School-based health centers help students thrive

Helping teens stay healthy, and stay on track to graduate from high school or earn their GED, is the goal of the school-based health center at Interagency Academy, an alternative high school with multiple sites around Seattle. Kaiser Permanente operates the clinic, along with 4 other school-based health centers in the area. They also provide mental health counselors at 3 other clinics in King County.

The health center plays a big part in the academic success of many of the students at Interagency by helping them stay physically and mentally healthy, according to Sarah Leet, the Kaiser Permanente physician assistant at the Interagency Academy health clinic. Many students haven’t had their health care needs met for years, and the health center allows them to get care in a place that feels safe and familiar — their school.

Students can receive primary care that includes treatment of illnesses or injuries, mental health counseling, reproductive health services, sports physicals, immunizations, lab services, and prescription medications.

More and more communities are working to bring student-focused health centers to schools, or near schools, especially in areas where kids may have barriers to getting health care. King County and community care partners started developing school-based health centers in the 1990s with funding from the City of Seattle Children and Family Levy.

Care at the clinic can be lifesaving

Leet remembers a young woman who came to the clinic complaining of irregular periods. After performing a physical and doing lab work, Leet discovered that the student had undiagnosed type 2 diabetes. Her blood sugar was dangerously high.

“With help from our nurse practitioner, we were able to educate the patient about her diagnosis, teach her how to use a glucometer and give herself insulin injections, and give her information on how nutrition and exercise can help her manage her condition.” Leet also talked to the patient’s family about how to support the young woman in caring for herself, and the importance of getting their own screenings for diabetes.

With this intervention, the student was able to cope with what can be an overwhelming diagnosis, stay healthy, and finish her coursework at Interagency. Now that she’s graduated, the next step is to help her transition to a provider in the community so she can stay on top of her health condition and continue to thrive as a young adult.

Supporting mental health is a top priority

Laura Levings, one of Kaiser Permanente’s two mental health counselors at Interagency Academy, draws on local treasures like West Seattle’s Camp Long to engage students in unexpected ways. A day on the ropes course is part of an experiential program where Levings uses physical activity in outdoor settings to help teens build confidence, trust, and resilience. The Camp Long outing is in collaboration with Seattle Parks and Recreation and Washington State University’s 4-H Adventure Education program.

“We all have a comfort zone,” Levings says. “It’s important to challenge yourself, take appropriate risks knowing that others ‘have your back.’ Once you do that, you get into the learning zone where you can really begin to grow.” During a recent outing, she asked her students, each hooked into a harness, to voice a challenge in their own lives before they crossed a cable the height of a telephone pole that stretched from platform to platform with a variety of obstacles.

Some students said they wanted to graduate from high school. Some talked about life challenges or career goals. Taking the first step off the towering platform was harder for some students than others, but with encouragement, and after watching other students complete the course, they all made it across. At the end of the day, Levings asked participants, “How are you going to take these tools and apply them to your own lives?”

Helping communities bring school-based care to more locations

In addition to Kaiser Permanente’s direct work with 8 school-based health centers, we support a full-time program manager at the Washington School-based Health Alliance, where the mission is to “advance and advocate for school-based health care to ensure the health and academic success of children and youth statewide.” The Health Alliance provides guidance and expertise for communities interested in bringing clinics into their schools, as well as provides leadership at the state policy level (

Kaiser Permanente Community Health is also currently accepting requests for proposals for up to 5 grants to support collaborative partnerships for the planning of school-based health centers in other areas of Washington state. Organizations have until September 27 to submit a completed proposal. Learn more at our Thriving Schools site.

Read more about the Thriving Schools programs

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