Chantel Courtney and her two sons took a wrong turn at Normandy’s back-to-school fair last weekend in search of getting her eighth-grader a vaccination. They ended up getting a sneak peek at the high school’s new medical clinic, which opened Thursday.
It’s the first one to open as a direct result of the efforts of a 2014 research project called For the Sake of All, which recommended putting clinics in St. Louis-area schools to bridge gaps in health-care access. Normandy is the third high school in the area with a clinic that offers students services for free or on a sliding scale, and at least two other schools may open a clinic soon.
“I think it’s nice. It’s the first time I’ve heard of a school actually had a clinic in it. They’re stepping their game up,” Courtney said after touring the waiting room, lab area, and two exam rooms. “We have to drive way out to the city to go to doctor’s appointments and all that. So this’ll be something that we might do use.”
Normandy’s health clinic will be run by Affinia Healthcare and staffed by a nurse practitioner, a licensed social worker and a medical assistant. Staff members who go will have to pay, but students won’t be charged for the services.
Normandy Superintendent Charles Pearson said having a clinic on campus makes health care easily accessible to students, especially in his district, where more than 90 percent of students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch — the federal standard for tracking poverty in schools.
“With poverty comes a significant number of challenges. Access to health care, sometimes inconsistencies in housing, issues like asthma,” Pearson said. “All of those factors actually get in the way of children, a: getting to school, or if they’re at school and feeling ill, completing a day, or having challenges in being able to focus on what’s going on.”
He added that the goal is to “get rid of anything that gets in the way of their learning. And, if we can, inadvertently also improve the quality of their life.” The Normandy district has been unaccredited by the state since 2013 because too many students are below grade level in math and English. District officials hope this year’s test scores will be high enough to become provisionally accredited.
The study focused on the health of African-Americans in the St. Louis region. Researchers said childhood illnesses like asthma are more likely to result in ER visits when students don’t have a primary doctor who manages their care. Black students in St. Louis and St. Louis County visit emergency rooms for asthma treatment at a rate 11 times higher than white students, the study found.
The director of the For the Sake of All Project, Washington University associate professor Jason Purnell, is trying to make the report’s recommendations a reality.
“I very often say that a child who can’t hear, can’t see, hasn’t slept, can’t breathe, has been traumatized, hasn’t eaten, and doesn’t know where they’re going to sleep, doesn’t have the opportunity to learn,” said Purnell, who teaches in the Brown School of Social Work. “School personnel who are dealing with these issues every day recognize that, but they don’t always have the resources at hand to deal with it.”
Two other high schools in north St. Louis County are making arrangements with health centers to operate a clinic. For the Sake of All is also completing health needs assessments at three high schools in north St. Louis County, a first step towards opening a clinic.
“It’s wonderful to see. We’re very excited, and we share that excitement with a broad set of partners, and very much recognize that this is a team effort,” Purnell said. “What we’re aiming for is regional infrastructure that supports these clinics and makes them sustainable.”
But there’s a catch: Services at school-based health clinics are largely paid for through Medicaid, which could face cuts under the Republican-led Congress.
“I’m very concerned about (the possibility of cuts), but I also think that ... (w)e have a case to make to policy makers,” Purnell said, adding that such health clinics can help prevent diseases or treat them before an ER visit is necessary.
Roosevelt High School in the St. Louis public school district has had a clinic since 2012, and Jennings Senior High opened a clinic in 2015 in partnership with “The SPOT,” a Washington University program.
Jennings Superintendent Art McCoy said having health clinics on campus has made a big difference in his district.
“We’ve seen our students’ grades go up, and for sure our students’ attendance go up on the basis of having daily physician care,” McCoy said. “I’ve seen situations where a family literally could not afford, or would not even know how to navigate the kind of mental health care provided in some extreme situations.”
McCoy said the clinic prevented a lot of absences at the beginning of last school year because of two new vaccination requirements.
“Many school districts had students not show up to school for the first week or two because they couldn’t get a scheduled appointment to their physician or the clinics. Well, the SPOT clinic did 150 student new vaccinations or immunizations,” McCoy said.
The Normandy clinic also will provide vaccinations — something parent Sharon Perkins said is “really convenient … Instead of leaving off the campus he can come right here.”
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