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On-Site Health Centers Open at Elev8 Schools

When Nataline Morris registered her sixth grader for Perspectives-Calumet Middle School, she was surprised to find a brand new school health center occupying former classroom space on the building’s north side. Curious, she signed her daughter Emma up for a physical on the spot.

In May, Perspectives became the first of Chicago’s five Elev8 schools (the others are Ames Middle School, Marquette Elementary, Orozco Community Academy and Reavis Elementary) to open a health center, thanks to a grant from The Atlantic Philanthropies and matching local funds.

Medical Assistant Racquel Lampkin takes the temperature of Jada Siler, 11, at the Perspectives-Calumet Middle School Health Center, 8131 S. May St. Jada's mother, Sonya Mace-Siler (left), looks on.

Gordon Walek

With the opening of the new school year, all Elev8 schools are offering comprehensive services including physicals and immunizations, treatment for acute and chronic illnesses such as asthma, and individual and family counseling. Convenient access to high-quality health care is scarce in many Chicago neighborhoods, and most middle and elementary schools have only a part-time nurse.

In Morris’ view, on-site care means parents will miss fewer hours of work “to rush home for things that aren’t really emergencies,” while kids will have fewer opportunities to leave school over minor health complaints, like headaches and stomachaches. “As soon as they get home, they feel better,” she remarked, with a wry glance at Emma, age 11.

The health centers are part of a larger plan to address many of the obstacles to school success common in low-income neighborhoods. These include poor eating and health habits, depression and risk-taking behavior.

Zairak Phillips, 14, and his father Andrew Phillips discuss the coming school year as Medical Assistant Racquel Lampkin reviews Zairak's medical records at the Perspectives-Calumet Middle School Health Center.

Gordon Walek

Each school’s Elev8 plan includes comprehensive sex education, fitness activities, nutrition education and regular visits from a dental van

“We know in order for our students to achieve, it’s important that their physical and mental health is being taken care of,” said Perspectives Principal Tamara Davis.

The health center at Perspectives has already had an impact, she added. By the end of June, nearly half of returning middle school students had their required school physicals completed for this school year – an unprecedented occurrence.

In the past, the school has had to exclude some students who failed to meet the state-mandated October deadline. “Our students cannot afford to miss school,” said Davis. “With the health center here, we are excited that won’t happen.”

Building rapport with teens
The bright, airy health center at Perspectives is staffed by a nurse practitioner, a social worker, a medical assistant and a receptionist, all full-time employees of Access Community Health Network, which manages similar clinics at two Chicago high schools and is running the center at Marquette.

Nurse Practitioner Carol Wardlaw at the new Perspectives-Calumet Middle School Health Center.

Gordon Walek

The Elev8 health centers will be subsidized during their first two years of operation by the Atlantic grant, after which they must become self-sustaining. Toward that end, the Perspectives center will open its doors this fall to the entire Auburn-Gresham community.

So far, the center has served primarily middle school students who are being targeted for services by the Elev8 grant, but it also has welcomed students from the two small Perspectives high schools that occupy the same campus.

Parents of uninsured children are encouraged to sign them up for the state’s All Kids coverage. The school has required parents to sign a consent form for students to use the clinic as part of its registration, although parents can write a letter requesting their children be excluded. Students are then free to make their own appointments at the cost of $3 per visit.

To drum up business, nurse practitioner Carol Wardlaw and social worker Norma Jones visited middle school classrooms this spring and summer to introduce themselves and their services. They stress that the nature of their visits to the clinic will remain confidential.

“It’s really important for adolescents to have an adult they can talk to about their various concerns,” said Wardlaw. “Sometimes it’s not the parent they want to talk to.”

Without an adult confidant, teens can easily get into trouble relying on each other for advice on sensitive topics such as drugs or birth control, said Jones. “They seem to get lot of misinformation talking to each other.” When students come seeking her counsel, “I get them in the room, I tell them, ‘I’m not here to judge you, I’m here to help,’ ” she said.

Although condoms and birth control prescriptions are available at Elev8 health centers, neither is dispensed without an in-depth conversation that highlights the advantages of abstinence. Jones said she asks kids what they think is the most effective way to avoid sexually transmitted diseases. “About 75 percent say condoms. I have to tell them, ‘No, not having sex is the 100 percent [effective] way.’ ”

Other common issues teens seek advice on include family and neighborhood conflicts and depression, said Jones. To uncover potential problems, students registering at the health center complete a confidential, four-page survey that includes questions about health history, health habits and concerns, risk-taking behaviors, exposure to violence, dating history, and their worries and fears.

Above all, Wardlaw and Jones say they want to communicate both caring and respect for their young clients. The goal, they said, is to motivate students to take an active role in pursuing their own health care.

In the exam room, Wardlaw sensed Emma’s nervousness about the upcoming shots and gave her a reassuring hug. Afterward, Jones met with her privately to review her survey while her mother waited in the reception area. Emma agreed later that she would feel comfortable coming to the health center on her own once school starts. “The doctors are nice,” she said, referring to Wardlaw and Jones.

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Local Initiatives Support Corporation Chicago connects neighborhoods to the resources they need to become stronger and healthier.

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