SCSD Health Program Provides Holistic Approach to Student Wellness
Published on 7/17/15
From kindergarten through high school, students experience a variety of health and developmental issues requiring medical care. At several Syracuse City schools, however, that care is more accessible than ever.
Thanks to a partnership with the Syracuse Community Health Center, students in the district can receive medical services—from physical exams to mental health appointments to dental cleanings—free of charge and on their school grounds.
In New York State, there are just 231 School Based Health Centers (SBHC). Eight are located within SCSD schools, with locations in Grant, Franklin, Dr. Weeks, Dr. King, Delaware, Westside Academy at Blodgett, Fowler and H.W. Smith.
Johanna Shuster serves as a social worker and mental health professional at Dr. King’s School Based Health Center. She handles a caseload of 33 kids facing issues ranging from anxiety and depression to a death in the family to behavioral issues, goal setting and preparation for middle school. “I’m usually greeted with hugs,” she said. “This is their safe place and they know they can talk to me about anything. It’s so important for the kids to learn to express their feelings.”
Crystal Ashby has two children who attend Dr. King School. “I’m grateful there is a health center in the school,” she said. “If I have any questions or concerns, I can bring my children here and they help me. They take that extra step and take the time to care for them.” Ms. Ashby said while a primary care doctor overlooked an issue plaguing her daughter, the School Based health center was able to use their all-inclusive approach to make an accurate diagnosis—and work to correct the issue.
That personal approach to healthcare is one of the biggest assets of the SBHC. Fowler’s Registered Nurse, Kathy Griffin, is in her second year as the high school’s nurse. She said the advantage of the School Based Health Center is that it allows for school staff to get a more holistic view of a student’s health, noting that she meets with the school’s SBHC practitioner each morning to exchange updates. “The care given at the School Based Health Center is more thorough,” she explained. “It opens up the doors of communication from us to the provider and helps us learn more about the student. It allows us to establish a baseline for a student. Plus,” she added, “We don’t interrupt the educational day here. Imagine how accessible this is for primary care—they can go back to class better and ready to learn.”
In fact, the SBHC arrangement helps prepare students to learn in numerous ways. Julian Austin is the Dental Co-Director for Syracuse Community Health Center. He devotes half of his working hours to the School Based Health Centers, seeing about 40 students each week for preventative dental care, as well as treatments like fillings and extractions. He spends a day each week in schools, with a hygienist visiting twice each week.
“Parents say it’s a huge help,” he said. “All kids need to go to the dentist. Usually, a kid misses a whole day of school and a parent misses a whole day from work to make it happen. This solves both problems—a student has a 30 minute dental exam and goes back to class. It also helps kids do better in class. We see a lot of dental decay issues. When students are in pain, they have trouble concentrating.”
Students can also have trouble concentrating due to mental stressors, Grant Middle School Pediatric Nurse Practitioner Elizabeth Murchie said. She has worked at the School Based Health Center since its opening three years ago.
“Our mental health services are staggering,” she explained. “The middle school age, going through puberty—coupled with poverty and violence rates in the area—it’s an intense time for these kids.” About 40 percent of cases in the Center are mental-health related, she said.
“There are limited mental health services in the area, and they put pressure on families—especially for chronic appointments,” she noted. “We can work with families on-site. I can prescribe medications and make sure that things are communicated between the Center, parents and teachers.”
Because of the frequent need for additional student support, the district also operates a Crisis Response Team, comprised of school psychologists, social workers and guidance counselors from across the district. These individuals have volunteered to be available to respond to any type of crisis across the district, including staff or student deaths, suicides, accidents and violence and more.
Stefanie Rothenberg, currently a School Psychologist at ITC, has been involved with the Crisis Response Team since 1996. She said it is the job of the Crisis Response Team to work with staff and students in times of trauma to help them understand what has happened, provide factual information, help them deal with their grief, planning memorials and more. “The team does an amazing job of supporting the students in our district,” Ms. Rothenberg said. “It gives them a safe situation to express themselves and to ask questions about how they are feeling and what they might expect next. It also gives them information and reassurance that whatever they are experiencing related to a crisis is a normal response and that they are not alone. They see how many people care about them and are willing to support them in times of need.”
The care and support SCSD health programs provide for students and families are invaluable to many in the school community. Families have expressed, for example, that without the School Based Health Centers, they wouldn’t be able to keep their kids healthy. That’s why enrolling students in the SBHC is crucial. At Fowler, close to 800 students are already enrolled. But about 200 more are desired, with the state seeking a goal of 75% enrollment.
Leola Rodgers, President and CEO of the Syracuse Community Health Center, said the organization’s School Based Health Centers provide more than just health services. “Our School Based Health Centers are a learning ground for socialization,” she explained. “Preventive healthcare, wellness, how to speak up for themselves—these are all things children need to learn at a young age. School Based Health Centers teach them how to do things right. They are a safe place for children where they know they can count on adult support.”
Family Nurse Practitioner Zarina Smith has worked at the Fowler School Based Health Center for almost four years. High school students are old enough to seek their own care, she said, so it is important to remove the barriers that would prevent them from receiving healthcare. “We’re trying to teach students to seek their own health care—that it’s not scary,” she said. “We work with kids on prevention of diseases and screening, and anything that helps them grow and develop and be successful at school.”
Ms. Smith added that schools with School Based Health Centers have higher graduation rates than schools without. SBHCs are especially valuable in areas like Syracuse, where a large refugee population resides. Centers are able to help provide comprehensive care for those who have newly arrived in the country, working with ESL teachers, nationality workers and more to ensure that students’ immunizations and dental and medical records are up to date.
Cheryl Vitaletti, Supervisor of Health Services, said even students are passionate about the services their School Based Health Centers provide. Each year, students accompany school staff to the School Based Health Center Advocacy Day, occurring in Albany. There, they meet with lawmakers and speak about the impact of visiting a healthcare professional in their own school. “They really made a difference and show the real need for support for these health centers,” Ms. Vitaletti explained.
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