By Zoe Fenson, KIPP Foundation Writer
As a pediatrician, Dr. Kate Connor has spent her career addressing health challenges in low-income communities like West Baltimore. Now, through a groundbreaking partnership among KIPP Baltimore, Johns Hopkins University, and the Norman and Ruth Rales Foundation, Dr. Connor is helping bring healthcare to families in an innovative way.
At the Rales Health Center, a full-service medical clinic located inside KIPP Baltimore’s campus, students can see Dr. Connor, get their prescriptions, and take care of routine medical needs—all without leaving the school building. We sat down with Dr. Connor to learn more about the Rales Health Center, why she’s excited about the partnership, and her number one health tip for parents.
Why do you think having a resource like the Rales Health Center on a school campus is important?
Health and education are inextricably linked. We know that less-than-ideal health over years puts kids at risk for chronic absenteeism, or makes it hard for them to pay attention in class. For kids growing up in low-income communities, climbing the mountain through college as KIPP says, they need that support.
The really innovative part of our program is what we’re doing beyond the walls of the health center itself. Our wellness, parent engagement, and mental health teams are helping to weave wellness education into the curriculum and to support teacher and parent health. Our implementation and evaluation team is tracking our outcomes to make sure what we’re doing is working. We really want to keep all of KIPP Baltimore healthy, not just the KIPPsters who walk through our health center doors.
Walk us through a typical day at the Rales Health Center. What’s your routine?
I’m at the center three or four days a week. We also have a medical assistant, two school nurses, and a pediatric nurse practitioner. If you walk into the center, it’s a cheerful, welcoming environment. There are kids joking around with the nurse as they get their medication, kids resting quietly for a few minutes before going back to class. In a typical waiting room, you’d have kids sitting quietly with parents, waiting their turn, but here we also have a lot of fun!
Each school in Maryland is recommended to have a school nurse, but he or she may float between different schools. Many schools do not have a nurse available throughout the whole day. We are very fortunate to have two nurses, who in addition to providing traditional services—filling prescriptions, first aid, education—are really linked in with the nurse practitioner and me to provide a wider spectrum of care on-site.
A typical day is that there’s no typical day. We see about 70 students per day, with everything from headaches or tummy aches, to injuries, to depression or anxiety. Our two school nurses can take care of the majority of these students. The nurse practitioner and I will see 10 or so students per day for more severe illnesses or injuries, or for managing chronic issues like asthma. We also do mental and behavioral health support, as well as health education for parents.
What is it like working inside the KIPP Baltimore building?
First off, KIPP Baltimore is a force to be reckoned with. There’s so much energy, people are so focused on supporting kids. That’s incredibly inspiring to me.
Being where the kids are is really fortifying. It’s so important for pediatricians to get to know students and families, and that’s hard to do when you’re not physically there with them. It’s great to get to know kids when they’re not feeling sick, when they don’t have an appointment, but just on a typical day: waving to them in the parking lot or greeting them in the halls.
It’s also great to bring together health and education. Without compromising patient privacy and confidentiality, I can get permission from parents to speak with a child’s teacher, and then just go down the hall and talk to them. You can’t do that in private practice.
Are there lessons that could be drawn from this partnership for other schools and institutions in Baltimore or around the country?
I think this partnership is extremely powerful. Collaboration between schools like KIPP, educational institutions like Johns Hopkins, and philanthropic organizations like the Rales Foundation can really help break down the barriers between healthcare and education.
Asthma is a good case study for this. Parents often can’t afford medication, or can’t get to the doctor’s office, or have no choice but to live in housing with lots of asthma triggers. In the traditional health services model, we see kids for a short time, and we have limited contact with the people in the schools who care for students when their asthma flares up.
Through a partnership like this, we can assess the severity of a kid’s asthma and then partner with parents, teachers, and their primary pediatric clinician to manage it. If a parent can’t administer a student’s medication before they leave for work, we can do that at school. Sometimes a student has an attack that requires more than their regular inhaler; instead of sending them to the emergency room, we can treat them right here and get them back to class. It’s an example of addressing a major public health problem for our students, because we can help bridge those gaps.
What’s your number one piece of advice for parents who want to keep their kids healthy?
Pay attention to the things that keep your kids happy and feeling good: getting the right nutrition, daily exercise, enough sleep. Make those a priority. It can be hard for all of us—parents, teachers, and clinicians—to do that in the midst of busy life. It’s all about prevention, giving kids a strong foundation so they don’t get sick in the first place.
Another big part of prevention is taking your kids to the doctor on a regular basis. Make sure kids get their routine check-ups, screenings, and immunizations. Parents sometimes think that when their kids are well or don’t have symptoms, they don’t need to go to the doctor. But a pediatrician can do much more than just provide care for illnesses—we can monitor your child’s growth and keep tabs on their health over time.