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Schools mirror community's health

When I heard that high school students were regularly missing class because cockroaches were lodged in their ears, it was shocking.

This came up in a story I’m working on about school-based health centers. There are nearly 200 around California – the majority in underprivileged areas, where almost all of the students qualify for free lunches and Medi-Cal.

The high school I recently visited in Los Angeles had a full-fledged medical clinic on campus. That’s right – doctors, nurses, medical office equipment, all of it. It’s open to students and community members during the week and on Saturday and provides free primary care, dental and mental health services.

School officials are convinced that the clinic’s a necessity if their students are going to succeed. On a daily basis, students miss class because of ongoing domestic violence at home. Or because they have bites all over their legs from rats or bed bugs. Or their parents are working two jobs and can’t get them to the dentist to treat a throbbing toothache.

For these students, entrenched poverty makes them sick. That’s on top of the other more obvious health needs they have for vaccinations or annual physical exams.

This was a lot different than my school experience in suburbia with other middle-class kids.

As I walked to the campus health center to do my interviews, I looked around at the houses in the neighborhood. Some of them were missing windows. Many had sagging porches and peeling paint.

At the end of the block I arrived at the modest school health center. Inside, I heard over and over about how those rundown houses have a daily impact on the students.

A lesson in public health, indeed.

My upcoming radio story will get into how these school health centers are tackling community health problems and how federal dollars are helping them expand around the state and country.

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