Encinal High health center gets a federally funded boost

Encinal High health center gets a federally funded boost

Michele Ellson

When Alameda High School became home to one of Alameda County’s first school-based health centers, in 1993, its arrival aroused a storm of protest.

“There were certain elements who thought it was a place to distribute condoms,” said Alameda County Supervisor Wilma Chan, who said she led the early effort to establish a similar center at Encinal High in 1999. “But it’s much more than that.”

Alameda’s schools now host three of the centers, with the addition of a center at Island High in 2010. And Encinal High’s health center will be getting a new home that may expand to serve the middle school students that will be coming on campus next fall, with the aid of a $412,000 federal grant.

“We’re very excited,” said Irene Kudarauskas of Alameda Family Services, which has partnered with Native American Health Center and the school district to provide medical, dental and behavioral health services to all of the Island’s high school students.

The Affordable Care Act – also known as Obamacare – included $200 million to build new school-based health centers and upgrade existing ones, the first time the federal government has provided capital funding for the centers, a spokesperson for the agency handing out the grants said. Over the past three years, the government has awarded grants to 520 school-based centers, with 31 California-based centers getting more than $14 million in this latest round.

The centers’ goal is to provide care for teens who aren’t getting it in order to keep them healthy – and in school. A spokesperson with the Health Resources and Services Administration, which distributed the grants, said the centers help children with acute or chronic illnesses stay in school and improve students’ overall health.

“Students can be served on campus without having to find a bus or get out of wherever they are to find some other resource,” said Oona Gilles-Weil, school-based health center program director for Alameda Family Services. She said about a third of the students on each of the three campuses where the centers are located use their services.

In addition to improving student health, the centers are credited with boosting student achievement. In making its case for the centers, the California School Health Centers Association cites studies saying the health care services the centers provide – particularly mental health care – help to boost attendance and student achievement, and also help lower dropout rates.

They are also filling an unmet need for care. Gilles-Weil said that 23 percent of the students who attended a recent dental screening for students at Island High School and the Alternatives in Action High School needed urgent care, as did 13 percent of those who attended a similar screening at Encinal High.

“When the economy dips the way it has now, dental insurance is one of the first things to go,” she said.

Chan said the clinics began popping up at middle and high schools in the 1990s after research showed that adolescents were the least likely segment of the population to receive health care. The clinics, she said, are a convenient, safe – and private – place for youths to obtain medical, dental and mental health care.

She said the number of school-based clinics in Alameda County has surged from a half-dozen in the 1990s to more than two dozen now. California’s schools host 200 of the centers, serving 205,000 youths, and at least 40 more are in the works, according to the California School Health Centers Association; there are more than 1,900 nationwide.

The services available through Alameda’s clinics include immunizations, vision and hearing screenings, reproductive health care and sports physicals, as well as dental exams and mental health assessments and counseling. Oakland-based Native American Health Center provides medical care, while Alameda Family Services offers one-on-one and group therapy and drug and alcohol counseling.

“Anything you would go see a doctor for, they provide those services on campus for free,” Gilles-Weil said.

In addition to serving students on each campus where they’re located, the centers are also open to students attending the Island’s charter schools and the Alameda Science and Technology Institute magnet.

Services provided also include enrollment in insurance programs and health education, some of which is provided by youths trained by center staff.

“Nobody says it better than a youth, to a youth,” Gilles-Weil said.

Services are funded in part through Medi-Cal and other government-funded health care programs; students receive the care free of charge. Alameda’s clinics get additional funding from the county, and they also receive support from the school district, Alameda Hospital and local community groups like the Alameda Welfare Council and the local Rotary club.

The grant will be used to replace the dilapidated portable that houses Encinal’s clinic with a new modular building from which Gilles-Weil hopes to also be able to serve middle school students who will be attending Encinal through a new “Junior Jets” magnet program starting in the fall. The building’s design would be reflective of the broader age range of students using the center’s services, she said.

“The reason for a 12- or 13-year-old to come seek our services are different than a 17-year-old,” she said.