A pediatrician dressed in blush scrubs and a mask, and a health center representative in a blue blazer, pose in front of a brand-new clinic at a high school.
Dr. Aarti Vala and Jose Lopez from Mission Neighborhood Health Center pose in front of the new clinic at John O'Connell High School. Photo by Annika Hom, taken Sept. 14, 2023.

On a wet January evening, students from John O’Connell High School trekked to the San Francisco Board of Education meeting, pleading for help. The high school had entered its second semester without a school nurse, due to staff shortages, a situation that meant even a scrape or two threatened students’ ability to learn, students said. 

“We get injured, but instead of getting medical attention, we get sent home,” said Henry Cruz, then a junior at O’Connell, speaking from a podium in-person at the Jan. 10 meeting. “My family doesn’t have time to take me to get medical attention.”

“I have missed almost 10 days” of school, added another student, Danny Landaverde. 

No more. The district had hired a nurse for this year, but John O’Connell has upped the ante: For the first time, O’Connell opened a clinic staffed with physicians and nurses who can prescribe medicine and perform specific examinations — an uncommon resource among high schools. 

The medical facility is thanks to Mission Neighborhood Health Center, which will fund and run the health clinic on campus until at least June 2026, with permission and appreciation from the school district. Since the clinic opened Aug. 24, numerous students have already poked their heads in to check out the facility. 

“I’m surprised about how many kids come, and are interested,” said pediatrician Dr. Aarti Vala, dressed in blush scrubs and masked ahead of her Thursday student clinic shift. She credited John O’Connell for “getting the word out.” 

“I love my teenagers!” Vala beamed. 

What does John O’Connell’s new clinic do?

A glance around the new clinic revealed familiar medical tools: An exam table, a dual height and weight scale, a fridge for vaccines. Students can request anything from treating sexually transmitted diseases to managing asthma to vaccinations, which are needed for several internships and will be required for in-school attendance in California starting next January.

All San Francisco public schools have a wellness center “where students can access counselors, school social workers, nurses and other wellness staff,” said district spokesperson Laura Dudnick. The Mission Neighborhood Health Center offers “complementary” care, Dudnick said. 

About 90 percent of O’Connell students have visited the Wellness Center at least once, Ryan said, and for years has been and continues to be many students’ trusted health source.

While John O’Connell’s Wellness Center has two therapists, a Wellness Coordinator, engagement staff, and now a nurse, the school was still limited in the care staff could provide, according to principal Susan Ryan. Often, center staff referred students to get treatment elsewhere. 

For example, the clinic solved a common challenge at the high school: student physicals. Before hitting the court, student athletes need a doctor’s sign-off. O’Connell loaded students on a bus to request one at San Francisco General, said Ryan. “It was amazingly challenging.” 

Now, several students can — and have — received them at the new, on-campus clinic. 

For years, the Mission Neighborhood Health Center at 240 Shotwell St., a short walk from the high school, saw students referred by school staff itself, those who required more extensive care. 

But research has found geographical proximity to services improves health outcomes. While the main clinic is close to the school, sometimes “even a few blocks” can be an obstacle to care, said Mission Neighborhood Health Center CEO Anna Robert. 

On-campus services are significant at a “community school” like John O’Connell, where students often spend the majority of their time. Many students rely on O’Connell to address problems of homelessness, food insecurity and health. Data from local health collaboration Unidos en Salud suggest the majority of their patients, most who are Latinx and many who are undocumented, don’t have access to primary care. 

“We’ve noticed our students do access medical care from our nurse, however it’s a limited amount of care that can be provided if you’re not a physician,” said Ryan. “This clinic could be that trusted medical source where you can go get good primary care.” 

Indeed, the ultimate goal is for the clinic to become a “medical home” for students, especially those without primary care doctors. Eventually, the clinic may provide help to students’ families, too. 

During the nurse shortage, when O’Connell staff discussed nascent clinic plans with former Mission Neighborhood Health Center CEO Brenda Storey, they realized the center and school’s existing relationship would be a plus. 

“It was a no-brainer to move it forward and to see what more we could do here,” said Jose Lopez, Mission Neighborhood Health Center’s director of programs and HIV Services, who is heading the clinic rollout. 

Health benefits for students

Beyond physical treatments and preventative care, Mission Neighborhood Health Center eventually wants to address other issues pertinent to adolescent health. Particularly, social media’s role in teens’ mental health, said Lopez. 

Additionally, mental health has always been a prominent issue, amplified especially in the wake of a recent alumnus’ death: Damien Gonzalez, an 18-year-old former student, was shot and killed just blocks away from the school in August. 

In that case, the Wellness Center swiftly organized a healing circle and resources for staff and students following the news. 

Numerous studies show how a school-based health center reduces unwanted teenage pregnancy and improves adolescents’ access to mental health care. Beginning in 2020, accidental overdose deaths among adolescents have increased as they take drugs laced with fentanyl. Thus, it’s important to offer resources for alcohol and drug addiction, too, Lopez said. 

Presently, students need to register with Mission Neighborhood Health Center to access the clinic. It runs Tuesday afternoons and Thursday mornings, but may soon be open all day and after school.  

“We hope to support John O’Connell in any way we can in healthcare,” Robert said. “We’re committed to being here. It’s part of our mission.”

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REPORTER. Annika Hom is our inequality reporter through our partnership with Report for America. Annika was born and raised in the Bay Area. She previously interned at SF Weekly and the Boston Globe where she focused on local news and immigration. She is a proud Chinese and Filipina American. She has a twin brother that (contrary to soap opera tropes) is not evil.

Follow her on Twitter at @AnnikaHom.

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  1. Interesting, sounds like a productive and beneficial partnership between MNHC and O’Connell.

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  2. Of course, the superintendent and the (majority of the) the Board of Education don’t want to talk about this because their laser focus is on how students do on the SBAC and other tests. They continue to show that “the whole child” is irrelevant to actual learning, rather than test score results.

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