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It's all about prevention: Renovated student health center opens at Portland High School

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It's all about prevention: Renovated student health center opens at Portland High School

PORTLAND — With its low ceilings, peeling paint and dim lighting, the school-based health center at Portland High School was showing its age.

No more.

The school's new $225,000 health center opened last month across the hall in a bright and modern 1,500 square-foot space, three times the size of the old clinic.

"Now we have a space that really honors the work we're doing," said Samantha Piro, school-based health centers program coordinator for the city's Public Health Division.

The Amanda Rowe Health Center was scheduled to have its ribbon cutting Tuesday afternoon with appearances by health-care professionals and state and local elected officials, including Mayor Michael Brennan.

The first-floor facility was named for the late Portland Public Schools nurse coordinator and wife of former Maine Attorney General Steve Rowe. She died last year of breast cancer at age 58.

The new center was funded by a federal capital improvement grant from the Health Resources and Services Administration that was made available through the Affordable Care Act. Construction began in spring 2013.

The Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention and the Fund for a Healthy Maine – created in 1999 to receive and disburse tobacco settlement dollars – cover most of the day-to-day costs of running the clinic, said Lori Gramlich, family health program manager for Portland's Public Health Division, which operates the clinic.

The center features two examination rooms, a space for mental health services, a waiting room, new flooring, freshly painted walls, restrooms, and two dental chairs, which were donated by the University of New England.

"The kids are all really excited about the space," Piro said. "It feels much more like a real doctor's office."

The clinic, which is open Monday through Friday from about 8-11:30 a.m., serves all enrolled students – regardless of whether they have insurance – and offers a wide range of services, from providing sports physicals and immunizations, to managing long-term chronic care and distributing contraceptives. Uninsured students receive free treatment.

"Equal access to comprehensive health care for children and teens regardless of their ability to pay significantly improves their quality of life as individuals and their ability to perform academically," Brennan said in a prepared statement. "These improvements to our Portland High School clinic are a worthwhile and much needed investment in our next generation."

The center, which has a history at PHS dating back to 1995, is staffed by a rotating cast of health-care professionals, including pediatricians from Maine Medical Center who donate their time. The clinic subcontracts with the Community Counseling Center and has a longstanding relationship with Day One, a local organization that provides substance abuse treatment for teens. Dental hygienists come once a week to do cleanings and sealants.

Students can make their own appointments at the health center or visit the nurse's office, located more centrally on the building's second floor, where the nurse can refer them to the clinic. The school's social workers may also direct students with behavioral issues to the clinic.

Part of the appeal of school-based health centers is that they can prevent students from missing school – and parents from missing work – for doctor's visits.

"It keeps them in their seats," Gramlich said.

The Public Health Division also operates school-based health centers at Deering High School, Casco Bay High School and King Middle School.

Right now, only about half of PHS students have received parental consent to use the health center's resources, Piro said. She hoped Tuesday's event would raise awareness and increase participation.

Looking ahead, the Public Health Division, which is housed under the Health and Human Services Department, would like to someday add a part-time dentist to the staff, Gramlich said, and to open health centers in more of the city's schools, including Lincoln and Lyman Moore middle schools.

Right now, however, they're happy to be in new new space at PHS, working to get kids healthy, and cut off health problems and bad habits before they begin.

"Public health is really about prevention," Gramlich said, "and that's what this clinic is all about."

Brendan Twist can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 123 or btwist@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @brendantwist.