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My Take: Student Wellness Succeeds

My Take: Student Wellness Succeeds

By Jessica Colvin, MSW, MPH, PPSC | May 20, 2014

When you were in high school did you ever wish you had a safe place to get support? I’m lucky enough to work in a program that allows students to do just that. The Wellness Program helps students access services to support their emotional and physical health, and feel empowered to use those services when they need them. And not just while they’re in school, but beyond school and into their adult lives.

I’m the Wellness Coordinator at San Francisco’s Galileo Academy of Science and Technology, serving 2,000 students within a comprehensive high school located in an urban environment. Our youth face challenges similar to those in urban settings across the nation—pressure to succeed, family and relationship problems, exposure to community violence, issues with alcohol and drug use, and more. Our Wellness Program, which is part of the San Francisco Wellness Initiative, helps students stay healthy and succeed in school—and we have the data to prove it.

What the Wellness Program Is—and What It Isn’t

When I tell people I coordinate a Wellness Program at a high school, they often assume I mean a school- or community-based health center. The Wellness Program is actually something quite different. We don’t have exam rooms, physicians or dental services. We don’t provide on-site vaccines, STD testing or contraception. Instead, we offer prevention education and intervention services here at the school, and we actively link students with resources in the community to support their health and mental health care.

We have a dynamic, skilled, interdisciplinary team making the program work at our school. We offer one-to-one counseling , case management, nursing services, support/empowerment groups and classroom presentations. We host super-engaging, interactive schoolwide carnivals and special events (music! prizes! fun!) that focus on adolescent health and wellness issues. We also have many community partners who join us in these efforts. They provide services to students on campus and, when appropriate, also offer services at their off-campus sites.

Wellness Program services and activities have made an impressive difference in our school and community. More students are seeking help when they need it. More are coming to school. They are learning about services in their neighborhoods and figuring out how to access them. They are helping their families access services. Our overall school climate is improved. Our program is incredibly effective, and it’s been far less expensive to implement and sustain than a traditional full-service school health clinic.

Wellness Works!

The districtwide Wellness Initiative has programs in place at 19 San Francisco public high schools. The Initiative conducts an annual evaluation of our services, and the results give us a powerful sense of the program’s positive effects. Here are a few of the findings:

  • 90% of students participating in individual counseling said there was an adult in their Wellness Center who really cares about them.
  • 81% are coming to school more often.
  • 82% are learning ways to solve problems on their own.
  • 95% of those trying to reduce substance use report cutting back on tobacco, drugs or alcohol.
  • Nearly 70% say they’re doing better in school.

I hope you’ll take a look at our Data Snapshots to see more of the evaluation results. They offer solid evidence that participation in our services increases the kinds of assets directly linked to better academic success.

Why the Wellness Program Is Successful

The data tells us how we’re successful. Here are some of the reasons why I believe this model is working so well.

We create authentic access. We’re right here, on campus, every day. Students can walk in, be referred by a teacher, set up an appointment, join a group or bring in a friend. We do workshops in classrooms and special events at lunchtime. Our staff and partners are skilled, smart and compassionate. Students get to know us and the services we offer. They want to work with us. We create genuine relationships that help teens trust us, and we deliver services that make a difference.

We build positive norms around seeking support. In many student environments, seeking mental health services is highly stigmatized. In our school, participating in the Wellness Program is not only acceptable, it’s actually cool! Over 40% of students have used one-on-one or support group services—and we make sure our students know this. For one of our ongoing outreach campaigns, we post flyers all over the school proclaiming, “More than You Know: Over 40% of Galileo Students Use Wellness.” The flyers list 25 reasons students use Wellness services. When students see an issue they or their peers are facing on that list, they’re much more likely to come and talk to us or refer a friend.

We walk students through the steps to build their own skills. It’s difficult for many teens to contact an unfamiliar place such as a teen clinic, talk to an unfamiliar person, reveal a personal need and set up an appointment. It’s embarrassing. They don’t know what to say. They don’t know how they’ll pay. They don’t want their parents to know.

Wellness can help them figure out their insurance coverage or help them get insurance if they need it. We can often arrange cost-free services through our community partners. We can assure students that their care will be confidential and, if and when appropriate, that their parents will not be told about it. (California law allows children 12 and older to receive certain types of care without parental notification.)

After walking through these steps with our help, students are usually able to take charge and make their own appointments in the future. They are connected to ongoing resources for health and emotional health care.

We’re joining with students, parents, teachers and our partners to build real community. We’re always working to create genuine and caring relationships with our school community. In addition to our student Wellness services, we offer parent workshops. We provide professional development services and consultation for staff. We always have a therapist on call, so teachers can come in to ask about a student when they have concerns, or bring a student in during a crisis. Parents/caregivers can come and talk about or refer their children for support.

These interventions help us shape a broader culture of understanding that empowers young people to be advocates for their own health and wellness.

Creative Opportunities

I’ve never had a boring day at work at Wellness. The world of students, particularly teens, is ever changing. New issues constantly arise. We’re always finding creative ways to support students and staff, to reach out to families, to promote our programs, and to adapt to what the school needs in the moment.

We have 19 schools implementing Wellness Initiative Programs in San Francisco and, just as no two schools are alike, no two Wellness Programs are alike. We’re all working towards the same core outcomes, but every school also uses its own creativity and discretion to respond to the specific needs of its community. This flexibility and creativity are another strength of the program.

Students often come back to see us after they’ve graduated and tell us about the difference the Wellness Program made in their lives. It’s not unusual for us to hear or see comments on student surveys such as: “You saved my life.” “This program made it possible for me to graduate.” “Wellness was there at that critical moment—it turned everything around for me.”

I know when I hear these stories that we have succeeded in our goal of informing and empowering students. And that is an empowering experience for me.

Jessica Colvin, MSW, MPH, PPSC, has been the Wellness Coordinator at Galileo Academy of Science and Technology in San Francisco for 9 years, and has worked as a practitioner in the field of social work and public health for 18 years. You can reach her at To learn more about the Wellness Program at Galileo check out their website. Learn more about the San Francisco Wellness Initiative here.

The San Francisco Wellness Initiative is a partnership between the San Francisco Department of Children, Youth and Their Families, the San Francisco Department of Public Health/Community Behavioral Health Services and the San Francisco Unified School District.

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