The choices were not great: attend school sick and not feeling well or spend the entire day getting to the doctor’s office to obtain treatment.
That was a decision often made by many students at Normandy High School, according to surveys, interviews, and focus groups on community health held by For the Sake of All.
With few primary care options in the 23 communities that make up the Normandy Schools Collaborative and a lack of health insurance and transportation, students in the high-need public school district were typically missing a full day of school to visit a doctor’s office or a medical clinic far away. Some students were calling in absent to take sick siblings to the doctor’s office. Or, they were just skipping the doctor altogether, gritting out symptoms at home – or while attending school.
But that is soon to change. A new health center opened on Aug. 10 at Normandy High School with full primary health care and behavioral health services offered by Affinia Healthcare.
No longer will students have to take two bus lines and MetroLink to get to health services in the Central West End as many did. Nor will they find themselves going to a hospital emergency room for routine treatment at more than double the rate of students in wealthier school districts because of a lack of nearby primary care.
“We hope that with a resource like this conveniently located on one of our campuses our families get needed health services, but also eliminate a barrier that can keep some students out of school,” said Normandy Schools Collaborative Superintendent Dr. Charles Pearson. “This collaboration can have a direct, positive impact on the entire community.”
The health center, named Affinia Healthcare at Normandy High School, is also a cause for celebration among For the Sake of All and its many partners. Last year, For the Sake of All staff and dozens of community partners identified school-based health centers as a key strategy in tackling health inequities affecting African Americans in the St. Louis region. The Normandy High School health center is the first new health center to open under this initiative.
“School-based health centers provide access to health care and preventive services where young people spend most of their waking hours—in school,” said Dr. Jason Purnell, director of For the Sake of All. “When properly implemented in schools with high needs, they result in better health and better educational outcomes. Thousands of these centers exists across the country, and we’re excited to be part of the expansion of the model here in St. Louis.”
Though there are thousands of school-based health centers in the United States, St. Louis has just a handful. For the past year, For the Sake of All has convened work groups with participants in the health, education, and student development fields to forge partnerships and establish proven steps to sustain the existing health centers and open many more.
The Normandy High School health center was made possible through a partnership formed in January between Normandy Schools Collaborative, Affinia Healthcare, BJC HealthCare, Wyman, and For the Sake of All.
Affinia health practitioners will provide the primary care. BJC will provide equipment and supplies. Wyman will work with the school district’s nurses, counselors, student development providers, and administrators to integrate the health center into the everyday culture and programming of the school. And For the Sake of All will continue to consult with the center to support its sustainability and best practices.
Two more health centers are currently in the planning stages in schools in North St. Louis County, and similar partnerships are forming to ensure those health centers are sustainable and effective. Part of that work includes making Missouri an affiliate of the School-Based Health Alliance which works to expand and sustain high-performing school health centers around the nation. That emerging organization, to be named the SHOW ME School-Based Health Alliance, is in the early planning stage.
For the Sake of All and its partners aim to build infrastructure and support to open a health center in every high-need high school in the St. Louis region.
The centers have many benefits beyond direct healthcare delivery. Research found in our Discussion Guide on healthy schools shows school-based health centers improve attendance and curb school drop-out rates. They enhance learning environments and empower students to take care of themselves. Further research shows the stress of poverty and neighborhood violence can harm child development and trigger poor health in adulthood. So getting accessible health care for students in a highly supportive setting is an important intervention.
Over the course of conversations in the high school this past year For the Sake of All also learned students and parents were having difficulty finding accessible behavioral health support for mental health issues, despite coping with many intense stresses in their homes and neighborhoods. This gap in services was concerning because a quarter of Normandy High School students surveyed by For the Sake of All reported having trouble sleeping at night, feeling sad, or worrying about the future.
Wyman, a youth development organization, is working with Affinia Healthcare to ensure the center will be highly sensitive to trauma among its young patients and will work throughout the school district to ensure students are aware of the center and have access to it. In For the Sake of All surveys, more than 85% of Normandy students, teachers, and staff said they would utilize its services.
There’s more to come in the next year in St. Louis on school-based health. Stay tuned. But for now For the Sake of All is excited students, faculty, and staff of Normandy schools have this important resource within steps of their classrooms, sports practices, clubs, and other activities.
WANT TO LEARN MORE? Check out For the Sake of All’s full Report on the health and well-being of African Americans in the St. Louis region and why it matters for everyone. Make sure to follow us on Twitter @4theSakeofAll.