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School-Based Health Centers, Explained

May Ortega | KUNM
The school-based health center at Pojoaque Valley High School

Students in New Mexico often have more than just homework to deal with. Sometimes they’re fighting depression or they don’t have enough to eat at home. These aren’t the kinds of things you can go to the school nurse for.

But there are dozens of school-based health centers across New Mexico that do address these problems.


Pojoaque is a close-knit town filled with family-owned restaurants and beautiful Northern New Mexico scenery. They also have one of the state’s best school-based health centers at the local high school. Roxanne Rodriguez works there.


"If they need sutures they can come here. If they have strep throat they can come here," Rodriguez said. "So I think it’s a little bit easier for them to get to us versus going to the hospital for an urgent care visit."

Pojoaque Valley High School’s facility is basically an on-campus health care hub. It provides things like birth control, vaccines, dental care and therapy. And students don’t pay a dime.


"We bill the insurance, but if insurance doesn’t pay, everything gets written off for them," she said. "The same thing goes for a student that does not have insurance. Every service through us is free."

The facility gets state and federal funding, so it can afford to absorb those costs.

Nearly all of New Mexico’s 73 centers are in places that have a shortage of health providers. Pojoaque is among a handful of those that are also open to the broader community. Rodriguez said they do it to foster health for everyone.


"The superintendent of the school was really adamant about having it start at home, so he really stressed that he’d like us to open up to the community members," she said.


Credit May Ortega | KUNM
An exam room at the school-based health center at Pojoaque Valley High School.

That close relationship between the school’s leadership and the center’s staff is a big reason why Pojoaque was named the most exemplary facility in the state last year by the New Mexico Alliance for School-Based Health Care.  

"The model nationwide of school-based health is integrated primary and behavioral health services," said Executive Director Nancy Rodriguez. "That is the gold standard and especially for young people, we see that as so important."

And more than half of the state’s centers say behavioral health is one of the biggest issues their students are dealing with. Having a counselor or therapist in-house gives providers a window into those students’ struggles off campus.


"They learn about food insecurity, housing insecurity," she said. "We have had a lot of requests for donations of hygiene products for young people who may be homeless or maybe whose families can’t afford those products."


Related: South Valley School Health Center Bracing To Close

Communities large and small have these centers. There are more than a dozen of them around Albuquerque, like the one at Manzano High School. Lauren Artiglia is a family doctor there.


"So we have two rooms, and they’re fairly similarly set up," Artiglia said. "They look like a normal doctor’s office."


Birth control is one of their most popular services - options range from condoms to pills to IUDs.


"Probably up to 40 percent of our visits are reproductive health," Artiglia said.


Here's a map of which NM school-based health centers offer long-acting reversible contraception and which do not:

There’s no age limit for who can get contraceptives, according to state law. And because school-based health centers have confidentiality policies around reproductive and behavioral health, students don’t have to get their parents’ permission to get help for either one. Artiglia thinks that’s why students seek out these services so often.


"We can keep their information they share with us confidential, so I think it makes the comfort level so much better than maybe if you went to another clinic," she said.

Several centers around the state have reported lower rates of STDs and pregnancies since they’ve been open.

Artiglia said these little health care hubs can be there for students when nobody else is. She thinks if they didn’t exist, a lot of kids would miss out on having happy, healthy lives.


Support for KUNM’s Public Health New Mexico project comes from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, the McCune Charitable Foundation, and from KUNM listeners like you.

May joined KUNM's Public Health New Mexico team in early 2018. That same year, she established the New Mexico chapter of the National Association of Hispanic Journalists and received a fellowship from the Association of Health Care Journalists. She join Colorado Public Radio in late 2019.
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