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School's innovative health clinic will open in January



TRIBUNE PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Benson Principal Curtis Wilson protested as a young Roosevelt High School student to create the states first school-based health center in 1985. Now, as principal, he gets to make way for one at his own school.

When school counselor Amy Henry first arrived at Benson Polytechnic High School two years ago, she was stunned to discover a lack of mental health services on site for a student population of about 1,200, including the four alternative programs housed there.

“I got here and we had no mental health services at all,” Henry says.

In fact, 30.8 percent of Benson students say they have suffered academically because of missing school for medical and mental health appointments.

Henry, the longtime Portland Public Schools employee, called the district office to find out why Benson didn’t have any mental health staff. Administrators explained that it was because the magnet school didn’t have a school-based health center. Looking back, Henry says her next question was probably rather naive.

“How do I get one of those?”

It turns out, through a lot of hard work, partnerships and lucky breaks.

In January, the 1,400-square-foot Benson Wellness Center will open to offer medical, mental and behavioral health services under the auspices of Oregon Health & Science University.

Henry successfully lobbied for mental health services from Multnomah County beginning last year; it also will be housed in the new center, along with up to seven other health care professionals, depending on demand.

With the convenience of a doctor’s office at school, school-based healthcare advocates say the centers improve school attendance, reduce the need for parents to miss work, and improve medical outcomes for children who are less likely to miss the appointment. For Benson, which draws its student body from across the Portland Public Schools district, the travel time associated with doctor’s visits can be an even bigger burden.

The Multnomah County Health Department already employs 50 staff to run 13 school-based health centers, nine of which are in high schools. Alexandra Lowell, school-based health program manager for the county, says they welcome the Benson Wellness Center rather than feeling in competition.

“It’s a school where we think that the student body can really benefit from a school-based health center. We are really excited,” Lowell says, adding that scoring OHSU residents to help run the facility could have long-term ramifications. It means there will be “another medical sponsor in the community willing to address and embrace this model of school-based health.”

TRIBUNE PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Benson Polytechinic High School counselor Amry Henry, pictured in the site of the new Benson Wellness Center with principal Curtis Wilson, first came up with the idea.

Stars align

Benson is getting their health center in large part due to a confluence of circumstances. The economy has improved, so budgets are easier. But the school also has a serendipitous combination of people interested in this issue.

Benson Principal Curtis Wilson says that as a Roosevelt High School student he was out picketing, demanding health care at the low-income school in North Portland. In 1985, Roosevelt became the first school in the state to get a school-based health center.

“For me, it’s just always been a passion about health,” says Wilson, who began at PPS as a health teacher at Harriet Tubman Middle School in 1992 and continued through his career to coach multiple sports.

The Benson Wellness Center will house a mental health therapist from Multnomah County and one from Western Psychological Services. The two exam rooms will host an attending physician and two residents, depending on demand. Portland State University will offer a social work intern.

And there most frequently will be Laurel Merz, Benson’s lively school nurse.

“We have a school nurse who is a rock star,” Wilson says, noting all the people who came together at the right time. “We need to strike while the iron is hot.”

Merz will remain an employee of Multnomah Education Service District, the umbrella government that provides school nurses to the county’s eight school districts.

But working out of the wellness center will be different, Merz says, because she’ll be able to refer students to specialists almost immediately.

“It is a totally different model than the way that it works right now,” Merz says, noting that she now has to arrange services across almost the whole county.

Welcoming aesthetic

Benson, whose students choose a specialty from eight fields of technical education, has a health occupations track. But under federal health privacy guidelines, the health occupations students won’t be able to work at the clinic.

The project team members say they are working hard to create a welcoming atmosphere nonetheless.

With a little elbow grease and about $220,000, they plan to renovate the abandoned tool checkout room in a forgotten hallway into a hub of activity that is fully integrated into the school culture — not just a place to come for appointments.

Just for showing up there, “there would never be a reason that someone would question your mental or physical health,” says project manager Doreen Roozee. Roozee is managing the project under a contract funded through a Kaiser Permanente Northwest planning grant, one of eight awarded across the state in 2014. She says the architects plan an “industrial chic” aesthetic in order to keep several historical aspects of the room, such as the window-walled nurse’s office and the original brick from the early 1900s.

Formerly a vice principal at Grant High School, Principal Wilson says Grant’s school-based clinic feels detached from the rest of the school. And while any PPS student is entitled to receive care there, it can feel awkward walking down the hall of a rival school. At Benson, Wilson doesn’t want it to feel that way.

“I could be going down here to get a Band-Aid, ice pack,” he says, “or because there’s something seriously wrong.”

(It’s worth noting that one of the most common healthcare needs for this age population, according to Merz, is not bumps and scrapes but sexual health education and birth control.)

Benson staff say they also want to be unique in their approach to their iteration of a school-based health center.

“We really want to focus on prevention,” Henry says, “making students feel that healthcare is normal.”

The OHSU residents plan to give talks on health literacy — privacy laws, consent laws, serious warning signs, antibiotic overuse and the need to know one’s family health history, among other subjects.

School counselor Henry is cautiously optimistic, not quite believing that the health center’s grand opening is really just around the corner and bracing for any glitches that might hold it up.

“I won’t believe it until I see it,” Henry says with a laugh. “In the 21 or 22 years I’ve worked for Portland Public Schools, probably this has been the most satisfying project for me.”

“It’s gonna happen,” Wilson says. “A lot of people didn’t think it was going to happen. But it’s gonna happen.”


Convention to celebrate 30 years of school-based health centers in Oregon

Oregon School-Based Health Alliance will celebrate the 30th year since Roosevelt High School became the first in the state to have a school-based health center.

OSBHA Community Affairs Director Rafael Otto says the group had been a loose network dating to the 1990s, but officially formed as a nonprofit in 2006 under a slightly different name.

There are 72 school-based health centers in the state, certified under the Oregon Health Authority and capable of everything a primary care office can do — including labs and diagnostic equipment.

Otto says the clinics are mostly run like small businesses, typically at no cost to the school district.

OSBHA’s annual conference will run Thursday, Oct. 8, and Friday, Oct. 9, at the Oregon Convention Center.


Shasta Kearns Moore
Reporter
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