Childhood health linked to high school completion

Groundbreaking study on African American health in St. Louis, ‘For the Sake of All,’ releases second brief

Each year in the St. Louis region, thousands of African-American students drop out of high school. According to a newly released policy brief — “How does health influence school dropout?” — health and education are closely related, and there are patterns related to health that increase the risk of high school dropout.

The brief, written by William F. Tate, PhD, the Edward Mallinckrodt Distinguished University Professor in Arts & Sciences and chair of the Department of Education at Washington University in St. Louis, is the second of five from a multidisciplinary study underway called “For the Sake of All: A Report on the Health and Well-Being of African Americans in St. Louis.”

The brief highlights how the health of children and youth influences education, and whether or not they complete high school. Among the findings:

  • Early-childhood illnesses limit students’ ability to complete their education.
  • Mental health problems (often not identified or treated) interfere with school performance and completion.
  • Poor school performance increases the likelihood that a student engages in risky behaviors (i.e., early onset of sexual activity and drug use), overall increasing the risk of school dropout.

Coordinated school health programs are one way to increase access to care for students. Coordinated school health is recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and researchers recommend investing in these types of programs for all students.

Although securing stable funding sources for these effective school health programs is sometimes a challenge, Tate suggests prioritizing health as an important contributor to educational attainment.

“If health is prioritized as a matter of learning and attainment, then a stronger case can be made to use school district revenue sources and infrastructure to further address health,” Tate said.

Support from the St. Louis region’s school systems is also a major factor in increasing health programs.

“The first step is to secure the superintendent’s support at the district level and the principal’s support at the school level,” Tate said. “In addition, incorporating health in the district’s or school’s vision and mission statements, including health goals in the school’s improvement plan, is important.”

The policy brief also encourages building public-private partnerships to support mental health care delivery for youth. “Alignment of district priority, leadership and human capital are the starting points for reaching outside the school system to engage health and human services providers,” Tate said.

According to the Alliance for Excellent Education, even if only 1,000 of the many students who dropped out of high school instead had graduated, they likely would have made up to $11 million more, combined, in income and spent up to $21 million more on homes than they will without a high school diploma.

This could have increased the gross regional product by $15 million per year and overall added up to $1.1 million in new state and local tax revenue per year. Therefore, decreasing high school dropouts benefits all.

“For the Sake of All” is funded by the Missouri Foundation for Health and includes faculty from Washington University and Saint Louis University. WUSTL’s Institute for Public Health, the Brown School’s Policy Forum, The St. Louis American newspaper and the online news site St. Louis Beacon are partners as well.

Participating scholars from Washington University, in addition to Tate, are:

  • Jason Q. Purnell, PhD, assistant professor at the Brown School and lead researcher on the project;
  • Bettina F. Drake, PhD, assistant professor of surgery in Public Health Sciences at the School of Medicine;
  • Melody S. Goodman, PhD, assistant professor of surgery in Public Health Sciences at the School of Medicine;
  • Darrell L. Hudson, PhD, assistant professor at the Brown School.

Saint Louis University faculty partners are:

  • Keith Elder, PhD, associate professor and chair, Department of Health Management & Policy for the College for Public Health & Social Justice; and
  • Keon Gilbert, DPhil, assistant professor at the College for Public Health & Social Justice.

To read the full brief, as well as learn more about “For the Sake of All,” visit