Fatimah Cooke

This fall, one school on the West Side will become a community hub equipped with a wide range of health care and educational services to help bridge health disparities across the city.

The forthcoming community hub was born from the six-hospital collaborative named West Side United after residents said they wanted the organization’s public health strategies to also engage the school system.

The school-based approach was developed by a working group of teachers, parents and community members over the past year.

The community hub will follow a “Cluster of Care” model that will bring resources and programs from the partner hospitals to be co-located at the school that is selected. A decision on which school will host the initiative is expected in March.

“Every time youth is at the table, they told us transportation is a huge issue. So we figured it would be best to bring this to the community versus having the community come us,” said Karen Aguierre, a program manager helping to create the community hub.

Five key programmatic supports will be offered the school that hosts the hub: primary care, mental health services, social-emotional learning support, trauma-informed professional development training for teachers and early healthcare career exposure.

West Side United will also provide the school that will host the hub with funding to hire an on-site social worker, as well as a full-time resilience manager who will work with the school and the hospital to implement the programs.

For primary care, partner hospitals will bring mobile care centers and health vans to deliver medical services to make sure students have access to a primary care provider that can make sure they have their shots and stay healthy enough to be their best at school. This type of care will help mediate the nursing shortage in Chicago Public Schools that leaves some students with access to a nurse just one day a week.

“Sometimes parents don’t even have a primary care person,” said Sumner Math & Science Community Academy Principal Fatimah Cooke.

Cooke’s administrative team applied for the community hub in hopes it will reduce the barriers for parents and students to access preventative care.

At Sumner, 4320 W. 5th Ave., students have some access to counseling already through a partnership with the Juvenile Protective Association. But Cooke wants her kids to have expanded services that would help parents and students to better identify and manage traumas that are often rendered invisible and difficult to recognize. The community hub’s mental health program would bring on-site individual and group therapy to students to help them learn to handle those challenges.

“I think a lot of times we overlook mental health in our communities,” Cooke said.

CPS already implements a limited degree of social-emotional learning into the curriculum, designed to help young people to better understand and express their wants and needs in the classroom and at home. The community hub programming would be responsive to the specific needs of the school’s social-emotional learning plan to offer additional support for students tailored to their unique circumstances.

 “We wanted to avoid a cookie-cutter approach where a hospital would assume what a school needs,” Aguirre said. 

For Sumner, the social-emotional learning curriculum includes mindfulness techniques for developing mental focus, emotional wellbeing and self-awareness. But despite that baseline programming, “You’ll always have a pocket of students who are not responsive to that,” Cooke said, and so the support from West Side United would be directed towards the unique social situations that students must navigate that demand more attention.

Trauma-informed development support would be a lecture-based program directed at educators to help teachers to manage trauma effectively in the classroom setting. Cooke said it is critical for teachers to “understand what trauma is, understand what behaviors present themselves in the classroom.”

The last program would show students what careers in health care might look like for them, with jobs in fields like robotics, clinical care and supply management. According to Aguirre, students will learn from experts in the field and participate in internships and apprenticeships at the partner hospitals.

“We’re trying to build a comprehensive pathway for them,” she said.

“Kids start to see themselves in the world at a very young age … a much younger age than high school,” Cooke added. Having additional career programming in grade school will give students the perspective on “why reading math, science and social studies matter and where those subject areas live in the real world,” Cooke said.

West Side United hopes to select a school for the community hub in March, and from there the hospitals will work with that school for six months to fully develop the programming so that it is ready to launch in the fall. The community hub will be a two-year pilot that will give priority to students at the school, but Aguirre said as the hub becomes more established after the first few months of the pilot, they want the resources to also be available to student’s families, and eventually to the surrounding community.

Since a neighborhood school is already an anchor for a community, Cooke said distributing these types of programs and services from the school will greatly reduce barriers for families in the area since the school already has deep relationships and trust with parents and residents in the surrounding area.

“I think that this opportunity kind of allows it to be a one-stop-shop. … A lot of the opportunities that parents may miss out on, it is probably because of the lack of relationship they have with that organization,” Cooke said.

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