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How Elev8 Sparked a School-Health Revolution

Even if you build it, they still may not come. That’s the hard truth behind the happy photos of ribbon-cutting ceremonies at school-based health centers. If students don’t come in, the service can’t be sustained. 

A student registers for care at the health center at Perspectives-Calumet Middle Academy in Auburn Gresham.

Gordon Walek

That’s exactly what happened at Englewood’s Lindblom High School. After three years of operation, Lindblom’s center closed for lack of use. 

But at Perspectives-Calumet Middle Academy in the Auburn Gresham neighborhood, the health center, which was built through a partnership with Elev8 Chicago, is thriving. Since May 2008, the health center has served 19,845 students from Perspectives and surrounding elementary schools. 

What made the difference? A neighborhood partner, the Greater Auburn-Gresham Development Corporation (GADC), willing to dedicate a savvy community liaison to two key tasks: building a network of nearby schools that send students to Perspectives for physicals and shots; and working with parents to sign and return consent forms. GADC has also helped strengthen vision and dental services in local schools. 

GADC’s efforts are getting results. At Perspectives-Calumet Middle Academy, the number of students who have all their required physicals and immunizations hit 100 percent in December 2011, two-and-a-half years after the center opened. “It takes a lot of work” to reach full compliance, said Carlos Nelson, GADC’s executive director. 

By spring 2010, GADC was ready to begin networking with other nearby schools to bring in more students. Two neighboring elementary schools – Oglesby and Westcott – have seen their compliance rates soar since GADC helped them link to the health center. At Oglesby, compliance rates jumped from 33 percent to 87 percent, and at Westcott the figures rose from 67 percent to 85 percent. Thanks to GADC’s link to vision services, about 100 Oglesby students received glasses in the 2011-2012 school year. 

Other schools in the Auburn Gresham neighborhood, such at Westcott Elementary, are now sending their students to the health center at Perspectives-Calumet.

Gordon Walek

Because physical exams are required for children to be in compliance, children must see a doctor. And that consultation often leads to treatment for more serious ailments that parents and students may not be aware of, resulting in a healthier population. 

Medical compliance matters not only for kids’ health, but also for their academic performance. If their shots and physicals aren’t up to date by October of the academic year, as required by state law, Chicago district policy dictates schools must exclude children until they see a doctor. When that happens, “they lose a lot of instructional time,” observes Monique Dockery, principal at Westcott. Since GADC began working with Westcott to obtain parental consents and transport students to Perspectives for physicals and immunizations, she added, “We have not had to exclude students.”  

Schools can’t do it alone

It sounds simple, but obtaining parental consent is actually the toughest challenge in getting health services to needy kids. And many schools can’t get the job done by themselves. 

“We never got 100 percent compliance,” recalled retired school nurse Freddie Worthy, who now works part-time with a medical staffing agency and has served Westcott. She spent most of her Chicago Public Schools career in low-income schools on the West Side. “We got 80, 90, but never 100 percent. And I had a lot of help from the neighborhood hospitals. The hardest part is always getting to the parents.” 

In theory, school nurses ensure each school’s students have their immunizations and physicals up to date. It’s their job to track kids’ paperwork and remind parents when to take their children in for the next round of shots and exams. But the nation’s chronic shortage of nurses also affects schools. In Chicago, one nurse usually circuit-rides among multiple schools, seeing each as little as once or twice a week. The district fills the care gap with nurses from medical staffing agencies, but their role is limited to tasks like administering daily insulin shots for diabetic children. They don’t manage paperwork. So, often, it doesn’t get done. 

That’s what happened at Oglesby Elementary. When GADC’s Roslyn Charles first arrived to help the school, the nurse was on medical leave and staffing nurses were only working with particular children. 

“There was no one to serve the whole school,” said Charles. “There was no filing system. I set up a system for medical records, then vision.” 

By January 2011, Oglesby had a new district nurse. Together, she and Charles tackled the huge backlog of paperwork. “Some parents said they had sent the compliance forms in.” 

Once that was sorted out, they knew which students really needed to see a doctor, and Charles set to work obtaining consent forms and arranging dates and transportation to the health center at Perspectives. “We’ve taken over at least five or six busloads [of students],” Charles said. GADC even provided snacks while they waited. 

