When three students in the Suwannee County Public Schools tragically committed suicide, educators in this small Florida school district went in search of something–anything–to help students there cope with the inexplicable loss of life.

Had the tragedy occurred even a month earlier, educators wouldn’t have known where to begin. Lucky for them, however, there’s a solution.

At their disposal: a new, never-before-tested technology from Discovery Education. Called Discovery Health Connection, the online tool–intended to bolster health and wellness instruction in the nation’s schools–is being made available through the North East Florida Educational Consortium, a regional education service agency that provides cooperative services to rural schools in 14 of the Sunshine State’s northernmost counties, including Suwannee. One of its lessons: suicide prevention.

Talk about a life saver.

As Suwannee County struggles to help its students cope with the enormity of death, it joins a growing number of school systems across the country looking to the internet for answers to one of teaching’s age-old challenges: how to impress upon students–many who see themselves as invincible–the importance of long-term physical and mental health.

Late in January, during the Florida Educational Technology Conference in Orlando, Discovery Education–whose parent company, Discovery Communications Inc., produces the Discovery Channel–officially broke ground on its latest foray into multimedia learning with the nationwide release of Discovery Health Connection, giving schools access to the same technology now available in north Florida.

Combining the benefits of streaming video excerpts with a vast, searchable library of cross-curricular lesson plans and other learning materials, the online subscription service aims to help teachers address death and other sensitive issues on the fly, during what educators refer to as those rare “teachable moments.”

In all, the program is intended to address nine key elements of youth health education as outlined by the National Institutes of Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Topics include the body, alcohol and other drugs, mental health, nutrition, physical activity, safety, growth and development, tobacco, and violence.

To back up its new online tool, Discovery Education offers teachers a monthly newsletter, technical support, and training materials.

As a test-bed for the new tool, NEFEC is among the first education service providers in the nation to use the technology.

Peggy Kelly, NEFEC’s health education supervisor, said the hope was to develop a customizable solution to meet the individual needs of students. What she discovered was a series of interchangeable health and prevention lessons that truly resonated with the student body.

Before NEFEC’s adoption of Discovery Health Connection, Kelly said, health and prevention education had been suffering in schools–mainly because students couldn’t relate. “Textbooks and kits are a thing of the past,” she said. They’re “simply not a turn-on for these kids today.”

Incorporate the use of video and, well, that’s another story, Kelly said: “It’s just so much more engaging.”

A descendant of Discovery’s tremendously successful unitedstreaming video-on-demand product, Health Connection boasts a variety of features designed to help educators meld the immediacy of streaming media with the lasting benefit of a well-constructed and relevant lesson plan.

At its core, the program contains a searchable database broken out by the nine topics. Once educators select a topic, they can search the content database by state standard, topic, subtopic, or grade, depending on what they’re after.

Looking for something specific? An advanced search enables users to find titles by producer, closed caption, or Spanish clips. As a matter of convenience, the most recent searches can be saved, empowering educators to quickly cull previously used materials.

Choose a lesson, and the options continue. Aside from the various curriculum resources, each subject is accompanied by a list of activities designed to spread the message to the school, throughout the community, and at home with family.

Additional tools and resources are available to help integrate lessons into the classroom, too. Apart from Discovery’s ever-increasing library of video snippets, schools also have unlimited access to lesson- and quiz-builder features, as well as related lessons designed to enhance the importance of reading and writing.

Of course, the folks at Discovery realize the technology is only effective if educators know what to do with it once they have it in their classrooms.

To that end, a monthly newsletter, technical support, and training materials are made available for teachers–though, according to Kelly, promoting teacher buy-in hasn’t been a problem.

“According to our 2004 Substance Use and Violence Study, 64 percent of students believe that education about the harmful effects of drugs and violence were the most influential factors in their decision to not engage in drug use or violent behavior,” she said. “With Discovery Health Connection, not only are we offered a complete violence-prevention program online, [but] teachers and other educators can immediately access lesson plans linked to individual incidents that may occur on school grounds.”

That’s the goal, anyway.

“Discovery Health Connection gives educators the tools they need to help their students make healthy choices when it comes to important issues like fitness and nutrition, alcohol and drug abuse, violence prevention, and physical activity,” offered Steve Sidel, executive vice president of Discovery Education. “By combining proven, comprehensive content with the efficiency of on-demand internet delivery, Discovery Health Connection will help the next generation live healthier lives.”

And it’s affordable, too, notes Kelly. Before linking up with Health Connection, it wasn’t unusual for the consortium to spend thousands of dollars a year on health and wellness kits for schools. That’s a far cry from the $995 per school, per year fee currently charged by Discovery–a small price to pay for helping kids deal with some of life’s more difficult choices, she said.

In addition to content developed by Discovery Education, Discovery Health Connection includes in-depth curricula developed by the Comprehensive Health Education Foundation–a nonprofit organization that supports health education in schools and communities through the development of prevention and health education materials and services–and the University of New Hampshire Cooperative Extension.

The “researched-based” programs include:

  • Here’s Looking At You: A K-12 substance abuse program that builds social skills and assets to create a healthier school climate. The program reportedly has been shown through independent research to be effective in preventing substance use by influencing behavioral outcomes, intentions, development of refusal plans, and the ability to identify risk factors in students.

  • Get Real About Violence: A K-12 bullying- and teasing-prevention program that fosters a safer school environment and builds character. According to Discovery, Get Real About Violence has been shown to decrease verbal aggressiveness among students in an independent scientific evaluation recently published in Health Communication.

  • Great Beginnings: A nutrition program for pregnant and new mothers that provides practical nutrition and wellness information and information on monthly infant development and helps parents obtain the skills they need to feed themselves and their children low-cost, nutritious meals.

    To push the program, Discovery currently is offering a 30-day free trial subscription. Details are available on the product web site.

    Links:

    Suwannee County Public Schools
    http://www.suwannee.k12.fl.us/

    Discovery Health Connection
    http://www.discoveryhealthconnection.com/

    Discovery Education
    http://education.discovery.com/

    North East Florida Educational Consortium
    http://www.nefec.org/