By Jim Mangia, President & CEO, St. John’s Well Child and Family Centers
Already this year, St. John’s Well Child and Family Center has opened two school-based health centers, will open another in May and won approval for yet another, with additional facilities to come. These health centers are more than just buildings attached to schools—they are at the heart of the future of healthcare for children and families in South Los Angeles.
While at the grand opening celebration for our new Washington Prep Wellness Center with Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas, the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) and the L.A.’s Trust for Children’s Health this month, a parent of one of the students there introduced herself to me. She told me that her daughter had asthma and often missed school because of acute asthma attacks. There were months when their family would be in the emergency room two, three, four times. She was so grateful that her daughter’s chronic condition could now be managed on campus by a team of physicians and nurses. She looked at me with hope and expectation. “Now my daughter will go to college,” she said.
That conversation expressed all the promise and determination of school-based health centers: increased access and improved health outcomes coupled with enhanced educational achievement. Students without access to quality healthcare must overcome huge obstacles to learning. With each school-based health center opening, we’re tearing those barriers down. It was especially fitting that the doors of Washington Prep opened on April 4, the anniversary of the assassination of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. He said, “Of all the forms of inequality, injustice in health care is the most shocking and inhumane.”
It made me so proud to realize a dream St. John’s embarked on over a decade ago, when we opened our first school-based health center at Lincoln High School in partnership with LAUSD in 2001. Since then, we have opened five more in South Los Angeles and Compton, with two more scheduled—a brand new one to replace an older one at Manual Arts, a new one at Compton High School and even more on the drawing board.
The conventional wisdom is that school-based health centers are too small to allow economies of scale and enough “profit” to warrant the investment. With more than 10,000 public schools in the State of California, there are just over 200 school-based health centers across the state. And while I agree that sustainability is an important issue to address, we must look at opening school-based health centers as an issue of health and human rights for our communities. School-based health centers improve the health of the students, their families and the community at large.
Through our work with patients in our school-based health centers, we have our finger on the pulse of student and community health trends and have been able to develop programming to intervene and focus on prevention efforts. For example, through a joint effort between L.A.’s Promise, which manages Manual Arts High School in partnership with LAUSD, and our California Endowment-funded school health center there, we provide school physicals to every ninth grade student on campus. We found that more than 40 percent of the student body was obese or at-risk of becoming obese. With our old health center—and soon with the brand new one opening in May—we are developing education and health programming to directly intervene on the obesity epidemic at Manual Arts High: direct and focused health interventions and primary prevention activities in real time.
This is the promise of school-based health. As the centers of communities, schools are uniquely positioned to impact the neighborhoods in which they sit and address the “shocking and inhumane” disparities in health care our children and their families face in South Los Angeles and other underserved communities throughout America. Much has changed since the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. expressed those words, and unfortunately, much still remains the same.
But what we have learned is that through partnerships between federally qualified health centers like St. John’s, school teachers and administration and the school district—we can and are improving student and community health and impacting inequality. There is a severe underinvestment in this model for health despite all the evidence urging otherwise. To honor and celebrate the life and work of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., let’s work to increase investment in school-based health centers as an important cornerstone of continuing to realize the dream.