health literacy” through a curriculum that will be integrated into courses beyond the usual health and PE classes. The goal is to create a model that can be used by schools statewide to improve knowledge about all things health-related and decrease chronic diseases among minorities and those on the lower end of the socio-economic scale. Officials tied to the project say Harrison is a natural lab because 45.1 percent of its students are Hispanic, 18.7 percent are black and 73 percent qualify for free or reduced-price lunches. And at least 40 percent of the students are considered overweight or obese.

“We’re addressing a need we know we have,” says Karen Howard, who retired as Harrison’s health tech in May, but will return in the fall as a volunteer to work on the curriculum and act as a liaison with the county health department. “These are students who have enough barriers to success.”

The project is being funded with a two-year, $126,000 grant financed by the state tobacco tax and funneled through the state Department of Public Health and Environment’s Office of Health Disparities, which works to eliminate health care gaps tied to ethnicity and race.

The first six months of the program will focus on planning, forming an advisory committee and determining what will benefit students, says Kelley Vivian, grant coordinator for the county health department. When the spring semester starts, the students will likely get their first taste of a program that will work its way into most, if not all, of their classes to immerse them in just about everything they need to know about disease prevention, health insurance, health-care reform, access to low-cost care and more.

In a biology class, for example, students might learn about genetic markers for certain diseases, Vivian says. A business class might focus on health insurance, or a consumer economics class might teach how to access low-cost health care clinics and how that fits into a financial plan.

“We haven’t figured out how to fit it into English — but we’ll fit it into English,” Howard says. “We’ll integrate it into as many different classes as we can.”

Eventually, those involved with the program hope to get the students’ families or guardians involved.

The idea for the program grew out of an impromptu conversation between Harrison principal Cheri Martinez and Nigel Guyot, Community Health Program Manager for the county health department. They were discussing Harrison’s students and their need to become better educated about health. Around that time, the state health department started taking requests for health disparity grants.

“We were lucky enough to have an idea already percolating,” Vivian says.

Howard says many Harrison students grow up in households that are not health-care savvy, so she hopes the program can break that generational cycle.

“A lot of families here abuse the ER,” Howard says. “They are there on a weekly basis. Those kids can benefit from the program and think, ‘oooh, maybe it’s better to go to the urgent care by Kohl’s.”

Howard wants the lessons the kids will learn in high school to carry over well into their adult years.

“We know many of our students will be out on their own soon,” Howard says. “We’re trying to prepare them to be responsible. We all have to take our care of our own health, whether it’s making a wise decision or knowing where to go when you make a poor decision.”

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