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Elev8 School-Based Health Centers Boost Attendance, Academic Achievement

Last May, a 13-year-old girl walked into Orozco Academy’s new health center in Pilsen, complaining of abdominal pain.

In a typical clinic, the real cause of her pain would likely have gone unnoticed, said her doctor, Elena Lopez. “In a regular clinic, it's, 'Here's a prescription. Goodbye.' ”

Elev8 health-related programming began a couple years ago, even before the construction of the health centers was complete.

But school health centers are designed to address behavioral and emotional issues that affect children's health. As part of her visit, the girl completed a form that included questions about drug and alcohol use, sexual activity and her feelings about home and school.

When a review of her responses revealed a family in crisis, Lopez immediately made a connection to the girl’s ailment and referred her to the center's psychologist. After months of intervention, the girl and her family are doing fine, Lopez reported.

The health center at Orozco is just one of five opened in Chicago last year through Elev8, a national middle school initiative. The centers – built with a grant from The Atlantic Philanthropies and matching local funds – provide much-needed primary care, physicals and immunizations, counseling and psychiatric care in communities where those services are in short supply.

Principals testify
Principals say the quality and convenience of care is already making a difference in the lives of their students.

The health center on-site at Ames Middle in Logan Square enabled Principal Tom Hoffman to convince the mother of a boy with a rare medical condition not to keep him home from school, he said.

Principal Michael Johnson of Reavis Elementary in North Kenwood said he had just been marveling at the improvement in a sixth-grade boy referred to the health center for anger management counseling.

Orozco's health center has helped to boost students' attendance rate to 97.9 percent in 2009-10, said Principal Coralia Barraza – the highest she's seen in her 17 years at the school. “Students are really taking advantage of the services,” she said.

Students from Perspectives Calumet spread the good word about the Elev8 program during the annual Health Fair on the Block in Auburn Gresham.

Ed Finkel

On-site health care also has increased compliance with state-mandated immunizations and school physicals, principals reported. All five Elev8 schools posted a compliance rate between 91 percent and 95 percent in 2009-10.

By contrast, some Chicago Public Schools had only 70 percent of their students up-to-date on immunizations last year, according to the district.

Part of a movement
Nationally, interest in school-based health centers is growing, noted Divya Mohan Little, project manager of the Illinois Coalition for School Health Centers.

She credits the community schools movement with raising awareness of the roles that children's physical and emotional health play in their academic achievement.

“A student who is healthy and in class is much more likely to graduate than someone who is sick out and out of school,” she said.

The movement advocates providing a range of academic, health and social supports for children and families at the school site. In addition to health care, Elev8 schools offer services such as after-school tutoring, sports and arts programs, dental care, eye exams and parent education.

Since the 1990s, the number of school health centers in Illinois has nearly doubled to 57, said Little, 30 of which are in Chicago. Their numbers will likely increase, she added, now that the federal Affordable Care Act has authorized $200 million to construct, equip or renovate school health centers across the country.

"Not the science teacher doing her best"
The advantages of school health centers are especially noteworthy in districts like Chicago that can't afford a full-time nurse for every school. Ames, for instance, enrolls 670 students but sees its nurse only once a week, according to the principal. Now with health care available on-site five days a week, students with chronic health problems like asthma and diabetes can have their medication monitored and administered correctly.

"It's not the science teacher doing her best,” said Hoffman. “It’s a trained medical professional."

Ruth Argueta, a 7th grader at Ames Middle School, gets a check-up from Dr. Matthew Slendebroek at the school's health center.

Gordon Walek

On-site health care means illnesses are more quickly contained, said Kristen Bree, a nurse practitioner at the Reavis School-Based Health Center. "Because we're here in school, even if their throat just tickles, they come down and see me. I can say, 'You're fine, go back to class,' or, 'You have strep throat.' I've caught a lot of strep throat.”

Since each Elev8 health center has a full-time social worker on staff, mental health issues that interfere with schooling also can be more readily addressed. Norma Jones, social worker for the health center at Perspectives-Calumet Middle in Auburn Gresham, offered counseling to 300 students last year. In addition, she ran two student support groups — one for grief and a second for weight loss.

Jones said that her most challenging student, an overweight boy with poor social skills and low grades, made the biggest improvement after forming friendships in the weight-loss group. “All of the kids had a common problem, and they looked out for each other,” she said.

By the end of the year, he not only lost eight pounds, his grades and class behavior improved, and, for the first time, he did not have to attend summer school, Jones reported.

The Elev8 health centers are beginning to benefit their wider communities – four are now open to their neighborhoods. In September and October, the Greater Auburn-Gresham Development Corp. arranged to bus 75 students from nearby elementary schools to the Perspectives health center for physicals and immunizations, said Executive Director Carlos Nelson.

The health center is so convenient and inviting, Nelson said that he even made appointments for his own two children. And he found the exam much more thorough than at a regular doctor's office. “It made me feel really good,” he said. “It was a fabulous experience.”

Posted in Education, Auburn Gresham, Chicago Lawn, Logan Square, Pilsen, Quad Communities


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