, Salem, MA

March 26, 2014

Board approves health center at Peabody High

By John Castelluccio
Staff Writer

---- — PEABODY — City and school officials want to open a student health center at Peabody High.

The School Committee voted last night 5-0 to approve the project with nary a concern at the proposal, though committeeman Ed Charest said he hoped any future funding gap would not be absorbed into the school budget. Committee member Brandi Carpenter was absent.

The health center would be staffed by either a licensed social worker or behavioral health specialist and a pediatric nurse practitioner to provide routine medical services, such as physical exams for athletes. It would offer care for mental-health issues and management of chronic diseases, such as diabetes and asthma.

“It’s basically like having your own full-service doctor in the high school,” said city Health Director Sharon Cameron. She added that the center would offer more services than the two school nurses are able to provide now in the school’s existing health clinic.

Cameron said this health center would be a satellite facility of North Shore Community Health Inc., which would operate the center. She said Massachusetts schools have been doing this since the late 1980s, and there are 52 communities that have school-based health centers.

Students now have to schedule a visit with a doctor for most of these services, which often requires missing classes or arriving at school late. Once the new center opens, students won’t have to leave the building.

“This health center will go a long way toward helping our children cope with some of the issues they deal with on a day-to-day basis,” Mayor Ted Bettencourt said, adding that’s especially true of mental or behavioral health issues. Teachers aren’t always equipped to deal with such issues.

Bettencourt described it as an “enhancement” of services provided by school nurses, guidance counselors and other support staff.

“The concept, in a nutshell, is that healthy kids can learn better,” Cameron said. She said the two high school nurses saw 1,400 students last year, totaling 9,000 visits. About 3,000 of those students required medication administrated on a regular basis.

Bettencourt said the proposal came together after discussions with Cameron, school nursing staff and retired state Sen. Fred Berry. Berry attended last night’s meeting and urged the board to support the project.

“It’s so needed at this time ... people don’t even recognize the need that is there,” Berry said. Mental health services are especially needed, he said.

North Shore Community Health Center Inc., a nonprofit based in Salem, currently operates a similar facility at Salem High School. The organization also runs family health clinics in Peabody, Salem and Gloucester.

The city has secured an $86,000 federal grant, along with $100,000 from the JB Thomas Lahey Foundation and $160,000 over two years from Boston Children’s Hospital. Brian McCarthy of Energi also contributed $10,000 via the McCarthy Foundation.

Bettencourt said that about half of the money secured would go toward renovating the existing wood shop at the school, which is moving to the new regional vocational school in Danvers, into a health center. The other half would go toward operation of the center. He thanked former Mayor Michael Bonfanti for input on the project and helping secure financing.

Construction is slated to occur over the summer with the center opening to students in late October. Cameron said the centers are licensed and regulated by the state. There is a five-year commitment attached to Lahey’s contribution.

Maggie Brennan, the CEO of NSCHI, told school board members that services typically offered are physical exams, immunizations, emergency and nonemergency care, health education, student workshops and counseling.

“My support is very strong for the clinic because of the mental health component,” said School Committee member Beverley Griffin Dunne. She said those needs are underserved, even though it’s vital to living a healthy life. “This will be a huge, huge benefit to all of us.”

The committee then took a separate, but related, vote to not provide students with condoms at the new health center. The board voted 4-1 with Dave McGeney voting “no.” He did not elaborate on his position supporting providing condoms.

Brennan said teen health centers in Salem, Lynn and Gloucester, likewise, do not distribute condoms.

You can reach John Castelluccio at 978-338-2527, or via Twitter at @SNjcastelluccio.