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City Heights Breaks Ground On School-Based Health Centers

Parents sign up to make Central Elementary their health home.
City Heights Life
Parents sign up to make Central Elementary their health home.

Central Elementary is like a lot of campuses in the San Diego Unified School District. It is staffed with a caring principal and caring teachers. The folks in the office know all of the kids by name. And lunchtime is filled with a mixture of conversation punctuated by shrieks of laughter.

But one thing that sets the campus apart from most others in the country is the Central Elementary School Based Health and Wellness Center, a full-service medical clinic staffed by doctors and nurses that treats students and their siblings before, during and after classes – and during vacations. They also treat the uninsured at no cost.

A doctor’s office at a school?


“Our mission is to create the conditions where our children become actively literate, contributing, participating members of a democratic society who make a difference in the world,” said Principal Cindy Marten. “You can only do that if your children are healthy.”

According to the federal Health Resources and Services Administration, school-based health centers care for people with “acute illnesses, such as flu, and chronic conditions, including asthma and diabetes. They can also be screened for dental, vision and hearing problems. With an emphasis on prevention, early intervention and risk reduction, school-based health centers counsel students on healthy habits and how to prevent injury, violence and other threats.”

In addition to Central, health and wellness centers have recently expanded at Rosa Parks Elementary and Monroe Clark Middle following Central’s model of including La Maestra Family Clinic and San Diego Family Care to provide care for 40 hours per week, even when school is not in session.

Speak City Heights is a media collaborative aimed at amplifying the voices of residents in one of San Diego’s most diverse neighborhoods. (Read more)

Combined, the health and wellness centers are serving thousands of residents. That’s because the campus health centers serve not only families from their schools, but also students and families from several nearby schools. The Central Elementary clinic, for example, serves children and families from Franklin, Edison, Cherokee Point, Normal Heights and Adams elementary schools and Wilson Middle School.

A fourth school based health and wellness center is located at Hoover High School, but is geared to serve only the student population.


The centers are the result of a partnership effort involving the San Diego Unified School District, the City Heights Partnership for Children, La Maestra, the Mid-City Community Clinic, Price Charities, County Health and Human Services, San Diego State University, and others.

Advocates of the centers say it makes sense to have them on campus because schools offer a safe haven in neighborhoods that can be challenging.

“Schools are built on trust, security and a sense of family,” Dr. Dorothy Zirkle, director of health services for Price Charities said.

Further, if a student has to see a doctor or nurse, he or she can simply walk over to the school-based center instead of missing class to visit a doctor’s office (students at schools without an onsite health and wellness center have to travel a few blocks to get to their designated center). Care is immediate. And residents without health insurance no longer have to take their children to a hospital emergency room for minor ailments, leaving doctors at emergency rooms caring for patients with true emergencies.

“It is truly an amazing program,” said Central Elementary School nurse Gail McLaurin.

In the 2011-12 school year, the Central Elementary health center recorded 7,300 visits, the Monroe Clark center recorded 7,201 visits, and the Rosa Parks center recorded 5,100 visits. The centers treated everything from attention deficit disorder to minor injuries and stomach aches.

The clinic at Central was the first health and wellness center to open on a campus in San Diego County when it began treating patients on Dec. 10, 2010 in what used to be a professional development room for teachers. Price Charities donated $500,000, and La Maestra and San Diego Family Care donated $215,000 each in the first year. The clinic includes a lobby and three exam rooms and is staffed by a nurse practitioner or doctor, a part-time psychiatrist, a part-time psychologist and a part-time dietician. The campus also has a separate school nurse’s office.

“I think it’s a blessing that Central Elementary provides a health center for children without health care,” wrote one in a recent survey asking for feedback on the services. “I pray they continue to do good work. Thank you for helping children in our community stay healthy.”

Said a mother with three children enrolled at Central:

“I have three children that attend Central Elementary and all are seen at the Central Health and Wellness Center. I feel that my children do not miss school since the school based clinic opened. Having my children called out from class for their appointments is easier for the whole family. Before, I would have to take my children out of class and walk them to the clinic and wait for their appointments, then walk them back to school. Today my children do not miss class and I do not miss work.”