George Washington High School student health clinic growing fast

The new student clinic at Denver’s George Washington High School is filling up its appointments after only four months open, an unusually fast start for a health center.

The clinic, which opened in January, now sees about 75 students per week — a level that often takes more than a year to reach, said Dr. Steven Federico, who oversees Denver Health’s school-based health centers.

Part of the reason may be that school staff and parents were invested in the project and have been promoting it, and the need to catch up on care delayed by the pandemic could also be a factor, Federico said. Students also got involved early, through contests to name the clinic and design its logo. (“Pulse” was the winning entry.)

“This one was probably the most grassroots,” he said.

The George Washington High location is the 19th clinic in Denver Public Schools buildings, which serve about 12,000 students altogether, Federico said. Any DPS student can get an appointment at any center, though, as long as it has space available. The clinics will bill insurance, if students have coverage, but don’t charge any out-of-pocket costs.

Kelly Peterson, a senior at George Washington High, said she has used most of the clinic’s services, and she plans to go to Denver Health for care after graduation. She had bad experiences with a previous therapist and said navigating the health system can be fraught as a multiracial young woman, but the school clinic staff have been welcoming and willing to listen.

“It has helped me tremendously,” she said.

The clinic, which held an open house for donors Tuesday, looks about like any doctor’s office, except there hasn’t been time for wear and tear, and the waiting area has young-adult novels instead of old magazines. It contains a room for counseling, an exam room and a small pharmacy, and has the ability to collect blood and other fluids for analysis at an off-site lab. Students can also get a rapid COVID-19 test and some vaccinations there.

High school students have a particular need for convenient care, because their parents may not be as likely to take off work to take them to a doctor as when they were younger, said Laura Fagundes, a physician assistant at the clinic. It also offers an option to discreetly get care for mental health or sexual health, she said.

Sometimes, students can avoid an emergency room visit by coming to the clinic for medication when their asthma is acting up, Fagundes said. If they need X-rays for an injury, they still have to go to another facility, but can avoid being billed if the order comes from a school clinic, she said.

“Most of their primary care needs can be met here,” she said.

Kristin Waters, the school’s principal, said she was “adamant” that it needed an on-site clinic. She previously worked at Bruce Randolph School, a combined middle- and high-school building with a health center.

“For a school like George to not have one was a shock,” she said.

DPS officials and representatives for Denver Health were open to the idea, and they scheduled a first meeting for late March 2020. Like just about all plans for that time, it had to be put off due to the pandemic, and the process didn’t start again for about five months. Then they had to wait to see if voters approved the district’s plan to issue bonds that November, so George Washington High would have funds to put toward converting old office space, Waters said. Then DPS wanted to include the clinic with its second round of bond projects, which would have pushed it back another year.

Finally, everything was ready to go, and they started tearing down walls in September. Four months was an ambitious timeline for a construction project, Waters said, but she was adamant that they needed to open the clinic by January, since that was what they’d promised the students.

“There was some pushing on my part,” Waters said. “(Contractors would say), ‘This could delay it.’ Nope, it’s not going to delay it.”

Fundraising to furnish the clinic also went unusually fast after the three classes from the 1960s got into a friendly competition. Barb Lane Volpe, a 1963 graduate who helped lead the fundraising, said it wasn’t difficult to get alumni interested in donating, which showed other donors the project was viable.

“The last time I was here, we were partying at the reunion and we had a few extra dollars and tried to buy a brick,” she said, referring to the sponsored walkway outside the building. “But this is something substantive.”

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