Children’s hospitals and health systems are known for the excellent care and support they offer every child who enters their doors. But their work within the hospital is only one aspect of their contribution to children’s health and well-being.
Housing and nutrition services, financial support, philanthropy, and investments in local economies are just a few of the ways children’s hospitals and health systems serve as anchors of their communities. One area of focus has been supporting kids in their most formative environment: the school.
“We know education is a strong indicator of life longevity and good outcomes, so it’s essential for us to be at the table with schools,” says Julia DeAngelo, program manager of school strategies at Children’s National Hospital in Washington, D.C. “There are so many opportunities and touch points for children’s hospitals to work with schools and foster the clinical and social outcomes for children and families.”
Read next: 10 Effective Ways to Engage With Schools
Recognizing the connection between health and education, a collaboration of seven children’s hospitals and one federally qualified health center led by Children’s National developed a framework to guide health systems’ partnerships with schools. Although children’s hospitals already work with schools in a variety of ways, the School-Friendly Health Systems (SFHS) framework aims to help them integrate efforts internally, guide strategic decisions, and ensure a cohesive approach.
“We were doing tons of great work at Children’s National, but we recognized limitations in our collaboration and coordination within the organization,” says Desiree de la Torre, executive director of community and government affairs. “That led to us asking how to organize how we think about our engagement with schools from a hospital and health system perspective. This is a way for us to be intentional about it and enable the right resources and partnerships to make that happen.”
The framework also helps hospitals ensure they’re fully aligned with their school partners and approaching initiatives from a shared perspective. “We want to make sure we’re being responsive to the strategic priorities and needs of the education systems. It’s really about the collective impact of the health and education sectors,” DeAngelo says.
Many hospitals’ school programs naturally focus on health-related services, but SFHS nudges organizations toward supporting students’ academic success, too, such as discussing school topics during routine care, tracking absenteeism through shared databases, or facilitating schoolwork during long hospitals stays.
The SFHS framework is grounded in five key principles, each accompanied by practices to put the principles into action across three levels: provider, program, and organization.
- Provider. Any staff within a health system, including clinical, administrative, programmatic, liaisons, and other support staff.
- Program. Any service or program run by a health system, such as school-based health centers, adolescent health education programs, and healthy eating programs.
- Organization or system. Activities or priorities set by a health system, usually by leadership, including strategic planning and policy setting.
Although there are a variety of ways for hospitals to implement these principles, the key to success is the same for them all. “Trust is critical to all of this work,” de la Torre says. “Building the relationships with the schools and the families is fundamental.”
5 principles of a school friendly health system
Become familiar with, and responsive to, the culture, policies, and needs of the school systems and students they serve.
School-friendly health providers bring discussions of school into the clinic and make it a routine part of patient care. “It’s not ‘how is your health today?’ It’s ‘how are you doing in school? Where do you need more support at home?’” de la Torre says.
Providers also understand health-related school requirements like health forms, individualized education programs (IEP), and 504 plans. Programs reflect the diversity of the schools they serve. Organizations have a standardized way to record and disseminate school-related information to ensure awareness internally, such as through the electronic health record or school-specific dashboards.
Example program: Making Behavioral Health a Community Endeavor
Create a cohesive strategy for school partnerships that aligns with partners’ needs and goals.
“This is really about the collective impact of the education and health sectors,” DeAngelo says. “This principle was always embedded within the other principles, but there’s so much work that can be done and actionable steps to make it happen, it’s now a principle on its own.”
School-friendly providers respect and amplify the expertise of school-based professionals and the education system’s deep knowledge of its students and communities. Programs are not simply co-located but co-designed, serving the goals of both sectors. The organization coordinates all internal programs to ensure they collectively serve the SFHS goals and have sufficient resources, and it uses qualitative and quantitative data to measure and demonstrate the impact of its school partnerships.
Example program: Using School Attendance Data to Improve Health Outcomes
Be accessible to school partners and work with those partners to optimize students’ learning experiences.
School-friendly providers communicate with their school and community partners in ways that can be easily understood, avoiding jargon and acronyms. Programs are integrated seamlessly into the school day and in alignment with the school calendar to prevent disruption. They are also designed for all participants, considering language access, disability status, cultural congruency, literacy levels, and income levels. Organizations have a single, online point-of-entry, offer services outside school hours, and help children with extended inpatient time continue their education.
Set organizational goals that support children’s learning and create metrics and incentives that reinforce those priorities.
“We’re usually accountable for the health side, but this is a way to be intentional about how we set our organizational goals, program goals, and even provider relationships to help students achieve their best academic outcomes,” DeAngelo says.
School-friendly providers refer patients and families to resources that support their academic needs and goals, whether through a clinic, school system, or community. Programs have permanence, committing to ongoing sustainability planning, to ensure trust and buy-in from the schools. The organization adopts metrics that directly tie its performance to school-friendly goals, creates data-sharing mechanisms between school and health systems, and hires staff exclusively dedicated to the management and improvement of school-friendly programming and practices.
Example program: Sharing Data With School Nurses
Collaborate and share responsibility with families, understanding they are the most important conduits between health systems and schools.
“Family engagement is foundational,” de la Torre says. “How can we make a difference in the health and education of kids if we aren’t engaging their families?”
School-friendly providers involve families in investigating how children’s health may be affecting their experience in the classroom (and vice versa) and engage family members in interventions. Programs provide health and social services to children’s families in addition to the children. Organizations build trust and open communication with families and make their systems as easy as possible to navigate.
Example program: Empowering Educational Success at Home