When Kennedy Elementary School fifth-graders Toni and Bailey Jellison need to get to the doctor or therapy appointments, Cindy Kessel doesn’t have to drive to the school, pick them up, take them to the appointment and take them back to school, which interrupts her workday.
That’s because all they do is walk down the hall to the new Kennedy Elementary School-based clinic and then walk right back to class.
“It’s really great,” said Kessel of having a medical clinic embedded at her children’s school. “I work full-time and it’s hard to get them to their appointments. If one gets sick and then the other does too, it can take a couple of hours.”
While school-based clinics are popular in many parts of the country, the Kennedy School clinic is the first one in southwest Montana. It is the brainchild of the Southwestern Montana Community Health Center in partnership with the Butte School District No. 1.
Dr. Serena Brewer, medical director for the CHC, has been a proponent of school-based clinics for several years citing the model’s successes for healthier students, better attendance rates and access to care for students, families and school staff.
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‘The SWMTCHC recognizes the need and the impact of meeting patients where they are at. For our school-age children, this means meeting them at school — a place where they feel comfortable and safe — and creating minimal disruptions to their school day. With access to school-based medicine, attendance improves, absenteeism and tardiness decrease, and academic performance improves. We know that by investing in their health we are ultimately investing in their academic success and the success of the community,” she said.
The clinic began operation in early September and offers medical care, through a telehealth portal that connects to a CHC provider, on-site behavioral health therapy and plans for other screening services, such as dental services. No child is ever turned away for any reason, including being uninsured, underinsured or financial need.
Earlier this summer, families were mailed information about the new clinic and its services. Permission forms and enrollment information were included, and more than 50% of families returned the forms, enabling their children to use and access the clinic. The clinic is open every school day from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m.
Kennedy School principal Travis Johnson is a big supporter of the school-based clinic, located just a few doors down from his office. “I’m excited. I see the benefits for our community, our students and their families,” he said.
Tina Powers, instructional coach for Kennedy also views the clinic’s ability to offer immediate services for students as well as helping facilitate in-person medical visits as a big benefit. “It’s fantastic, it keeps kids in school. They can be seen quickly and get back to class,” she said.
The clinic is staffed by Tammy Jense, a registered nurse with 43 years of experience. Using the latest remote technology, Jense can assess the student and then connect electronically with any one of five providers at the CHC, located a few miles down the hill from Kennedy.
If a student needs in-person assistance, she can also — working with the students’ family — make an appointment for the student or contact their primary care provider to get the student help as fast as possible.
For example, she was asked by a teacher to check on a student and discovered the student had a greenstick fracture and linked the student and family with help.
Without that vital linkage, it might have taken much longer for the student to get help. Jense has also assisted in getting a student into ADHD testing, based on teacher and family concerns and considers herself a resource to help both school staff and students.
“I’m working on food baskets for the holidays right now,” she said. She also is working hard to build relationships with teachers and staff at Kennedy. “The teachers here are really great and have been supportive of the clinic.”
She is also reaching out to other agencies and providers to let them know of the services available at Kennedy to weave a network of support for students and their families.
Yates, executive director for the CHC, said she is hopeful that the pilot project at Kennedy will be so successful that it can be replicated in other schools across the county and in southwest Montana.
“Community Health Centers across this country have the ability to assess the needs of their communities and develop models of care that can help patients with their wellness journey. SWMTCHC has seen the impact of substance use, mental health concerns, and poverty on our communities, and we are hoping to move upstream and be a change agent. By supporting young families with access to community health via school-based health we hope others will begin to see their potential on this wellness journey,” Yates said.
The clinic has received a two-year grant through the Montana Healthcare Foundation to help fund the school-based clinic and the district played an integral part in securing the grant.
Kessel is already a believer in the value of school-based clinics. “I’d tell other parents to try it out,” she said.