Two state lawmakers who represent portions of Gwinnett said they expect the issue of how to improve failing schools to move toward the healthcare realm.
Senator Renee Unterman, R-Buford, said one response to the proposed Opportunity School District being voted down in November is that the focus may shift from the academic nature of the issue, to reasons why children are sick, or have poor attendance. Rep. Brooks Coleman, R-Duluth, suggested an audit for schools that have high poverty rates to identify the core issues.
“What are the problems, is attendance bad? Well, what’s causing that,” Coleman said. “Is it illnesses? Are they sick a lot? Is it the fact they’re not getting enough food? Let’s analyze, audit, what do you think is the root cause that your school is failing. … Well, what are you missing, and then analyze and try to provide those services. That’s the first step, is to provide those needs because let’s face it, (if) the child’s not in school, they’re late, if they’re not present, if they don’t feel good, you can’t start the learning. But if they come on time, they come fed, they come without a toothache, they come feeling good, then you can get about the learning.”
Unterman and Coleman each admitted that school leaders and those who work in education would push back at this notion because their main focus is education, and not necessarily healthcare, although children are fed twice at school, and in some cases entertained before or after school.
“‘Now you want us to do their healthcare,’” Unterman recalls educators saying. “That’s society now, because these kids are not being taken care of.”
Unterman said there is a pilot program that has put clinics in a few school districts. And last year, Voices for Georgia’s Children, an advocacy group in Atlanta, received a grant from the Georgia Health Foundation to improve access to quality health and mental health services for children.
Unterman said there are only a few child psychiatrists in the state, and they typically only see patients paying privately, not those who are poor, or on Medicaid. Their parents often work during doctors’ office hours, and can’t get there by 4 p.m. or 5 p.m., she said.
Wellness exams and dental care are the top needs in this program, Unterman said, as toothaches are the No. 1 reason children visit the emergency room.
Unterman said she believes the chances of passing legislation that addresses the issue are high.
“We’ve already established the outcomes, and the outcomes are very positive in these poor places we’ve started in middle Georgia,” she said. “If you brought it up into Atlanta region where the predominant highest percentage of kids are, you could have a significant effect.”