Elpida Vlachos routinely takes her four children who attend Morrisania’s P.S. 140 on Eagle Avenue for regular doctor check ups. She said she felt confident that none had health problems. So it came as a surprise to the 38-year-old Bronx mother when her children came home one day from school with a note indicating they needed eyeglasses.
P.S. 140 in the South Bronx, an elementary school is the site of a new, national pilot program intended to make sure that students who need treatment for everything from poor vision to chronic asthma receive holistic health care coordinated at the school level. Called Healthy and Ready to Learn, the initiative was launched in September by Children’s Health Fund in three schools, two in the South Bronx and one in Harlem.
All the students in P.S. 140 who failed the vision screening are expected to be provided with two pairs of glasses – one to keep in school and one for home. These children will meet with an optometrist for free and choose the glasses they like, said Barbara Alicea, the school’s health coordinator, who acts as liaison between the health center and the school to bring together local health services for the children.
Also known as the “eye lady” in the school, children rush to hug Alicea as she explained her role. As health screenings continue in the school, Alicea will work with parents to help connect them to basic needs like housing, insurance, public assistance, domestic violence and immigration issues.
Poor vision is just one of eight health-related barriers to good learning identified in this new initiative aimed at helping schools, parents and health center practitioners triage knowledge and treatment. According to a study conducted by The Center for Health and Health Care in Schools, an estimated 22 per cent of children aged 6 to 11 have a vision problem.
The eight health issues to be targeted by the Healthy and Ready to Learn program include asthma, dental issues, hearing loss, hunger, behavioral problems, anemia and lead poisoning. Phoebe Browne, the director of the initiative, said that the organization chose these eight issues because they are fairly common, relatively easy to screen, preventable and manageable. The program will measure these health indicators over time next to school measures such as attendance and test scores to assess the program’s impact over time.
Once a child is identified with a particular health issue, the parents are informed and coordination will begin to provide the child with primary care. The program’s next hurdle is to figure out a way to screen for anemia and lead poisoning in school, two conditions that require blood tests to diagnose. “We do not provide primary care, but our school health coordinator will help the family to connect to primary care,” said Colby Kelly, communications director at the Children’s Health Fund.
P.S. 140’s assistant principal believes teachers are pleased to be part of this pilot. “We are monitoring the effects of the program,” said Assistant Principal Kevin Greene. “Eventually, over time, the teachers and parents will see the benefits.” The two other schools in the pilot are P.S. 49 in Mott Haven and P.S. 36 in West Harlem.
Finding local resources for the parents such as dentists, optometrists and primary care physicians is another work in progress. The next step after vision screening in P.S. 140 will be dental check ups and training for asthma control, Alicea said.
Poorly controlled asthma is one of the leading reasons children miss school through exhaustion or hospitalization.
Tonette McWilliams, a teacher at P.S. 140, said that she had a student who used to miss an entire week at a time due to chronic asthma since she had to be hospitalized. Severe attacks cannot be treated at home or in the school clinic. Under the new program, once a student has been identified with average or chronic asthma, the school health coordinator will work with the family to provide educational materials and training to train them in avoiding environmental triggers and exercising caution in physical activities. .
“We are looking for a scalable solution to these problems,” Kelly said. “Parents do not know about the triggers and it is a process of discovery, finding out the why.”
Asthma and behavioral problems represent the top two health barriers to learning, according to a 2013 survey of principals and assistant principals administered by the Children’s Health Fund and the city’s school supervisor’s union. In high poverty schools, 67 per cent of school officials identified asthma as a moderate or serious barrier to learning.
“P.S. 140 is located in the poorest congressional district in the country and there are social issues related to poverty and lack of insurance,” Green said. “We felt that having this program would provide us with assistance in some of the issues.”
Around 18 to 20 percent of P.S. 140’s 640 pre-kindergarten through fifth grade students live in homeless shelters; a few more live in foster care homes or transitional housing, said Greene. As he spoke, a school administrator, Tuesday Brown, brought in a five-year-old boy who was extremely agitated. Greene reassured the child, and returned him to Brown after five minutes, saying he was a cancer survivor, who suffers from hyperactivity.
“Realistically, some students have underlying issues,” said Greene. “To get them ready for high school, college and future careers we have to work hard and build their self esteem and that is where Children’s Health Fund comes into play.”
Health and Ready to Learn is funded by international organizations like H&M Conscious Foundation, Jaguar Land Rover and individual donors. Both corporations have committed to providing the funds that are required for the screenings, trainings and equipment. P.S. 140 is currently working without corporate funding but Children’s Health Fund is in the process of identifying donors. Along with funding partners, it is collaborating with various organizations and experts who are providing valuable data and research.
The Children’s Health Fund was co-founded 27 years ago by singer/songwriter Paul Simon and Columbia University’s Dr. Irwin Redlener. The organization set up two dozen national network programs and 50 mobile units that bring medical care to children in poor neighborhood. One of the oldest national networks is located in the South Bronx in partnership Montefiore Medical Center and the Albert Einstein College of Medicine. The South Bronx Health Center located at 871 Prospect Ave, provides a medical home for underserved children and families.
Healthy and Reading to Learn was launched in response to the need to do more to reach out to more children who need care. Hospitals and mobile vans proved to be insufficient. Organizers believed that going directly into public schools was the next logical step.
School officials at P.S. 140 hope the program will help improve attendance rates, which were 89 percent last year. The goal is to reach 93.5 percent, said McWilliams. “When it comes to education, I’ll try anything,” said Ligia Perez, a second grade teacher at P.S. 140. “And if this program can help then I am on board.”
“If something is going to work,” said Greene, “it can be only through communication between the teachers, parents and the community.”