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School-based health center on drawing board here

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Director Steve Carpenter and Dr. Richard Cole (r) discuss the merits of a school-based health center at last night's Sunnyside School Board meeting.

A collection of health and school specialists from around the state attended a meeting yesterday afternoon at the Sunnyside School District board room to discuss the possibility of adding school-based health centers to the Sunnyside School District.

The discussion was prompted by a successful grant request submitted by the Sunnyside School District in partnership with Sunnyside Community Hospital.

School-based health centers give health care access to students that otherwise have no easy access and provide referrals to regular clinics that will serve the needs of each student the best. Such health centers have been in use in districts in Seattle and Oregon for 20 years and longer. The clinics have been proven to reduce absenteeism and health care costs among the population served.

Because this is a local initiative, Sunnyside would be able to set up a system that addresses the particular issues of this region and the students in the district. The Youth Suicide Prevention Program grant the district recently received was mentioned as a service that could be integrated into the Sunnyside clinic.

Two representatives from existing health centers presented information via a phone conference link. TJ Cosgrove of Seattle stated that their health centers serve mostly high schools and middle schools, and serve the red zone kids who need the most help. A University of Washington study conducted in Seattle proved that attendance is linked to health, and students are 59 percent less likely to drop out if they have access to school-based health care.

The representative from Spokane, Mike Wiser, said their local program was started thanks to a Gates Foundation grant, and is elementary school based. They are thinking long term, and have plans for future funding needs.

Representatives from ESD 105 are excited about the possibility of the program starting in Sunnyside. They noted that Sunnyside's school nurses are some of the best they've ever dealt with, and that the nurses would be a crucial part of any initiative.

Mike Taylor, speaking for the Washington State Migrant Council, said that Sunnyside has a high level of underserved children and poverty. Medicaid will help to pay for local training. Taylor also noted that school-based health centers are an unfunded part of the Affordable Health Care Act and are therefore eligible for future funding and support on the federal and state level.

Comprehensive Mental Health, represented by VP Jack Maris at the meeting, stated that they already have a good working relationship with the district, and increased awareness and access to care is only a good thing.

The representatives from the hospital stated that the program would need to start small and refer students to local clinics as much as possible. A representative from a local clinic was concerned that school-based health centers would take away patients from them, but Cosgrove said the opposite happened in Seattle, with clinics getting more patients. School-based health centers act as a gateway for regular health services.

The afternoon meeting wrapped up on a generally positive tone, with some questions. The issue was brought up later at the regular school board meeting as a discussion item.

At the board meeting, director Steve Carpenter asked if the school-based health centers are related to actual student achievement. He stated that while it may be the district's business to be concerned about the health of the student, he is "not sure it is our business to be delivering health services." Dr. Cole countered by bringing up the various arrangements other districts have with their health centers, including a non-profit that actually runs the Walla Walla center.

Carpenter wanted solid data on the effect of health centers on schools. Most of the data available is related to attendance and not achievement. Director Rocky Simmons stated that Sunnyside may be a case study to find the link between school-based health centers and student achievement. And as a case study, more funding might be available.

Another concern was the budget and the HRSA grant the district has already been awarded. The grant does not cover the construction costs of the original proposal. Dr. Cole stated that other proposals are being prepared, some which may work even better for the district than the original.

The next step for the proposal is for the district and hospital to form an advisory committee to come up with a plan on how to progress. Multiple solutions to the budget issue are already in the works, and the strong local partnerships could make the Sunnyside program come to fruition quickly and be a model for other districts around the state and the nation.

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