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School nurses strive to keep district's learners healthy

nursesweb.jpgVocabulary from Martha Chang's former career pops up when she talks about the demands of working as Eaglecrest High's school nurse.

"In this setting, it's one part drill sergeant, one part den mom," said Chang, who came to Eaglecrest High School five years ago after spending eight years as a nurse practitioner in the U.S. Army. "I just really like the teenage population. In some ways, they're almost grown-ups, so you get to use humor and other strategies. But then at the end of the day, a lot of times what they need is TLC."

On a typical work day, Chang and the rest of the nursing crew at Eaglecrest have to deal with a wide range of issues, from bloody noses to asthma to severe allergies. Serving the health needs of a high school campus with more than 2,500 students is a complex and demanding job; Chang's duties include working with the school's special needs population, caring for students with severe needs and serving as a liaison between her patients and their teachers. It's a complex continuum of care, one that carries its own challenges and rewards.

"Students and parents can talk to me easily about anything medical. The teachers may not have that background," Chang said. "I can take the information, translate it and get it back out to the teachers so there's a continuity of care and we ensure that students are in class and available for learning."

"This is the first generation of children that has a shorter life projection than their parents; the current projection is that they'll live five years less than their parents' generation ... What we have told our nurses is that we're going to give our kids those five years back, and we're going to give them five more."

-- Suzanne Oro, director of health services for the Cherry Creek School District

She's not the only one playing this critical role in the Cherry Creek School District, the only large school district in the state to employ a registered nurse in every one of its buildings. Across Cherry Creek's 108 square miles, dozens of medical professionals are dedicated to the health and well-being of more than 54,000 students. Each school poses its own unique challenges; every student population carries its own specific stories and needs.

That's why having a nurse in every building is so important. According to Suzanne Oro, director of health services for the district, the staffing policy plays a key role in students' ability to learn.

"The Cherry Creek School District has made a valuable commitment to the health of the population by providing a school nurse in every building," Oro said. "This is not mandated; this comes from the leadership of the district and their acknowledgement of the connection between health and academic success."

The premise is simple: a healthy student is more apt to attend classes and be focused on learning. But Oro has plenty of details when it comes to the link between physical and mental health. A student with diabetes, for example, is more likely to have a normal blood reading (known as an A1C) when there's a full-time nurse in a school building. When there's a school nurse in the building, immunization compliance rates go up – buildings across the district boast a compliance rate above 90 percent.

It all results in more students in the classroom, and it aligns with Oro's larger and more ambitious mission.

"This is the first generation of children that has a shorter life projection than their parents; the current projection is that they'll live five years less than their parents' generation," Oro said, citing research detailed through the website "What we have told our nurses is that we're going to give our kids those five years back, and we're going to give them five more."

That takes a personal level of care at every school building and at every grade level. It also takes a committed and well-trained corps of nurses. Orr is quick to point out that the district now employs more nurses with master's-level education than ever before, but she also stresses the importance of hiring dedicated people with a clear commitment to the profession.

Amanda Stenkamp fits those requirements. The current school nurse at Fox Ridge Middle School, Stenkamp came to the profession after stints as a triage nurse, a pediatric nurse and an orthopedic specialist. She's in her first year at Fox Ridge, and she feels as if she's found her permanent home.

"I love working with kids. That aspect was appealing to me and the teaching aspect is huge for me. I want to make an impact on a young person health-wise," Stenkamp said. "Healthy kids learn better, and at the end of the day, that's my goal, to keep them here learning and teaching them ways to stay healthy," she said, adding that serving the kids from her own neighborhood is also a big part of the job's appeal. "School nurses don't just do band-aids."

Like Stenkamp, Chang serves young patients from her own neighborhood as Eaglecrest's school nurse. The post has allowed her to become an active and important part of the community, she said, just as it has let her play an important role for her own two sons, both of whom are currently enrolled at the high school.

"This is my community. Not only do my kids go here, but this is my neighborhood school. I've lived here for 18 years; a lot of these kids I've known since they were in preschool. It's nice to have that connection to the community," Chang said. "I've told my family that I've never had a job where I've felt more satisfied."


Posted 10/20/2014 2:40 PM
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