School-based health center welcomed at Oakland High
There’s a need in Bethel schools that’s not being addressed, according to Bethel School District officials.
Some students — especially low-income and homeless students — aren’t receiving health care.
They’re missing out on valuable learning time because of it, said Dawn Fox, nurse administrator for Bethel schools.
“Ear aches (and) dental pain can be reasons for not being in school or attending school,” Fox said.
Officials there hope a new feature can bridge the divide for students not receiving the care they need.
Bethel was awarded a three-year, $590,000 start-up grant by health care provider Kaiser Permanente to open a school-based health care clinic at Bethel Middle School in Spanaway. It will open this fall and serve students district-wide, in addition to staff, year-round.
The new clinic will operate out of an old classroom at Bethel Middle and will provide vaccinations, annual checks, sports physicals, dental care, medication, insurance enrollment, vision care, mental/behavioral health care, among other services.
“Just like you would go to a clinic in downtown Tacoma, you would get urgent care, you would get your check up, you would get your immunizations, you would get your blood work — we would do all of that here,” said Desiree White, an advanced registered nurse practitioner who will work out of the Bethel clinic come fall.
The center, which is being run by local nonprofit Community Health Care, won’t turn any student away and uses a sliding pay scale.
School-based health centers have been linked to better attendance, higher grades and decreased emergency department use and hospital admissions, according to the Washington School-Based Health Alliance.
Currently, fewer than 2 percent of Washington’s schools have health centers on campus, most of them concentrated in King County. They serve roughly 38,000 students — 3 percent of total enrolled public students statewide.
Bethel’s center is one of the first of its kind in Pierce County, highlighting a growing trend across the state to provide students who may be experiencing transportation or income barriers with the care they need.
There are 45 school-based health centers across the state. Ten of them are located in Pierce County, but nine are accessible only by military families through Madigan Army Medical Center.
That leaves one school-based health center currently operating at Oakland High School, an alternative high school in Tacoma. The center opened in April in partnership with MultiCare and Communities in Schools and has served 82 students so far.
The state Legislature dedicated funds for the first school-based health center in Vancouver this year. Leaders hope more state funds could become available.
“I think Pierce County just has not had the resources available to actually do them,” said Jill Patnode, program manager for Kaiser Permanente’s Thriving Schools. “This is much more grassroots.”
Bethel’s grant application rose to the surface because of its lack of resources, Patnode said.
“Their public bus routes are very minimal. They don’t have hospitals in the area and very few medical clinics,” Patnode told The News Tribune. “So, as a result, the young people were having to either have to miss a significant amount of school, and the parents were having to miss work to actually be able to get young people to school. So we felt that that was a huge barrier.”
Bethel School District serves roughly 20,000 students spanning 200 square miles — the third largest district in Pierce County, geographically. More than half of those students use district transportation.
“The problem is, there’s not transportation network out here worth a darn … There are no resources here. There is no hospital here. If somebody wants to go to the hospital, they’ve got to go to Tacoma or down to Puyallup,” Bethel Superintendent Tom Seigel said.
“How do you get the kids to where the services are?” Seigel continued. “We’re reversing it. We’re bringing the services to where the kids are going to be.”
Having a health center onsite will help the district’s homeless youth population, which has doubled since 2012, according to data from OSPI. Approximately 2.9 percent of Bethel’s students are identified as homeless under the McKinney Vento Homeless Assistance Act.
As of the 2017-18 school year, Bethel had 657 homeless students. This year, it’s at 747, Bethel community connections director Jay Brower said.
“By (the health center) being here, it levels the playing field,” Brower said. “It’s not a barrier, the transportation piece. So that’s going to be a really great thing for our students experiencing homelessness.”
Like a doctor’s office
Walking into the health clinic at Bethel Middle School will be like walking into a doctor’s office.
Entering from a door outside the school, patients are met with a waiting room. Students coming from the nurse’s office can access the center from inside the school.
The room is a former home economics class that will be converted to include exam rooms, a lab, medication room, sterilization room, dental exam chairs and offices.
Seven staff members will operate the center, which has the capacity to see about 20 patients for medical and dental care per day.
School nurses are staying in the schools and will work the health center, referring students to the center for urgent needs, such as swollen glands.
“We could not do it without them,” said Debbie Jacobson, assistant director of operations for Community Health Care. “They are critical to this process.”
When asked about sustainability, district officials said they plan to keep the center a permanent fixture. They’re planning to add a second health center at the new Bethel High School at 224th Street East, which is set to open in fall 2023.
“Our goal is to be able to be as efficient as possible to see as many patients as possible while we’re here, and then when it does get to capacity, we will have other sites that will help take the pressure off,” Jacobson said.
School and medical leaders hope that the trend will continue. The ultimate goal? A center in every school.
“We want to help our students have what they need to be successful in life, but schools can’t do it alone — we have to have these partnerships with the community, organizations and providers,” Bethel School Board president Brenda Rogers said.
Bethel’s School-Based Health Care Center
Where: Bethel Middle School, 22001 38th Ave E, Spanaway
Opening: Fall 2019
Hours: 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily. Medical and dental care two days per week, behavioral health care four days per week.