One parent’s story

Until you get beneath the surface, you don’t know the challenges parents and guardians face in helping their kids obtain medical care. Take D’Juana Carter, president of Oglesby’s Local School Council. She formally adopted her grandson, Omarreon, when he was five years old, though she’s had responsibility for his care since three months after his birth. Her daughter had two children within two years and, overwhelmed, left Omarreon, the younger, with his grandmother. 

“I took the youngest child to help,” said Carter. “I wasn’t planning to keep him.” But her daughter moved out of state and left Omarreon behind. According to Carter, her daughter continued to claim Omarreon as a dependent outside Illinois, leaving her unable to assume formal guardianship rights. 

One consequence was Carter couldn’t get him access to medical care. Neither she nor her husband, a carpenter, has private health insurance. Without formal guardianship, she couldn’t enroll her grandson in Medicaid. “Me and his granddad didn’t let him mingle with other kids too much because we didn’t have any way of getting medical attention for him,” she said. Without insurance, they couldn’t afford immunizations, either. Fortunately, Omarreon didn’t get sick much. 

After five years of limbo, Carter said, she hired a lawyer and adopted Omarreon privately, without her daughter’s consent. Then she was able to get his immunizations mostly caught up, 11 shots at a time, through the Chicago Board of Health while waiting for his Medicaid card to arrive. Once Carter had it, she took him to a neighborhood doctor but was dissatisfied with the quality of services. If he got sick, “I had to pray and hope his pediatrician was in at the time. If not I would have to call the HMO,” and be sent elsewhere, sometimes far across town, to see someone, she said. 

By May of 2011 Omarreon was in kindergarten and Charles was about to lead Oglesby students on their first trip to the health center. Oglesby records showed Omarreon was still missing four shots. Carter took him on the trip, not only to get his shots but to check out the health center at Perspectives for herself—“I’m nosy. I like to see what’s going on”—and to help keep a handful of “rough riders” in line. 

Outreach workers, through health fairs such as this one at Westcott Elementary, get the word out about the health center at Perspectives-Calumet.

Gordon Walek

Carter liked what she saw and shifted Omarreon to the Perspectives health center right away. “I like that doctor. She doesn’t just sit at her desk and say, ‘Give him this and call me if it doesn’t work.’ She explains to me what happens.” When Omarreon had a strep infection in his ear, the doctor took the time to explain how that could happen. 

Carter and Charles continue to work together to keep Oglesby’s compliance rates high. They’ve learned a few tricks, like checking monthly to see which students have had birthdays and require a new physical exam. They’re also planning to solve problems that new paperwork requirements make, like the Perspectives health center needing a copy of a child’s medical card at each visit, even after they’ve been registered in the system. That’s the kind of change that can derail a child from getting to see a doctor. 

“Most parents are not going to let that medical card go” with a child without the parent present, Carter said. Charles agreed and suggested they keep a copy of the card on file at school and make additional copies as needed. 

Helping children see well enough to learn

Charles’ warm personality, persistence and tenacity in finding solutions to these problems have endeared her to Carter and other parents. “I enjoy working with Ms. Roslyn,” Carter said. “She’s nice. She’s keeping you company. She brings the resources for us to give to the parents.” 

Eye care is another critical need that GADC has helped schools meet for students. Although Chicago Public Schools screens all children for vision problems twice annually and contracts with private mobile clinics like Ageless Eye Care to follow up with full exams, obtaining parental consent for treatment poses barriers here, too. 

In 2005, Catalyst Chicago, which tracks issues in the Chicago Public Schools, reported that more than 63,000 children had failed routine eye screenings. A district phone survey conducted at that time of a small sample of schools suggested that only about half of those families had followed up with a visit to an optometrist.  

Lewis has seen firsthand the magnitude of the problems with vision in Chicago schools. “It’s surprising how many kids come to school and they can’t see the big E on the chart. If they can’t see that, they can’t see the blackboard. I’m sure it helps their grades to get new glasses.” 

Westcott’s Dockery agrees. “Glasses are definitely having a positive impact on kids’ learning. When I do classroom observations, teachers are asking, ‘where are your glasses?’ Some kids leave them here to be sure they don’t get lost,” she said. “They didn’t realize how much they couldn’t see until they got the glasses.” 

Posted in Education, Health, Auburn Gresham


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