Lack Of Education
BY LISA WARREN
A symposium Tuesday evening at Tusculum College focused on factors that negatively impact health and education in this region.
The event, entitled "Wellness and Learning: Finding the Link in Southern Appalachia," was presented by the Tusculum Institute for Public Leadership and Policy and the Niswonger Foundation.
The program was held in the college's Annie Hogan Byrd Auditorium. Attending were about 75 people, many of them students.
The program was opened by Dr. Nancy Dishner, who served as the symposium's moderator. Dishner heads the scholarship and leadership training program for the Niswonger Foundation.
Scott M. Niswonger, the Greeneville businessman and philanthropist who is president, founder, and sole benefactor of the Niswonger Foundation, presented an overview of the work accomplished by the organization since its founding eight years ago.
Since its inception, Niswonger said, one of the main missions of the foundation has been to increase educational opportunities for the region's students.
As part of that goal, the Niswonger Foundation has also worked diligently to improve the health status of youth, most notably through the sizable contribution toward the new Niswonger Children's Hospital in Johnson City.
A child that does not have access to adequate nutrition and health care is not going to be able to learn as other children do, Niswonger said.
In discussing possible subjects for the symposium, Dishner said it became apparent that "health care and education are really the most prevalent topics ... because that is going to impact most how this region develops.
"We decided that those two topics are combined, and that's where the idea for this came about," Dishner said.
Primary presentators at the events were: Dr. Randy Wykoff, founding dean of the College of Public Health at East Tennessee State University, and Oliver "Buzz" Thomas, president of the Great Schools Partnership in Knoxville and former executive director of the Niswonger Foundation.
Wykoff said, "We live in a part of the country that has really remarkable natural beauty and a deep and rich culture and heritage. But we also live in a part of the country where there are a lot of people who can't enjoy this quality of life because they don't have a sufficient level of health to enjoy it."
The southern Appalachian region, including Northeast Tennessee, Wykoff said, has long been plagued with high rates of obesity, hypertension, diabetes and cardiovascular disease.
The life expectancy in the United States today is 78.1 years -- but that does not even place this country in the top 30 in the world, Wykoff said. The U.S. ranks 34th in the world in life expectancy.
"This means there are 33 other countries where a baby born today is projected to live a longer life than a baby born in the United States," he said.
Among Tennesseans, the life expectancy is lower -- at 75.3 years, he said. And every Tennessee county ranks below the national average in life expectancy, he added.
Wykoff said there are several factors that contribute to premature deaths.
Most notable are those of behavior or lifestyle choices, he said, which contribute to about 40 percent of premature deaths.
Among those lifestyle choices that impact our life expectancy, tobacco use ranks as the number one cause of premature deaths, Wykoff said.
Right behind that factor, he said, is inactivity or a lack of exercise.
FOURTH WORST STATE
Wykoff said Tennessee ranks as the fourth state from the bottom in regard to obesity.
Other factors, he said, include: genetics (30 percent); social factors (14 percent), health care (10 percent) and environmental exposures (5 percent).
The top social factors that impact one's health status, Wykoff said, are income and education level.
Persons with less income and less education tend to be less healthy, he said.
The difference of life expectancy, between a college graduate and a high school dropout is seven years, he said.
Tennessee ranks 41st in the country in terms of residents who who are at the poverty level or below, he said.
The question facing our region, Wykoff said, is how can we improve our health status -- if we cannot improve our incomes?
"Buzz" Thomas said that the best way to accomplish this is through improving education.
"It is true," Thomas said, "that the more education we have the healthier we are, and the more money we can make. We can be happier people when we are healthier and well taken care of."
Unfortunately, our region ranks "near the bottom" on per capita spending for education, he said.
"Your mom probably taught you a long time ago that you get what you pay for -- and that's generally true," Thomas said.
"We have not been willing to invest much in education in Tennessee, and we've gotten what we have paid for," he added.
Tennessee has one of the lowest high school graduation rates in the country, Thomas said. In addition, "we are one of the lowest performing states academically in the United States.
"Last year, less than one-out-of-five Tennessee high school graduates made the ACT benchmarks score in every subject area," he said.
The American College Testing (ACT) college readiness benchmarks are the minimum ACT test scores required for students to have a high probability of success in credit-bearing college courses in English composition, biology, algebra and social sciences.
To be considered college-ready, a student must score at least 18 in English, 21 in reading, 22 in mathematics, and 24 in science on the ACT exam. Most high school students take this exam during their junior year.
Students in grade 8 take the Explore test, which also provides college readiness benchmarks.
To be considered on track for college, an eighth grader must score at least 13 in English, 15 in reading, 17 in mathematics, and 20 in science on the Explore test.
"It is startling that 80 percent of the kids coming out of our high schools in Tennessee are not making the ACT benchmarks score in every subject area," Thomas said.
Only 18 percent of the state's high school graduates about a year ago were considered to be prepared for college studies, he said.
Only about 21 percent of the adults in Tennessee have a college degree, Thomas said, which is among the lowest levels of college-educated people in the United States.
A generation ago, a person could drop out of high school in Tennessee and go to the family farm and make a good living and raise a family, Thomas said.
But today, he said, employers are less interested in what we can do than in what we know.
It is vital, then, that students today are prepared and knowledgable in order to be employable in today's workforce, he said.
Other speakers were Dr. Kimberly Ferguson, clinical director for the Hancock County School-Based Health Clinics, and Dr. Janie Snyder, director of secondary and student services for the Johnson City School System.
In Hancock County, Ferguson, who is a nurse practitioner, said that she has worked through the school-based clinic program to help curb high obesity rates among students.
Ferguson said she found there is "very little" preventative medical care in the region, which translates to various health problems among citizens of all ages.
Snyder said health initiatives in the Johnson City Schools have focused on increasing physical activity among students.
She said there has been measureable improvement among students' obesity rates since the effort was started.
"We have been trying to give kids the tools to make good choices (about their health) and to get them moving more," Snyder said.