School-Based Centers make healthcare accessible for students, staff

Left to right: Grace Hamra, Taylor Altenthal and Kaleigh Merideth stand outside the Sikeston school SEMO Health Network clinic where they work.
Photo by Jasmine Jones

A novel approach to well-being in education, one with benefits for students, parents and staff, is the collaboration between schools and area health networks. The Sikeston R-6 School District has spent the last four years working with the SEMO Health Network to ensure student health care is easily accessible.

The SEMO Health Network — no relation to the Cape Girardeau university — operates several dental, medical and wellness locations across seven cities in six Bootheel-area counties.

Additionally, it runs two school-based centers at the Sikeston Alternative Center and Sikeston Senior High. These facilities, located directly within the two schools, serve students, staff and families throughout the Sikeston school district.

Both centers operate during normal school hours. This means high school students who are feeling unwell can walk directly to their primary care provider without leaving school. There’s no doctor’s note required here.

One of the clinic rooms is shown at the Sikeston Senior High School-Based Health Center. The health center is part of the SEMO Health Network and provides a wide range of health services for students, staff and parents.
Photo by Jasmine Jones

Sikeston’s school district is not the only institution in the state or even the country to utilize a clinic within its buildings. Hundreds of districts are using such systems to their advantage.

As staff members from both the health network and school district explain, these types of clinics allow for a few distinct advantages, especially with accessibility.

“A school-based clinic allows us to provide healthcare to the children and faculty in a more convenient manner. For the children we see, their parents have completed all the paperwork and consented to treatment, but they do not have to be present for the appointment,” family nurse practitioner Taylor Altenthal said via email.

Altenthal explained that this allows children to complete their athletic physicals or see a nurse for their ailments without their parents having to leave work.

“Parents can call to make their child an appointment or be referred by their school nurse or counselor. We know parents are often busy working or may not have reliable transportation, so Sikeston Public Schools is able to provide transportation to and from the visit at one of the two locations on campus,” Kaleigh Merideth, a nurse coordinator for Sikeston Public Schools, added in an email.

SEMO Health Network has served the Bootheel region since 1979. The two school-based facilities were opened in 2019.

Mallory Matthews, the health network’s chief clinical officer, said the center’s workers do their best to keep students in class by communicating with parents and letting them know how any visits go.

If a student is healthy enough to return to school, a checkup isn’t held against them as an absence.

Faculty patients also don’t have to leave work. Instead of driving to a different town for a checkup, they can have it done in the familiar surroundings of their own district.

Merideth has used the facilities for her own family’s sick visits and vaccinations.

Taylor Altenthal and Kaleigh Merideth talk in the hallway at the Sikeston Senior High School-Based Center.
Photo by Jasmine Jones

“We have never had a bad experience and are always made to feel welcome and taken care of,” she said. “The convenience of the clinic makes taking care of myself and my kids so much easier.”

The clinic offers services to anyone working in the school district, their household members and all children in the school system.

Services provided include family medicine, counseling, behavioral health care, immunizations and both men’s and women’s wellness.

The Sikeston School-Based Center features a small staff of around half a dozen people but operates just like any other SEMO Health Network service by providing full primary care.

“We tend to do more wellness visits, a lot of sports physicals, a lot of vaccinations. We do a lot of acute care as well,” Matthews said.

Acute care is the care patients receive when dealing with severe injury or a sudden medical condition. It is active, short-term work — the opposite of long-term chronic care.

The center’s workers also put together an annual flu vaccination clinic, traveling from school to school to administer vaccines. In addition to this, they host yearly immunization clinics before school starts in August.

The Sikeston School Based Center is a Federally Qualified Health Center (FQHC), a designation assigned to not-for-profit or public health care organizations serving medically underserved populations. Such areas must be contiguous and have a lack of accessible healthcare options.

The FQHC classification is assigned by two federal organizations, namely the Bureau of Primary Health Care and the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services.

Because they receive federal funding, such centers must operate under a consumer board of directors’ governance and provide comprehensive health, oral, mental health and substance abuse services to people of all ages.

The board approves a sliding-fee scale, based on a patient’s family size and income.

Matthews said her health network has also implemented its own continuous quality improvement initiative. This initiative is a distinct SEMO Health Network unit dealing with patient safety, risk management, quality assurance and regulatory affairs.

“Our goal is to provide extraordinary healthcare and dental services in a way that best serves our patients and encourages them to make healthy lifestyle choices,” Matthews said.