“You’ll get a sticker,” a student at Iola Elementary School whispered to a friend who wasn’t feeling well.
Sara Clift overheard the conversation and smiled. It makes her job a lot easier when children feel comfortable visiting a health care clinic.
That’s exactly the kind of welcoming environment she and others hope to create with a new school-based clinic. It opened in January as a partnership between USD 257 schools and the Community Health Center of Southeast Kansas.
The clinic is located at IES, and is open to middle and high school students as well. Clift provides care as the physician assistant based at the clinic.
Students and staff can visit the clinic for a variety of health care needs: wellness checks; immunizations; sports physicals; tests for flu, COVID, strep and other conditions; chronic illness management and other types of routine health care.
“For example, if a patient has an ear infection, we can check it here and communicate with the student’s primary care provider without the parents having to leave work and without the child missing school,” Clift said.
There’s no cost to families. For those who have health insurance, the visit will be billed to their health insurance but the family does not have to pay any sort of co-pay.
“The biggest benefit is removing those barriers, such as having to take time away from work or school, costs or a lack of transportation. It’s convenient,” Clift said.
For the school district, the goal is to reduce absenteeism.
IES principal Andy Gottlob said it’s important to find ways to keep kids in school “and keep them learning.”
“When kids are not in school, not only are they missing out on that education but we have to spend time getting them caught back up so they are prepared for that next level,” Gottlob said.
“On the administrative side, chronic absenteeism is a problem. With the clinic right here, we can deter a lot of unnecessary absences and make sure students get the care they need to return to class.”
Staff also use the services. It’s convenient because teachers don’t have to take as much time away from students and administrators don’t have to find a substitute.
Both Gottlob and Clift also see the clinic as a way to reach students who might not otherwise receive routine health care services, and develop a lifelong appreciation for taking care of their health.
“The old adage that it takes a village to raise a child is true. We need mental health and health services, and if we can have all of that right herein one building, it’s a great benefit to the community,” Gottlob said.
“And having Sara is a huge positive. Everyone knows her, and it brings a level of comfort to our families because she’s someone they can trust.”
CLIFT grew up in Iola and attended McKinley Elementary School before graduating from Iola High School.
She earned an undergraduate degree from the University of Kansas and completed a physician assistant program at Wichita State University.
She returned to her hometown and has been practicing in the area since 2005. She feels passionate about children’s health and was excited for the opportunity to join CHC/SEK as the school-based provider.
“I want patients to feel comfortable and I want to make a connection that hopefully will last a lifetime,” Clift said. “Sometimes, health care can be a little intimidating. Specifically with kids, I hope they can grow up with a positive attitude when it comes to seeing a provider and taking care of their health.”
She continued: “It’s a blessing to serve the community that has been so good to me. My family has deep ties to this community, and we’ve watched the kids here grow up.”
She and her husband, Patrick, have been married for 20 years and have three children, Elsa, 16, Reed, 13, and Wren, 9. Her children attend Iola schools, which makes it even more convenient.
“I think having those connections has kind of made this transition easier,” she said. “This clinic is something new for the community, and I hope maybe I can help people feel more at ease when they need to use these services.”
A primary goal of the program is to remove barriers for families that need health care services, Clift said.
“It’s a way to fill in the gaps and remove those barriers. Maybe parents can’t take time off work. Maybe they can’t afford the costs, or don’t have transportation. Some of these students might not be able to get the care they need if we weren’t here to help,” she said.
For families that have a primary care provider, the goal is not to replace that relationship but enhance it. Clift communicates with parents and providers as needed to maintain a continuity of care. Parents also can attend their child’s visits.
“We keep the visits fairly short so a child isn’t missing a whole day of school or even a half-day. We can check them out and send them home if they are sick, or we can give them the reassurance they need to go back to class,” she said.
“When a child feels better, they’re going to perform better in the classroom.”
She can also provide an educational component about what it means to develop healthy lifestyle habits, such as about nutrition and lifestyles.
“Self-care advocacy and engaging the youth empowers them to take responsibility for their own health,” she said.
SCHOOL NURSES remain the first line of defense.
In addition to Clift, CHC/SEK provides two nurses and a nursing assistant who provide the kind of services one might expect from a school nurse.
When a student feels ill or has an injury at school, they will go to see the school nurse. The nurse will evaluate the student and determine whether they need to be seen by Clift. If so, they’ll call the parents or guardian for approval.
A pediatrician also will make monthly visits to the clinic to work with Clift and families for more complex cases, such as chronic medical conditions or special needs.
At IES, the school nurse is Nichole Smith. The nurse assistant is Heather Weast.
Mary Mathew works as the school nurse at Iola Middle School.
Smith has worked at Iola schools since December 2021 and has seen the program develop over the past couple of years. It’s been a positive change to have all elementary schools under one roof.
She’s also seen interest grow as families become more familiar with the types of health care services provided at school.
“We’ve really become more of a team, and parents are a lot more receptive,” Smith said. “We’re establishing trust.”
Gottlob also praised the nursing staff, who have eased the burden on other school staff.
Parents can also call the school and request services for their child. The direct line to the clinic is 620-365-4822.