Health and learning go together
When the polio epidemic swept the nation in 1956, I was 9 years old. This disease left one of my friends partially paralyzed, and a family friend died from it. My mom kept my sisters and me out of public places; we spent the summer at home. Swimming at the beach was off limits, and she thought dimming the lights would help protect us.
Then came the Salk vaccine. I remember standing in line in the cafeteria of my neighborhood elementary school in Madison, Wis., waiting for the shot that would quell the spread of the deadly disease and liberate us from our confinement. My sister said her best friend fainted awaiting her turn.
What better place than a school to deliver essential medical care to a whole neighborhood? It made perfect sense then, and it makes sense now. When students are healthy, they can attend school, engage, and help the whole class stay on track. Health conditions that go untreated can have serious consequences for an individual or a whole classroom.
Cleveland Heights-University Heights public-school students, their families, and school district staff are now eligible to receive health care in the newly opened Heights Wellness Center at Cleveland Heights High School. Instead of standing in line in the cafeteria as I did, members of our school community can make an appointment with a physician and meet in individual examination rooms and private offices on the school’s ground level.
I toured the Wellness Center after its Jan. 17 ribbon-cutting. The celebration attracted about 80 community leaders, school district personnel and Dr. Airica Steed, CEO of MetroHealth, the medical partner for the project. The renovation was funded with a $500,000 grant to the school district from the Ohio Department of Education, and MetroHealth received a larger grant from the Ohio Department of Health to expand school-based health services in Cleveland and CH-UH. The program depends on people using it. The cost to the district is mostly for cleaning and some coordination.
Dr. Vanessa Maier, a Heights High graduate and medical director for the project, and Dr. Marcus Germany will see patients at the high school on alternating Fridays. Alvernese Ford, a community health worker, will be in the center daily to meet with patients and facilitate what is called a “warm hand-off.” She will help patients navigate the health care system.
If the pandemic has taught us anything, it is that students and faculty are not learning machines. They are human beings whose school engagement is connected to their emotional and physical well-being. It’s all part of one.
Three years ago, Gov. Mike DeWine recommended funding wrap-around services in public schools to remove barriers to learning. This recognition that many out-of-school needs can interfere with learning is crucial to equalizing the opportunity to benefit from what happens in school. Funds for wrap-around services were included in the last state budget.
The Wellness Center takes this idea one step further by making it easy for students and their families to access health services. Health disparities are unacceptable and undermine opportunity. This facility can cut into that disparity by reaching a significant number of people who hadn’t previously had easy access to fundamental health services. This inspired project is one piece of solving the equity puzzle.
Our public schools belong to the community, and the community has much to offer our educators and children. The Wellness Center exemplifies what that can look like. It’s a powerful partnership that can interrupt some of the negative forces that undermine our young people.
To learn more about this program, visit https://www.chuh.org/.
Susie Kaeser moved to Cleveland Heights in 1979. She is the former director of Reaching Heights, and is active with the Heights Coalition for Public Education and the League of Women Voters. A community booster, she is the author of a book about local activism, Resisting Segregation.