Monday, August 18, 2014

School-Based Family Service Centers in the Philadelphia Public Schools

I'm not normally in the habit of posting one blog right after another but in this case I wanted to share an experience I had a Philadelphia City Hall late last week.  

I was invited to testify on behalf of Salus in support of the development of School-Based Family Service Centers in the Philadelphia Public Schools. These centers would function as neighborhood-based community hubs for the delivery of key social and health services to children and their families to include vision screenings, mental health support, primary health care, counseling services and other related functions .

My goal was to provide supportive testimony as to why establishing these family service centers will be valuable to both school age children of Philadelphia and to the City writ large.  We did a great deal of work developing our testimony based on the 40+ year experience we've had in providing vision care services to the Philadelphia Public Schools and others.  

I began my testimony by explaining how our experience has taught us that advancing health equity for children and families in urban settings is a challenging task.  I discussed how the economic downturn of 2008 and the years that followed exacerbated the health disparities that already existed in the city.  Even in a time of economic recovery, record numbers of families - disproportionately people of color - have been pushed into poverty or near-poverty, creating an increased risk for poor health.  We've also witnessed how many of the “safety net” programs that have provided basic health and economic security are no longer viable options for families.  Despite the many challenges associated with an uncertain economic environment and the challenging socio-economic realities of many families, we pointed out that there are opportunities for public and private collaborations that can positively affect health disparities and that we believed School Based Family Services Centers represent a unique solution to addressing the health care needs of children and families, as well as the many other socio-economic challenges that impact academic and economic success.

I went on to discuss how 80 percent of what school-age children learn is through their visual system and how undiagnosed and treated visual anomalies  could adversely affect academic achievement well into a child's future. In support of this, I quoted the Public Citizens for Children and Youth (PCCY), 2008 white paper, “A Problem We Don’t See: The Status of Children’s Vision Health in Philadelphia” that concluded there are 35,000 - 40,000 moderate-to-low income children in Philadelphia with vision problems that, if left undiagnosed and untreated, will compromise performance in school and the fact that over 13,000 children who failed the state-mandated vision screening never received comprehensive eye care.

While those in attendance appeared to agree with our observations, what was startling to me was more than half of the City Council Committee on Education had left the room prior to my testimony and the testimony of others.  It made me wonder about how the local process worked and what impact we and others asked to testify, (Penn, CHOP, etc.) were having on the discussion.   

That notwithstanding, I felt that being invited to the table to have the discussion marks a first for us at Salus and that supporting these School-Based Family Service Centers is absolutely the right thing to do.  Hopefully, these will be approved and we'll be integrally involved in the set-up and execution of these school/community based health and wellness centers. 

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