Watkins Mill and Gaithersburg high schools are taking a new approach to students’ mental and physical health with help from Montgomery County.
This school year, the Gaithersburg schools are opening their own School-Based Wellness Centers to give students medical care and counseling on-site. Watkins Mill High School’s wellness center opened on the first day of schoolMonday, but Gaithersburg High School’s center will open in September.
The wellness centers offer services for free, but students must enroll in the services and submit health information to be eligible.
A wellness center’s services include physicals for the school’s athletics programs, sight and hearing screenings, lab and diagnostic tests, group therapy and one-on-one counseling. The wellness center services are separate from the typical health room found in public schools around the county.
Watkins Mill High School Principal Scott Murphy said the county’s Department of Health and Human Services hires staff and operates the center. By the time the center is fully staffed in September, those employed will include a medical doctor, registered nurse, social worker, clinical counselor and youth counselor.
In addition to mental and physical health services, the wellness center at Watkins Mill may also offer students youth development programs in leadership and community service.
“There will be something in it for each and every student,” Murphy said.
The wellness centers have been years in the making, The Gazette previously reported. A feasibility study was conducted in 2009 for Watkins Mill’s center. The county paid about $1.7 million for the renovation necessary for a new wellness center at Watkins Mill High School, while a wellness center was built into the new building for Gaithersburg High School, according to county spokesperson Mary Anderson. Wellness center staff are on the county payroll, she said.
A similar wellness center has been open at Northwood High School in Silver Spring since 2008. Northwood site coordinator Mirna Mendoza said the center served about 30 percent of the school population, or 430 students, in fiscal year 2013.
“We’ve seen it as a very positive contribution to the school,” Mendoza said.
The Northwood wellness center offers after-school programs intended to help female students with self-image, newly immigrated students with assimilation and male students with goals for the future.
Joan Glick, senior administrator for school health services at Montgomery County’s Department of Health and Human Services, said the wellness center at Northwood High School has helped more students return to class, instead of going home, after a health room visit. If a student has a severe headache or a rash, wellness center staff can administer medication instead of sending them home.
“When you look at similar needy schools without a high school wellness center ... more kids go back to class at Northwood,” Glick said.
The schools were chosen based on multiple indicators, including the number of students registered for free and reduced price meals, students learning English as a second language, asthma incidences, tuberculosis incidences, suspension rates and others.
“We looked at all of the schools and rated them accordingly,” Glick said.
Families of students enrolled may be included in family counseling meetings, but the services are mainly intended for students. Northwood’s wellness center is open on weekdays from 7:30 a.m. to 6 p.m.
This year, Gaithersburg High School and Watkins Mill High School join nine Montgomery County elementary schools and Northwood High School in the health facility program.