Jade-Marie Burgess lifted her two-year old son Eli onto the beige exam table. He was having tummy trouble so she’d gotten a walk-in appointment at the new clinic.

For 18-year-old Burgess, a senior at Denver’s Florence Crittenton High School, the appointment was a cinch. With the clinic just down the hall from her second-hour class and across the courtyard from Eli’s child care room, travel time was about two minutes.

Last year, it was a very different story. When her son was sick, she’d travel with him on two city buses to the clinic at Alameda International High School in Lakewood. The average time away from school was four to five hours.

It was “ridiculously long,” she said.

The clinic—still so new there are no pictures or decorations on its pale green walls—is a major milestone for the school, which enrolls 145 pregnant and parenting teenagers, as well as 109 of their young children.

School leaders believe it will help reduce absences due to illness as well as those associated with long commutes like the ones Burgess experienced.

The clinic, officially called the Alethea D. Morgan, M.D. Health Center, is also part of the reason that school-based health centers are having a red-letter year in Colorado.

Florence Crittenton High School
This new building on the campus of Florence Crittenton High School in Denver’s Valverde neighborhood replaced two cinderblock warehouses and a gravel parking lot.

It’s among five new ones that have opened across the state this fall. That’s an unusually high number for Colorado, which has a total of 61 school-based clinics. The other four new centers are at schools in Aurora, Carbondale, Cortez and Leadville.

The clinic at Florence Crittenton is also the first school-based health center in the state to offer routine obstetric services—everything but ultrasounds and delivery.

Given the population served by the school, it was “a no-brainer to add that component,” said Suzanne Banning, President and CEO of Florence Crittenton Services.

A big lift

Advocates of school clinics in Denver and elsewhere readily admit that establishing such facilities isn’t easy. It takes years of planning and the costs are formidable.

At Florence Crittenton, the clinic is part of a new $8.8 million school building. About two-thirds of that money came from a Denver Public Schools bond issue and one-third from fundraising by Florence Crittenton Services.

Operating costs will run about $200,000 a year, to be covered initially by grant funding and dollars from Denver Health, which operates the clinic.

Currently, the state has a $5.3 million budget line that provides planning, start-up and operations grants for school-based health centers.

“That is enough right now, but as the number of school based health centers grows and that pot is divided among more locations, that won’t be enough,” said Deborah Costin, executive director of the Colorado Association for School-Based Health Care.

Kids in the early childhood education program at Denver's Florence Crittenton High School play on a new playground that was part of a construction project that added a new health clinic, gym and classroom space.
Kids in the early childhood education program at Denver’s Florence Crittenton High School play on a new playground that was part of a construction project that added a new health clinic, gym and classroom space.

Still, there’s evidence that school-based clinics improve health access for kids, particularly those who face the greatest barriers in getting care.

Such barriers are often higher for Florence Crittenton students, who have to manage health care decisions for themselves and their children. Without the same-day appointment Burgess got for her sick toddler at the school clinic, it could have easily turned into emergency room visit, said Banning.

Getting students to make and keep health appointments at off-campus clinics has often been struggle at Florence Crittenton.

“We’ve always seen the challenge the girls had in navigating the health care system,” she said. “We’ve always seen that we set the appointment, but unless we gave them money and a taxicab to get down there, which we often did, they wouldn’t go.”

“Now, they’ve got nirvana,” Banning said as she led a tour of the new brick building that houses the clinic, high school classroom space and a gymnasium.

More clinics on the way

Two more school-based clinics are slated to open in Colorado next year — one on the Boulder Valley district’s Arapahoe Campus and one at a yet-to-be-determined location in the Adams 12 district. The clinics will be the first school-based health centers for both districts.

For many districts, the addition of school-based health centers represents the growing awareness about the link between health and achievement.

The idea is that students with health problems—whether asthma, tooth decay, depression or something else—miss out on learning.

“I think educators are becoming more cognizant of that,” said Costin, even as they work to raise test scores.

“Many of them are saying, ‘Well wait a minute, health is such a big part of this. Even though we’re in the education business, we need to be in the health business too, to move the needle on these measures.’”