NORTH LAWNDALE — A West Side elementary school will soon become a community health hub for students and their families.
The Cluster of Care Community Hub is an initiative of West Side United aimed at erasing health disparities on the West Side. It is a pilot for a new model of community health that meets residents where they are at by bringing wraparound support services to a location where families are already interacting with daily: their school.
As part of the work, an abundance of resources dedicated to students’ physical, mental, social and emotional health will pour into Herzl School of Excellence, 3711 W. Douglas Blvd., over the next few years.
“Access is the most important thing,” said Tenisha Jones, senior director for strategy and operations for West Side United. “Schools are seen as centers of the community. They’re the one place where we know parents and families show up together.”
The hub will be a one-stop-shop for families to get their health needs met without leaving their neighborhoods, Jones said.
“If I pick up my kid from school, and my kid is having a problem and we need some family counseling, I can do that at her school,” she said.
The Cluster of Care Hub will serve not only the health needs of local families, but will also create a stronger learning environment for students at Herzl, Principal Tamara Davis said.
Families that face barriers to accessing medical care are already at a learning disadvantage, Davis said, since parents may be preoccupied by managing chronic illnesses or behavioral health conditions. Mental and physical health challenges are also one of the biggest reasons students miss school, Davis said.
“In order for our students to succeed, they have to be healthy,” Davis said. “I have to be able to attend. I have to be able to pay attention. If I’m hungry, it’s hard for me to do that. If I have consistent vision issues or headaches… that’s going to affect their educational attainment.”
Many families at Herzl struggle to access the medical care needed to stay up to date on standard vaccines and routine exams typically required of students, Davis said. West Side United estimates about 1,200 students in North Lawndale are medically non-compliant due to a lack of access.
“They come to us already missing out on a lot of the healthcare needs that was supposed to be taken care of when they were infants,” Davis said. “Through this partnership… we can have all of those physicals and immunizations done here at the school.”
The health programs at the Cluster of Care Hub will be implemented over several years with an initial investment of $265,000 to hire staff, including a nurse practitioner and a coordinator to manage the programs.
The third floor of Herzl will be developed into a school-based health center where students can access primary care, immunizations, vision and dental care. Organizers are planning for the health center to open by the second year of the project.
The school will eventually bring on a full-time social worker to serve the mental health needs of students.
The social worker will “help connect that parents and families with resources, whether that is around housing, nutrition or employment, in addition to helping with the mental health services for our students and our students’ social-emotional learning,” Davis said.
A school-based food pantry already has launched at Herzl, allowing families to pick up boxes of fresh, healthy food twice a week.
A trauma-informed professional development program will also help teachers and staff to support student’s mental health and social-emotional learning.
“We created a sequence of social-emotional lessons to ensure we’re setting up positive climates and cultures in our classrooms,” Davis said.
Through partnerships with hospitals including Rush University Medical Center and Lurie Children’s Hospital, the hub will also have a career pathway program for students and family. The program will create a pipeline from an early age into careers in science, technology and healthcare with a curriculum that emphasizes problem solving and critical thinking, Davis said.
Creating a pipeline to higher education and careers in the medical field can help to break generational cycles of poverty and poor health, Davis said.
“All it takes is one person within the household to obtain a college degree and it changes the socio economic status of a family,” Davis said. “That means that we’re changing levels of access. And so and that access includes healthcare.”
Parents will also benefit from health education programs, as well as a GED program that will be run by the University of Illinois at Chicago.
“Parents are our children’s first teacher. So we have to pour into our parents just as much as we pour into our students,” Davis said.
Pascal Sabino is a Report for America corps member covering Austin, North Lawndale and Garfield Park for Block Club Chicago.
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