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Health center at Worcester East Middle School to offer access to medical care

WORCESTER – The School Department, in collaboration with other local organizations, will be opening a new school-based health center at Worcester East Middle School next school year, adding to a growing list of health clinics at schools across the city.

The new health center at Worcester East Middle will require an estimated $150,000 renovation in the building over the summer to secure licensure from the state, but Frances Anthes, president and CEO of Family Health Center of Worcester, which will be helping to operate the service, said organizers hope to be ready for the first day of school on Aug. 28.

Worcester East Middle will be Family Health Center’s seventh school-based health center in Worcester, joining existing centers at South High Community School, Sullivan Middle School, Elm Park Community School, Goddard School of Science & Technology/University Park Campus School, Woodland Academy/Claremont Academy, and Doherty Memorial High School.

Superintendent Maureen Binienda could not be reached Wednesday, but in a statement provided by her office said she is a “strong advocate and supporter” of the school-based health center model.

“Regular access to medical care keeps our students healthy and attending school on a regular basis,” she said. “The new health center at Worcester East Middle will be a strong asset to the district.”

Like other school-based health centers in the city, the new clinic at Worcester East Middle will be staffed by a nurse practitioner, Ms. Anthes said. The center will also have a patient navigator and behavioral health specialist; all three positions will be provided by Family Health Center.

Most of the funding to start the program, meanwhile – about two-thirds of the total – is coming from the Health Foundation of Central Massachusetts, which has included the health center in a larger, five-year grant project called WorcesterHEARS that is intended to address childhood trauma in the schools. The other one-third of the funding is coming from city block grants, according to Brian Allen, the district’s chief financial and operations officer.

Other school officials connected to the project, including the school’s principal, Rose Dawkins, could not be reached for comment. Mullen Sawyer, executive director of the Oak Hill Community Development Corporation that works to improve the Union Hill neighborhood where Worcester East Middle is located, said the service is sorely needed in the area.

“We’re really excited about it,” he said, noting the neighborhood doesn’t have any other health centers nearby. “Getting access to health care is critical.”

Worcester East Middle has the highest percentage of economically disadvantaged students, at 66.5 percent, among the district’s four middle schools, according to state data. While most of the surrounding neighborhood’s families have health insurance, according to Mr. Sawyer, they tend to receive care through emergency room visits – “we’re all better off when people focus on preventative care first, rather than wait until it becomes a crisis,” he said.

“It’s a heavy need area, in terms of access,” said Jan Yost, executive director of the Health Foundation of Central Massachusetts. For many students, a school-based health center is their only chance to receive primary care, she added – “if they have to do it at night, or any other time of the day, when they have to get transportation to get there, it becomes really problematic.”

The advantage of health centers compared to regular nurse’s offices, Ms. Anthes said, is that they are licensed to practice medicine, and thus can provide a wider range of services. Worcester East Middle School’s clinic in particular will feature behavioral health services that are particularly valuable in the middle school age range, Ms. Yost said.

In addition to providing urgent medical care, most school health centers “screen students for protective factors and behaviors that promote feelings of confidence and self-worth,” according to the state’s Department of Public Health, which oversees the school-based health center program in Massachusetts. “They encourage students to get involved in positive youth development activities that are known to counter risk factors and offer protective value.”

Ms. Anthes said officials involved with Worcester’s school health clinics have even discussed opening up the centers to the general public – “it could be an option” down the road, she said.

For now, however, Worcester East Middle’s new health center, like other school health clinics in the city run by Family Health Center, will only be open during school hours to students.


Scott O’Connell

Worcester Telegram & Gazette