School-Based Health Centers

Getting health care for your child can be complicated. Many doctors only offer appointments during the school day, and their offices might be far from school. To see the doctor, your child might have to miss school and you might have to leave work — which isn’t always an option.

School-based health centers make going to the doctor as simple as walking down the hall.

Staffed by health care workers like nurses and doctors, school-based health centers provide a range of services to meet kids’ and teens’ health care needs. Services can include check-ups, lab tests, prescriptions, counseling, and regular visits for problems like asthma and diabetes.

About 2,000 school-based health clinics are open in more than 40 states, serving about 2 million students in preschool through 12th grade. Centers usually are inside a school building or right next door. Some school-based health centers serve more than one school or even a whole school district.

Most school-based health centers are run by a local health care group, such as a community health center, hospital, or health department. A few are run by the school district itself. Centers often get money from charities and the government so they can give care to families who cannot afford to pay.

You can find out if your child’s school has a health center by contacting your child’s teacher or the school office. Most school-based health centers also let parents know about their services by sending details when the student enrolls through school newsletters or websites or at parent-teacher events like back-to-school nights.

Why Have Health Centers at Schools?

When students aren’t feeling well, they have a harder time learning. They may miss class a lot — and when they are in class, they might have trouble paying attention. Giving kids and teens access to health care at school puts them in a better position to learn.

Students who use school-based health centers benefit in many ways. They spend more time in class because they tend to be sick less often and don’t have to take as much time off school to get to appointments. According to data from by the School-Based Health Alliance, school-based health centers:

  • help students do better in school
  • increase high school graduation rates
  • decrease school discipline cases

Studies show that teens, who might resist going to a doctor, are more willing to get help for problems like depression and weight issues at a school-based health center. This might be because they see the health center’s staff at school each day, which helps build trust.

What Services Do They Offer?

Services at school-based health centers vary based on local needs. Some have one or two health professionals who offer basic care and check-ups. Others offer a complete range of services, including mental health care. Centers may even have nurse practitioners, medical students, doctors, social workers, drug counselors, or dietitians on staff.

Services can include:

Besides one-on-one care, some school-based health centers lead small-group and classroom activities, like lessons on active lifestyles.

Most school-based health centers are open whenever school is in session. They often have rules to keep kids from visiting during core classes unless it’s an emergency. Some are also open after school, at night, or on weekends. As well as serving students, they may provide care to family members, such as younger siblings.

Although a student can get many health care needs met at a school-based health center, it is not meant to replace the child’s regular doctor. If your child already has a doctor outside school, the health center will work with that doctor to offer consistent care. For kids and teens who don’t have a regular doctor, school-based health centers can offer care during the school year and link students to a doctor or other health center when school isn’t in session.

How Do Health Centers Keep Parents Informed?

School-based health centers work hard to keep parents in the loop about their children’s health. You might be invited to participate in your child’s appointments via phone, email, or computer — or even in person, if your schedule allows. Between appointments, centers follow up with parents and guardians in a range of ways, such as written letters, phone calls, notes on secure websites, or even home visits.

And of course, school-based health centers only provide care to children with parents’ written permission. Most often, you will have the option to sign a permission form at the beginning of each school year saying that your child can get treatment at the school-based health center. Or you can give your consent on a visit-by-visit basis.

How Much Do Services Cost?

Many school-based health centers offer care on a sliding scale based on family income. Depending on the center and your situation, care could be free. Most also accept health insurance, such as Medicaid, a state-run child health insurance plan (CHIP), or private health insurance. Your school-based health center or insurance provider can give you more information.

Reviewed by: Elana Pearl Ben-Joseph, MD
Date reviewed: July 2015