WebExtra: School health centers costly to replicate

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In 1982, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation helped Cook Country Hospital open the first health center in a Chicago public school, at Austin Community Academy on the Far West Side.

The center, still run by the Cook County Bureau of Health Services, fills a void in the lives of many adolescents in this poor community, offering primary health care services such as physicals, immunizations and illness treatment as well as mental health counseling, family planning, health education and preventative services.

“So many parents are working today, and it’s really hard for them to get off work to take care of their children’s needs,” says Ingrid Forsberg, nurse practitioner and health educator at the Mercy-Dunbar Health Center at Dunbar High School. “Not all [regular] health centers are open after school or in the evening, so this way, students don’t miss school. And they build up a strong relationship with the people who are here.”

But high costs keep health centers essentially out of reach for most schools. Since 1982, only 23 centers have opened in CPS schools.

Fifteen of the 23 CPS centers receive a third of their funding from the Illinois Department of Human Services, but high schools typically receive $120,000 and elementary schools $50,000—far short of the cost, which ranges from $200,000 to $400,000. To fill the gap, centers must secure federal and local grants, in-kind support, loans and contributions from community organizations.

“It’s not an inexpensive effort,” acknowledges Brenda Bannor, a former CPS health center administrator who is now a partner at Millennia Consulting, which has done work for school-based health centers. “A kid can come in and really get a full range of services. In order to do that, you have to have a well trained, well qualified staff.”

But Bannor stresses that the payoff is worth the price. “Schools need to understand — and people in the community need to understand — the connection between health and education. If you understand that connection, you’re willing to allocate resources and to allocate time as well.”

For information about how to start a school-based center, contact the Illinois Coalition for School at (312) 491.8161.