LYNNWOOD — A converted storage closet at Meadowdale High School is helping kids stay healthy and in class.
This fall, the Edmonds School District opened a school-based health center — an on-campus walk-in clinic that provides medical, dental and mental health services. The clinic is run by Community Health Centers of Snohomish County out of a small room formerly used to store library supplies.
Already, it is improving attendance in class, said Mara Marano-Bianco, director of health services for the school district.
Not one student at Meadowdale High School started school late this year because they were missing the required vaccines to attend school. Instead of waiting up to a month for a doctor’s appointment, students who needed immunizations visited the health center, received their shots and got right back to class.
“On the first day, we already had three students with an immunizations list,” said Yuliya Shirokova, director of medical operations for CHC. “Clearly there was a need.”
The health center is the first facility of its kind in Snohomish County, though school and health officials expect more to come.
CHC Chief Operating Officer Adam Heath said every school in the county could benefit from opening a school-based health center.
“We anticipate this will be the beginning of a long journey for all of us,” he said during a ribbon cutting ceremony Wednesday.
At Meadowdale High School, the center offers well-child checks and sports physicals, immunizations, chronic condition management, age-appropriate reproductive health services, evaluation and treatment of common health problems, mental and behavioral health services, some dental work and referrals to other health care providers and specialists. It will run just like a regular health clinic.
Most services can be covered by a student’s insurance or Medicaid, but no student will be charged to visit, Marano-Bianco said. CHC can provide free services because it is a federally qualified health center and public health service that receives government support.
School nurses and counselors in the Edmonds School District can refer students to the health center for services beyond what the school can provide. In short, school staff can screen and help with case management, where health center employees can diagnose and prescribe, said Zoe Reese, the director of community impact and grantmaking for Verdant Health Commission.
The district contracts with Verdant for some basic mental health services, so the school-based health center “pulls partners together to expand our services,” Reese said.
For families, the biggest benefit will be an added level of convenience, Marano-Bianco said. Students won’t have to travel far to see the doctor and get medical, dental or mental health services.
On Wednesday, leaders with the Edmonds School District, CHC, Verdant and the City of Lynnwood publicly unveiled the clinic. The “closet” nameplate is covered by a piece of white paper until the “SBHC” sign arrives, Principal Dave Shockley said.
Inside, it looks exactly like a medical exam room. On the south wall, a blood pressure cuff and otoscope hang in reach of the examination table. A vision chart is visible on the the north wall.
A stand for dental tools, powered by a portable generator, is tucked off to the side of a reclining dental chair. The dentists also have a handheld X-ray machine that’s small enough to fit on a cupboard shelf.
CHC had most of the equipment already, so the out-of-pocket cost for tools was minimal, said Anna Scheglov, director of dental operations. Heath said the agency is still calculating the total cost for the center because most of the project was covered by in-kind donations or employee work hours.
The health center is open to all Meadowdale High School students. Services will be available before, during and after school. As is the case for any other medical appointments, students will get absences excused if they visit the clinic.
School leaders want to expand services to students outside of Meadowdale High School in the spring, depending on funding, Marano-Bianco said. They also plan to move the school-based health center outside to a portable unit with more space to serve more kids, she said. Verdant and philanthropic education research organization foundry10 have provided about $20,000 in grant funding for the project so far.
Eventually, Marano-Bianco wants to add health centers at other schools in the district. She joked that the principals, CHC and Verdant “just need to find more closets.”
“My dream is to have one in every high school here,” she said.
The agencies chose to start at Meadowdale High School, in part because it is located in an area with higher need. The groups looked at the rate of students in low-income families in the school, the median household income in the neighborhood and the proximity to a federally qualified health center. Such health centers can receive extra funding, get enhanced Medicare and Medicaid reimbursements and offer a sliding fee scale to keep services affordable to low-income families.
When they overlayed maps with that information, Meadowdale was a “clear starting point,” Reese said.
Last school year, 40.7% of the students at Meadowdale were considered low income, according to school data. That compares to 32.1% at Edmonds Woodway High School and 30.6% at Mountlake Terrace High School.
Scriber Lake High School and Lynnwood High School had higher rates of low-income students, at 55.2% and 47.4%, respectively. However, the low income rate was not the only factor for the final choice of location for the health center.
“I think for me, it provides a sense of equity for our students,” Marano-Bianco said. “COVID was a huge eye-opener for us in regards to the barriers that many of our families face, and throughout the school year even beyond COVID, we have many families who may be undocumented who don’t access health care. This is a way to allow them to access health care.”
Marano-Bianco said she expects the health center to improve academics, too. Studies show that students who attend schools with an on-site health center have better attendance and grades, act out less in class and are more likely to graduate. When students are physically and emotionally well, it’s easier to show up to school and focus on studies, Marano-Bianco said.
“In some of our schools, we have up to 6% of our students missing school because of tooth pain,” she said. “If we have access to free dental services … we will see a reduction in school days missed because of that.”
And success in school links back to health, she said.
“Education is such a huge determinant of … life expectancy,” Marano-Bianco said. “If we can influence that in any way, shape or form for these families, we want to be able to do that.”
Mallory Gruben is a Report for America corps member who writes about education for The Daily Herald.
This story has been updated to include the percentage of low income students at Lynnwood High School, correct the description for foundry10 and clarify why agencies picked Meadowdale High School for the school-based health center.