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Toronto In-school pediatric clinic gives Toronto students greater chance of academic success

Sloane Freeman treats Jaiden Campbell, 8, at the St. Michael’s Hospital clinic at Nelson Mandela Park Public School in Toronto on Dec. 13.

Jennifer Roberts/The Globe and Mail

In Room 116 at Toronto's Nelson Mandela Park Public School, Jaiden Campbell was having his blood pressure checked and his heart rate monitored: "They squeeze your arm, they test your heart. It's good."

This was no ordinary classroom. Jaiden was sitting on an examination table, not behind a desk, and the teacher was replaced by a pediatrician – all part of an initiative between the Toronto District School Board and local health-care providers to deliver services to families in neighbourhoods that feel intimidated by or distrustful of the medical system.

The thinking behind the in-school pediatric clinic is that by providing health services close to home and in a school setting, often considered a safe, comfortable space, families living in poverty or newcomers are more likely to access it. For children, diagnosing and treating health issues and learning disabilities early gives them a greater chance of academic success.

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"I think we're doing a much-needed service that in some ways was missing. Otherwise, kids are not getting the services they need and are then getting lost in high school," said Rajkumar Luke Vijendra Das, the clinic's co-ordinator at Nelson Mandela.

The makeshift medical clinic in Toronto's Regent Park community is operated by St. Michael's Hospital and is one of eight partnerships between health-care providers and Toronto schools.

Jaiden, 8, has had issues with reading and writing, his mother said, and so his teacher referred him to the clinic for a follow-up. This school year Jaiden has had his eyes checked, been referred to a hearing clinic and also to the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health regarding some behavioural issues. He is now in special education, and receiving extra help with reading and writing.

"This means a lot to me. It means that I don't have to necessarily look for these services by myself," said Jaiden's mom, Sherisse Campbell. "If I didn't have these services, to be honest, I don't know what I'd be doing or where he would be academically."

Ms. Campbell, a single parent, said she appreciated that the health services were provided in the school. Jaiden, meanwhile, was anxious to leave the clinic and join his friends in class.

"This may be overwhelming to him, but the end result is it's beneficial for him," Ms. Campbell said. "He has this need and they've identified the need and now they're identifying the services that can help. I'm absolutely amazed by that. It's encouraging that they have this in a school, in this neighbourhood."

The Nelson Mandela clinic opened its doors two years ago and allows families to see a family physician, pediatricians and developmental pediatricians Nearby Sprucecourt Junior Public School, has also partnered with St. Michael's Hospital to run a clinic where educators either refer children or parents can walk in.

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"We're running at capacity," Mr. Vijendra Das said in between registering patients and walking them to the two converted classrooms.

Many parents in the Regent Park community speak English as a second language and may have a difficult time navigating the health system. Others are unable to take time off work to take their children to appointments outside their neighbourhood. Pediatrician Sloane Freeman said the clinic in the school not only alleviates those barriers to accessing medical care for children, but reduces the wait times for developmental assessments because physicians are on hand.

Dr. Freeman opened the clinic at Nelson Mandela, and described the experience as "rewarding" because she can follow the children in school and watch their improvements over time.

"Being here in the school system, we can see the child quickly, we can work with their school support team and we can help with many of those barriers, and get the child the supports they need," Dr. Freeman said. "It's very rewarding."

Jason Kandankery, the principal at Nelson Mandela, remembered a student who was having behavioural issues, and was suspended many times. This was just before the clinic had opened. School staff spoke with the parent about making an appointment with a doctor to see if the child had underlying medical issues. The parent was reluctant and did not want the child to be labelled.

When the clinic opened, Mr. Kandankery said he walked the parent next door and introduced her to Mr. Vijendra Das. The parent scheduled an appointment with a pediatrician and was then referred to an outside agency. The student has not had a suspension since, he said.

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"Families have a comfort coming to their neighbourhood school. It's the space they come to everyday with their child. They feel comfortable here. They know the staff here. Through them having comfort being in this space, we've been able to connect them with health care services, which is huge," Mr. Kandankery said.

Next door to Jaiden and his mom, in Room 117, Adam Tammar was getting a new prescription to treat his attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

"Please take them together at the same time. We have a deal, Adam?" the doctor asked.

"Fine," Adam said with a smirk.

Adam, 13, said he feels much better after being treated for ADHD. His mother, Aicha Kassi, who accompanied him to the appointment, said she prefers visiting a clinic based at a school.

"You don't feel that you are going to the doctor. It's like you're coming to talk to the teacher," Ms. Kassi said. "For me, it's not very far, and I feel comfortable here."

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