School-based health clinics will open in Renton, Vashon and Bellevue this fall, joining a nationwide trend toward bringing basic medical and mental-health care to kids where they spend most of their time.

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Evidence connecting students’ overall health with their academic performance has mushroomed in recent decades, such that Nobel Prize-winning economist James Heckman calls it one of the best-established links in all of social science.

Seattle’s school district, ahead of the curve on this issue, has for 30 years provided health services to kids in two-dozen schools. Now the success of that effort is spreading.

Next fall, Bellevue, Renton and Vashon Island each will open one school-based health center, offering an array of services from annual checkups to behavioral counseling — far more than the school nurses of old used to do.

Nationally, the use of such school-based clinics has increased rapidly, particularly in rural areas where families may lack a regular pediatrician, or might have to drive an hour for children’s basic medical care. Not surprisingly, lack of a nearby doctor results in high absenteeism.


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But urban Bellevue has seen a marked increase in the need for such services, too, said Jessica Knaster Wasse, who oversees school-based health centers for Public Health – Seattle & King County.

Some 500 students — nearly half of them low-income — attend Highland Middle School, the first site in the district to get its own health center.

“Most people think of Bellevue as an affluent community, but the demographics have really shifted,” Knaster Wasse said. “The immunization rate at Highland Middle is 76 percent — one of the lowest in the county, and it’s really just an access issue.”

Statewide, there are 35 school-based health centers — most of them in King County — and the driver behind them is academic as much as medical.

A study published in 2010 found that adolescents who used a school-based center for mental health improved their grades, compared to nonusers. And kids were 21 times more likely to get help when counselors were on-site, compared with those whose only access was off school grounds.

In New York City, asthmatic children who used a school-based health center markedly increased their attendance, with fewer trips to the hospital.

“Time out of class can really add up, particularly for students who have chronic conditions,” Knaster Wasse said.

At Highland Middle, mental-health counseling will be provided by Youth Eastside Services, and the nonprofit International Community Health Services, which already operates a clinic at Seattle World School, will staff the medical side.

Startup costs for the three new health centers will be covered through a $2 million grant from King County’s Best Starts for Kids levy. Each plans to provide counseling offices, a pharmacy and space for mobile dental units.

“We took what we knew was working in Seattle and extended it,” said Michael McKee, director of health services and community partnerships at ICHS. “It’s exciting because we know it improves access.”