Adopt a School Program Promotes Health and Wellness for El Paso Youth

Health care is improving for some El Paso children thanks to a pilot “Adopt a School” program that pairs physicians from the El Paso Pediatric Society with two schools in the Lower Valley neighborhood.

Under the program, a number of pediatricians in the El Paso Pediatric Society are volunteering their time, making weekly visits to Ysleta Elementary School and Capistrano Elementary School in the Ysleta Independent School District (YISD).

Coordinating with the schools’ nurses, the physicians provide a number of basic medical services for their students, many of whom have no health care insurance. The services include health screenings, sports physicals, immunizations, and health and nutrition education for the students and their families.

Gilbert Handal, M.D., a professor in the Department of Pediatrics at Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center El Paso, is leading a pilot “Adopt a School” program, in coordination with the Ysleta Independent School District and the El Paso Pediatric Society. On the left is Ysleta Elementary School Nurse Marielle Perez; on the right is Griselda Ibarra, a registered nurse with the Adopt a School program.

Gilbert Handal, M.D., a professor in the Department of Pediatrics at Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center El Paso, is leading a pilot “Adopt a School” program, in coordination with the Ysleta Independent School District and the El Paso Pediatric Society. On the left is Ysleta Elementary School Nurse Marielle Perez; on the right is Griselda Ibarra, a registered nurse with the Adopt a School program.

The program is led by Gilbert Handal, M.D., a professor in the Department of Pediatrics at Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center El Paso (TTUHSC El Paso).

Dr. Handal, who currently serves on the El Paso Pediatric Society’s board of directors as a member-at-large, said the idea for Adopt a School goes back several years, when he was president of the society. He wanted to know whether improved access to health care in schools would lead to measurable improvements in students’ attendance and academic performance. The Adopt a School program would offer a means to collect and analyze measureable data to better understand the relationship between access to health care and performance in school.

Now it was a matter of putting the pieces into place. Thanks to the relationships he had built with fellow members of the El Paso Pediatric Society, he had a group of pediatricians from the community willing to help out. Next came interest from the YISD, which identified the two schools for a pilot Adopt a School program.

For data collection and analysis, Dr. Handal tapped the assistance of faculty and others from the TTUHSC El Paso Department of Pediatrics.

The final piece of the puzzle was funding. A grant from the American Academy of Pediatrics Community Access to Child Health (CATCH) supported the project’s planning phase. For implementation, Dr. Handal’s team was able to secure a $25,000, two-year grant from the TMF Health Quality Institute. The program officially launched in November 2017.

“We’re excited about the opportunity to improve access to health care for the residents of this community,” Dr. Handal said. “The Ysleta district helped us identify schools with a real need for this type of program, and we are very fortunate to have the participation of members of the El Paso Pediatric Society.”

Families receive health care services and health education at no cost, Dr. Handal said. Additionally, members of the Adopt a School team assist parents with enrolling their children in available health insurance programs.

El Paso pediatric specialists Eduardo Covarrubias, M.D., Hassan Salloum, M.D., Amado Ramirez, Jr., M.D., Patricia Azarcon-Samone, M.D., Jagdish Patel, M.D., and Jignesh Patel, M.D., volunteer their time, providing weekly visits to the schools. They examine students, who are often accompanied by their parents, in the school nurses’ offices. They also regularly step into classrooms to provide 15-minute health education lessons for students and their parents.

Aidee Mendoza said the program has been a great benefit for her daughter, a second-grader at Ysleta Elementary. She said the Adopt a School pediatricians helped identify tonsillitis as the culprit behind a recurring sore throat that had been affecting her daughter’s performance at school.

Dr. Handal reached out to El Paso otolaryngology (ear, nose and throat) specialist Kevin Bright, M.D., regarding Mendoza’s daughter’s case. Dr. Bright agreed to perform a tonsillectomy at a significantly reduced cost to help ease the family’s financial burden.

After surgery to remove the tonsils, Mendoza said her daughter is “sleeping much better, and she’s much more relaxed and is concentrating better at school.”

Adopt a School has a research component, and Mendoza’s experience is the type of outcome that will help measure the effectiveness of program, Handal explained.

“We are tracking the number of students served by the program, and we will track the students’ attendance and academic performance to see if it improves over time,” Dr. Handal said.

The data will also allow Dr. Handal’s team to measure the cost-effectiveness of the program over its two-year funding period.

As a researcher, Dr. Handal keeps an open mind about the impact the Adopt a School model of health care intervention may have on the community. What’s important, he said, is that it offers the opportunity to collect measurable data to objectively evaluate the program.

“Even though we may be able to help many individuals as a public health intervention, it still may not be the right approach,” Dr. Handal said. “We do not know yet the final outcome and its effectiveness or cost-effectiveness. But that is what the intervention is about—developing new models of access to care.”