'Wraparound' health services help ensure academic success for Taos High students

No shame, no guilt - just come on in

By Doug Cantwell
Posted 12/12/19

Imagine getting preventatives for the two greatest pitfalls of high school - suicide and pregnancy - without even leaving the building.

Taos High School has teamed with El Centro Family Health to make that a reality.

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'Wraparound' health services help ensure academic success for Taos High students

No shame, no guilt - just come on in


Imagine getting preventatives for the two greatest pitfalls of high school - suicide and pregnancy - without even leaving the building.

Taos High School has teamed with El Centro Family Health to make that a reality. There's a fully staffed health center on campus that supports students, teachers and staff from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. every Monday and Wednesday. The team moves to Taos Middle School to provide the same services on Tuesday and Thursday.

"We cover the usual stuff - colds, headaches, stomach aches - but we also manage asthma and diabetes," said Sandy Whitney, a nurse practitioner who can diagnose, prescribe medication, order labs and X-rays as well as give standard physical exams. "And of course, a big part of our presence is sexual health - birth control and STIs [sexually transmitted infections].

"One of our top priorities is preventing unplanned pregnancies," Whitney added.

The New Mexico Office of Public Health, Taos branch, could not be reached for comment about statistics on teen pregnancy by press time on Wednesday.

THS administrators haven't yet applied for funding under the state's new Community Schools Act - that's on the slate for next academic year - but they've embraced the essential community-schooling logic: Remove as many obstacles to academic success as possible by taking a "whole child" approach to education.

If a 16-year-old suffers from depression, has an unstable home life, lacks the means to manage diabetes or is ashamed to admit being sexually active, it sets the stage for academic failure and other life-changing events that are potentially irreversible.

Francine Anaya, a licensed psychotherapist, heads the behavioral health team at the clinic. "We do counseling by appointment," she said, "and kids can also walk in at any time as well." Anaya and Whitney keep with the "whole child" paradigm, working in tandem to ensure that problems - especially those involving family situations - don't slip through the cracks.

"Sandy makes sure I see almost everyone after she sees them," Anaya added, "provided they're willing of course - and they usually are." It's not uncommon, she said, for them to work as a team on behavioral health issues - Whitney prescribing antidepressants or other meds and Anaya providing weekly mental health counseling.

Online screening scores a breakthrough

Both Anaya and Whitney mentioned a new health questionnaire they ask students to fill out during their first visit. Students answer the questions on an iPad, which increases their comfort level, and it's been a breakthrough as far as getting kids to open up about personal and family issues. This has made it easier for them to identify the core problem rather than mistake symptoms for causes.

"If a kid says, 'I don't feel safe at home' or 'There's no food in the fridge' on the questionnaire, then we ask them to come in for a chat," said Whitney. "From there, we're usually able to put them in touch with resources that can really make a difference."

Anaya stressed that the iPad screening is entirely voluntary. "We had one parent who objected strongly to their student discussing family issues on the questionnaire," she said. "But it's amazing how it encourages them to share things that they wouldn't otherwise be candid about."

While health center services get billed to the family's insurance if they have it, "we're also able to treat students who don't have insurance at no charge to them," said Bridgette Herrera, certified medical assistant, who handles insurance and other paperwork. "We get grants to cover these costs," she added, "and El Centro gets state Department of Health funding as well."

What happens if a kid comes in and says, "I need birth control - but if my parents find out, they'll kill me"?

Not a problem at the health center. "We set up a private account for the student," said Herrera, "and parents don't have access to it. They can be seen without their parents finding out."

This is not merely a matter of El Centro or THS policy. New Mexico has a family planning consent law that allows anyone 13 years or older to seek birth control information and treatment on their own behalf.

Once they've got their prescription for contraceptives, antidepressants or other meds, students don't have to go stand in line at Walgreens. They can fill it right there at the health center's fully stocked pharmacy.

Still a place for the school nurse

Taos High School has a more traditional school nurse on staff, April DeHerrera, who's on duty five days a week. She handles the more acute illnesses but also coordinates with health center staff to address chronic illness management, behavioral health and other issues.

Among her many duties, DeHerrera trains teachers and staff to handle "can't wait" emergencies. This week, for instance, she's been briefing them on how to administer the EpiPen, a large syringe full of epinephrine used to treat violent, possibly fatal, reactions to insect stings, foods and other allergens.

DeHerrera keeps at least four volunteer staff members to back her up. "I train them on diabetes management, seizures, concussions - anything that might happen." However, all teachers and staff must have basic first-aid training, which also falls under her watch.

"Another big part of my job is looking after students' prescription medications," she added.

Food and shelter matter, too

Florence Miera, the lead social worker for Taos Municipal Schools, also plays an important role in student health, said THS Principal C.J. Grace. "Florence supports the needs and coordinates the initiatives for our students who lack basic shelter, food and services," she said.

Emmy DeHerrera, THS dean of instruction, has set up a "backpack program" with St. James Episcopal Church, which maintains one of the area's major food banks. Kids whose families lack adequate food are encouraged to come forward, the family's needs are assessed and a "backpack" full of food is prepared for them to take home each Thursday.

"This is all done anonymously," said DeHerrera, noting about 25 backpacks go home each week to THS families. "For Thanksgiving, they each got a good-sized turkey with all the fixings," she added.

No shame, no guilt - just come on in

The health center staff fosters a shame-free ambience to make it easier for students to approach them about uncomfortable topics.

"Come on in - we're here for the community," said Phillip Gibbs, El Centro regional administrator for Taos, Embudo and Peñasco schools. "Faculty and staff as well - we need them healthy, too. Nobody will be turned away at El Centro, regardless of your payment status or other personal matters.

"It's important to us, as the administrative team, that we get the word out," Gibbs added. "There are things going on outside the school that affect how students perform here, and we're here as a resource to help them combat some of those things. We have different ways of approaching each variable that may be impacting their health, which in turn impacts their education."


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