Southcentral Foundation to place a school nurse and counselors in 3 rural schools

McGrath School is one of three that will get a school nurse and counselor through a new program. (Paul Walker/KSKO)

Three rural Alaska schools will soon have a school nurse and behavioral health consultants as part of an effort by Southcentral Foundation to improve student wellness. The staff, funded by a federal grant, will serve children in McGrath, Nikolai and Takotna. Currently, there is not a school nurse or counselors available at the small schools.

Donna Asay, a manager for Southcentral Foundation, said conversations with the local schools and families will shape the practitioners’ work. 

“Some of the things we would like to address that have been brought to us not only by the school, but the administrators and staff, would be reducing barriers to accessing care or trying to meet some of those high suicide rates with some behavioral health services, and just support the overall well being of the student in the community,” Asay said.  

Asay said the nurse will be based in McGrath. They’ll visit schools in Nikolai and Takotna quarterly, or more often as-needed and can provide basic care and referrals.

“If a kiddo has a hurt elbow or a rash, they could bring that up to the school nurse and the nurse could look at it and say, ‘Oh, man, it looks like we need to get you an appointment,’” Asay said.  

Asay said having a nurse in schools can help kids get care without their guardian needing to travel or take time off work. 

Dani Gapinski, who oversees Southcentral’s rural behavioral health team, said the behavioral health consultants will visit schools in-person at least quarterly. They’ll also be able to schedule telehealth appointments with students in between visits. She said the consultants can run workshops at schools that help with mental illness prevention, depending on what schools want. 

“Teaching students at a young age to understand what their emotions are really helps them to then be able to identify [them] as they’re growing,” Gapinski said. “They might be more willing to talk about what’s going on since they have the words to use and know how to express themselves starting from a young age.”

She said that may help reduce substance abuse and suicidal ideation later on and she said it can keep kids in the classroom more, which helps with academic success. 

Both the nurse and behavioral health consultants will only see kids if their guardians give permission. Southcentral Foundation is currently working through getting permissions from families and they hope to begin the program before the end of the school year. It’s the first time Southcentral Foundation has run a program like this but if successful, staff say they hope to expand it to other rural schools. 

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Rachel Cassandra covers health and wellness for Alaska Public Media. Reach her at Read more about Rachel here.

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