The Fort Smith School Board receives money to create a permanent school health center

FORT SMITH — The school board has decided to use some of the COVID money to build a permanent school health center as the current grant expires in 2026 for the clinic now run by the district.

The center opened in 2021 as one of the district’s Vision 2023 goals to provide greater access to health care for students, their families and staff. It is a freestanding, modular building between Darby Middle School and Tilles Elementary School at 1420 N. H St.

The center is a partnership with Mercy Hospital and The Guidance Center and was paid for through a $542,000 grant from the Arkansas Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.

Joseph Velasquez, construction project manager for the district, said at Monday’s board meeting that the project was approved to use approximately $1.2 million in America’s Elementary and Middle School Rescue Plan emergency funds. He said the money was originally intended to add four classrooms to Ramsey Middle School, but due to construction costs and the current student population, that project was scaled back to two classrooms.

Velasquez said the school has 830 students, and the highest projected population in the next 10 years is 935 students in the 2028-2029 school year.

Shawn Shaffer, the district’s executive director of facilities operations, explained that four classrooms were previously considered because the district’s two most populous classrooms were in Ramsey at the time. He said the two largest are currently grades nine and ten, and both high schools were recently expanded as part of the Vision 2023 plan.

School board member Matt Blaylock asked if the district had any plans for the portable building that currently houses the health center once the project is complete.

Shaffer said it will likely be stored temporarily and then used as a swing area while the neighborhood prepares for projects next summer.

“I just want to say that I think it’s a good use of our resources, allocating federal funds that have to be used within a certain period of time for a project that we all agree is worthwhile, so I think we’re doing a very good job here,” said board member Dalton Person.

Kerry Tucker, school health center coordinator, reviewed the clinic’s past year at the school board meeting in October. She explained that the center can be used by any district student, staff member and any family member who lives in their home, but is not open to the entire community.

“By being integrated into the educational environment, the school health center contributes directly to the mission of the school and provides outcomes that matter to educators,” Tucker said. “We are able to help reduce absenteeism, improve academic achievement and reduce discipline problems.”

School Health Center services include routine physical examinations, including sports examinations, diagnosis and treatment of acute and chronic illnesses and minor injuries.

Tucker said the center’s location was chosen because many Darby and Tilles students come from low-income families and/or are English language learners, which creates barriers to getting health care. She said that in the first year of services, the center had 1,198 visits from 25 of the 26 district buildings.

Scott Savage, an advanced practice registered nurse at Mercy, told the board the center has allowed him to help the area and build relationships with patients. He said that because the center provides access to people who would otherwise not receive health care, it has been able to help treat serious illnesses such as diabetes and kidney disease.

“I need to be able to motivate patients to be a part of their health care,” Savage said. “For someone who was middle-aged and didn’t want any part of self-care, to motivate them is something I’m really proud of.”

Rebecca Henson, a counselor at The Guidance Center, said working at the clinic has allowed her to collaborate with the district and Mercy to provide mental health services.

“The goal is always to provide support, help de-escalate situations and connect them to the appropriate services,” Henson said. “We’ve been able to help students who may not want to get services at school because they’re scared or mental health services are taboo, so they’ll come to the health clinic and meet us there. And the families, I guess, are less scared. Maybe they are frustrated with school staff and don’t feel heard. They can go in there and feel they have a voice and support.”

Deputy Superintendent Marty Mahan said once the grant expires, the district will have to pay for the center’s staff and maintenance. He said the district would have to build a larger facility twice the size of the current facility at 3,360 square feet, and the proposed site would remain between Darby and Tilles.

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