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Health Happens Where We Live; A School Shows How

A single school is like an entire community.

You've got the mayor, or principal. There is the general population, the students and their parents. There's a grocery store in the form of a cafeteria. And the teachers are kind of like doctors and police officers rolled into one. Within that batch of characters, there are gossips and scofflaws; actors and judges; even engineers and critics.

A single school can tell us a lot about the health of the community in which it exists. It can also tell us a lot about how systemic problems with transportation, food, housing and crime adversely impact impoverished communities and the health of the people who live there.   

To put this theory to the test, we went to North Side Community School in north St. Louis. It's an elementary charter school that primarily serves students within a three-mile radius of the building. The school itself has an impressive academic track record, consistently scoring higher on state standardized tests than other charter schools, and exceeding the performance of St. Louis Public Schools.

It's managed to achieve this success even though the students who go to North Side face some serious challenges. They live in crime-riddled neighborhoods and in housing that is often sub-standard. Every student who attends the school receives free or reduced lunch, an indication of their family's poverty. 

The fact is all of those elements of the students' lives end up affecting their health and, consequently, their ability to learn and thrive and, ultimately, their chance of living a long, fruitful life. The Centers for Disease Control has been studying the connections for years. And The For Sake of All report, which we discussed in our last podcast, shows how the St. Louis region's well-being is impacted by the adverse conditions that many children live in.

Boy inspects spinach on his plate.
Credit Veronique LaCapra | St. Louis Public Radio
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Norman Thomas takes a moment to inspect the spinach on his plate. The spinach is the day's new food for Try Day, where students are rewarded with stickers for trying something new, usually a vegetable.

The challenges play out in very real ways for North Side students, their parents and the communities in which they live. In the podcast, we spend time hearing the stories of how the students are coping with sub-standard housing, limited access to healthy food, and lack of transportation among other things.

As you listen to the podcast, you can read up on some facts about the area in which North Side Community School is located.

 

Hunger and obesity

The North Side Community school is run by Stella Erondu — she's the mayor, if you will. She is very familiar with her students and their families and all the challenges they face. When it comes to food and hunger, for example, she is very aware that her students often come to school hungry. 

"We have not ever gone to them and said, 'Did you eat dinner last night?' And I don't think we should," Erondu said. "The kids will talk with me. They will tell me. Some kids will say 'I want seconds, I want thirds.' And they do get them.  And that's a sign that they didn't eat dinner at home."

Yet despite the problem of being hungry, the percentage of people in the surrounding neighborhood who are overweight or obese is as much as 15 points higher than the St. Louis average. How can that be? The food they are eating is not nutritious, but is high in calories and fat.

 

Housing and dangerous neighborhoods

Another problem that students and their families have to cope with is sub-standard housing. We're talking houses with leaky roofs, no water, mold and crumbling walls. Erandu described going to one parent's house to check on the students. She said the house was spotless, but she could smell the mold.

Traci Haines and her children Trayniah and Trayshawn in their new apartment.
Credit Emanuele Berry | St. Louis Public Radio
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Traci Haines and her children Trayniah and Trayshawn in their new apartment.

Another parent, Traci Haines, recently moved from a house that her family owned outright because the physical structure of the house wasn't sound. There was a spot on the ceiling above Haines' bed that had a large, soft dark color.

"It looks like mold. It was leaking and eventually, I thought that's going to fall and I was thinking of us sleeping there," Haines said.

She left the house, abandoned it, really, and is now paying rent in a much smaller apartment, but one that doesn't have physical problems that threaten her family's health.

 

There are direct physical consequences to living in those conditions, the most common being asthma which affects nearly 20 percent of the city's children. But when you combine poor housing with inadequate food and ongoing violence, you have a recipe for raising a generation of children whose ability to learn and grow into healthy adults is difficult no matter how amazing their parents are.

kids walking with backpacks toward school
Credit Emanuele Berry | St. Louis Public Radio
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Siblings Trayniah and Trayshawn Haines heading to the first day of classes for North Side Community School's summer session.

 

Emanuele Berry is a 2012 graduate of Michigan State University. Prior to coming to St. Louis she worked as a talk show producer at WKAR Public Radio in Michigan. Emanuele also interned at National Public Radio, where she worked at the Arts and Information Desk. Her work has been recognized by the Michigan Association of Broadcasters, the Society of Professional Journalists, the Radio Television Digital News Association and the Hearst Journalism Awards Program. Berry worked with St. Louis Public Radio from 2014 to 2015.
Tim Lloyd was a founding host of We Live Here from 2015 to 2018 and was the Senior Producer of On Demand and Content Partnerships until Spring of 2020.

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