School-Based Health Centers: Best Kept Secret

Connell Sanders: Worcester Public Schools’ best kept secret is in the nurse’s office

By Sarah Connell Sanders
Edward M. Kennedy’s providers offer Worcester Public School students convenient physicals, sports medicine, care for acute and chronic illness, immunizations, and more.



Before Courtney Pelley became the Chief of Staff at Edward M. Kennedy Community Health Center, she worked as a high school chemistry teacher. “As a new teacher, it took me a while to learn that the School-Based Health Center (SBHC) was there and to understand how it both worked together with and differed from a traditional school nurse’s office, but eventually I did,” she explained. “From that point on, whenever I noticed that one of my students was struggling to see what was written on the board, or was dealing with food insecurity at home, or was in need of a physical examination in order to participate on an athletic team, or was suffering from pain associated with a decaying tooth, or was experiencing anxiety due to violence in the community, I referred them to the SBHC where they could receive services on-site at school and be connected to the services that they needed outside of school.”

I told Pelley the story of getting a fall physical in the SBHC at my own high school, nearly two decades ago. I remember I had struggled to schedule a visit with my pediatrician before the start of the cross country season and my coach referred me to Doherty Memorial High School’s nurse practitioner. Back then, I was struck by the ease of the visit; the nurse managed to squeeze me in at the end of the school day whereas my own doctor’s office told me it would take months to secure an appointment. She gave me my check-up and had me back out on the running trails in no time. My coach was relieved, and so was I.

Family Health Center of Worcester continues to operate Doherty’s SBHC, along with six others across the Worcester Public Schools. Edward M. Kennedy operates five SBHC’s in the city, including one at the school where I am now a teacher. “This collaboration enables us to provide better access to the SBHCs, but it also improves the quality of care provided by sharing best practices, resources and strategies to best reach the students,” said Pelley. “Given the size of the district, it also helps to maximize our reach, both within the schools, but also at pop-up events like vaccine clinics.”

Edward M. Kennedy’s providers offer Worcester Public School students convenient physicals, sports medicine, care for acute and chronic illness, immunizations, and more. As with my own experience, many students and families remain unaware that these services exist in their schools until they are directed by a teacher or a coach. I promised Pelley that I would explain to all of my incoming students how special it is to have access to an SBHC and help them to take advantage if they are in need.

Pelley cites enrollment as the primary challenge. “A student needs to affirmatively enroll in the SBHC in order to receive care,” she said. “This means a parent or guardian needs to sign and return the paperwork to enroll the student in care.” The paperwork is set to go home with students over the next couple of weeks. Every year, Pelley hopes to reach 100% enrollment, but she relies on teachers, school administrators and community members to get the word out.

“Another challenge is the lack of funding mechanisms to support the school-based health centers,” Pelley told me. “We hope that the expansion into dental will help generate some additional revenue through patient visits, and work to further fill this gap.” Right now, dental is offered at Norback Elementary School and Roosevelt Elementary School. Pelley is determined to offer dental at every SBHC in the near future.

My wish for the start of the new school year is that all of my students will be healthy so they can reach their full potential. You can help too. Make sure the Worcester Public School students in your orbit know about the on-site services in their buildings and encourage them to enroll if they feel like it’s the right fit.