A statewide school health program could be on the chopping block as the Tennessee General Assembly and governor get ready to draft the coming year's budget.
Russell Cliche, of Hamilton County's Coordinated School Health division, worries that the state-mandated program could vanish from the budget because it's not scheduled for automatic renewal of funding.
"I'm very concerned," he said. "Every year, we're very concerned."
Coordinated School Health was in every Tennessee school district by 2007 "to improve student health outcomes as well as support the connection between good health practices, academic achievement and lifetime wellness," according to its state website.
In the past two years, Coordinated School Health has been categorized as a nonrecurring fund and must be reauthorized year to year.
Cliche said he'll spend the next few months reaching out to legislators and state officials to show the benefits of the program, which is aimed at boosting students' achievement by improving their health. That includes tackling the childhood obesity problem, treating mental-health problems and promoting wellness among school employees.
"We take on the load of removing any barrier that keeps a kid from learning," Cliche said.
He worries that some legislators aren't fully aware of all the program's benefits, he said.
At a legislative forum hosted by the PTA last month, Rep. Richard Floyd, R-Chattanooga, said the initiative is worthwhile. But he said that, in his day, "Coordinated School Health was called gym class."
"Hopefully, we'll see our revenues increase to the point to where some of these things that look like they're going to be cut maybe don't have to be cut," Floyd said. "But that is truly speculative and wishful thinking on my part."
Data from 2007 show that 36 percent of Tennessee children ages 10 to 17 were overweight or obese.
"Hopefully, we'll be able to do something with that part of a kid's education. Because I think it's important," Floyd said.
Sen. Andy Berke, D-Chattanooga, said he thinks the Coordinated School Health effort will ultimately receive funding this spring. "It would be a mistake to let the infrastructure die because we didn't come up with one year's worth of funding," he said.
Cliche said Hamilton County's program has put 27 teacher-led health teams in several schools and started initiatives throughout the county to promote a healthy lifestyle, taking away distractions from teaching and learning.
"It's tough enough to teach a kid that isn't dealing with bullying or hungry or dealing with diabetes," he said.
Coordinated School Health has worked with some physical education instructors to implement a P.E. for Life curriculum, which encourages lifelong physical activity such as jogging and weight training rather than emphasizing just sports.
Two elementary schools -- McConnell and Spring Creek -- have started Math in Motion, which combines physical activity with math lessons to stimulate brain activity.
The initiative also has funded workout equipment for teachers at several schools.
Of the local $180,000 annual budget, about $44,000 is given away in minigrants to county school initiatives. The allocation also funds Cliche's full-time position, two part-time employees and a contracted dietitian.
Cliche said the program also has drawn outside funding, including $140,000 from the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program. The Benwood Foundation gave about $100,000 to fund Chef Nights at area schools, which feature local chefs coming in to present healthy recipes and tips for students and families.
While a heavy emphasis is placed on physical fitness and nutrition, Cliche said Coordinated School Health is aimed at improving the overall health of students and employees.
"This isn't about being skinny," he said. "Health is not how you look. Health is how you live."