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The Fort Smith School Board receives funding to establish a permanent school-based health facility



Fort Smith, Arkansas – The present grant funding for the clinic that is now run by the district expires in 2026, thus the School Board has opted to use some of the covid funds to construct a permanent school-based health center.

As one of the district’s Vision 2023 objectives to expand access to healthcare for students, their families, and employees, the center opened in 2021. Between Darby Middle School and Tilles Elementary School, at 1420 N. H St., is a freestanding, modular structure.

The Arkansas Division of Elementary and Secondary Education awarded a $542,000 grant to the facility, which is a collaboration between Mercy Hospital and The Guidance Center.

At the board meeting on Monday, the project’s usage of around $1.2 million in American Rescue Plan Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief funds was approved, according to Joseph Velasquez, the district’s construction project manager. According to him, the funds were originally intended to expand Ramsey Middle School by four classrooms, but due to the cost of building them and the size of the student body, the project was scaled back to just two.

According to Velasquez, the school has 830 pupils, with 935 expected to enroll in the 2028–2029 academic year, which is the greatest number anticipated during the following ten years.

Four classrooms were previously taken into consideration, according to Shawn Shaffer, executive director of building management for the district, because Ramsey was home to the two grades with the highest enrollment at the time. The ninth and tenth high schools, according to him, are currently the two biggest, and both were only recently expanded as part of the Vision 2023 strategy.

Matt Blaylock of the School Board questioned the district’s future intentions for the temporary structure that houses the health center right now.

As the district gets ready for projects next summer, Shaffer predicted that it will likely be temporarily stored before being used as a swing zone.

“I just want to say I think this is a good use of our resources, by allocating federal funds that have to be used within a certain time period for a project that we all agree is very worthwhile, so I think we’re doing a very good job here,” board member Dalton Person said.

At the October School Board meeting, Kerri Tucker, the coordinator of the school-based health center, provided a summary of the clinic’s previous year of operation. She clarified that although the facility is available to any district student, employee, and family member residing in their house, it is not accessible to the entire community.

“By integrating into the educational environment, the School-Based Health Center contributes directly to the school’s mission and delivers outcomes that matter to the educators,” Tucker said. “We’re able to help with reduction of absences, improve academic performance and decrease discipline problems.”

Regular physicals, including sports physicals, as well as the diagnosis and treatment of acute and chronic illnesses as well as minor injuries are all provided by the school-based health center.

The location of the clinic, according to Tucker, was picked because it would be difficult for many Darby and Tilles students to access healthcare because they came from low-income homes or are English language learners. She said that during its first year of operation, the center served 1,198 individuals from 25 of the district’s 26 buildings.

Mercy’s Scott Savage, an advanced practice registered nurse, told the board that the center has given him the opportunity to help the community and forge connections with the patients. He claimed that by giving those who might not otherwise have access to healthcare access, the clinic has allowed him to assist in the treatment of life-threatening conditions including diabetes and kidney disease.

“I have to be able to motivate patients to be part of their health care,” Savage said. “For somebody that was middle-aged that didn’t want any part of taking care of themselves, to get them motivated is something I really take pride in.”

A counselor at The Guidance Center named Rebecca Henson said working there has given her the opportunity to engage with Mercy and the district to deliver mental health services.

“The goal is always to provide support, help deescalate situations and link them to the appropriate services,” Henson said. “We’ve been able to help with students who might not want to have services at the school because they’re intimidated or mental health services are taboo, so they’ll come into the health clinic and meet us there. And the families, I guess they’re less intimidated. Maybe they’re frustrated with the school staff, and they don’t feel heard. They can come in there and feel like they have a voice and have some support.”

After the grant expires, according to deputy superintendent Marty Mahan, the district will be responsible for funding staffing and facility upkeep. According to him, the district would need to construct a building twice as large as the 3,360-square-foot current facility, and the proposed site would stay between Darby and Tilles.