I distinctly remember the first time I needed medical help at school. It was for an asthma attack that transpired after running a mile outside in gym class during peak pollen season. I was probably around 9 or 10 years old when it happened, and I still vividly remember the panic that came over me. My lungs couldn’t absorb the air they needed; it felt like I was trying to snorkel underwater with a drinking straw.
This instance was my only medical emergency at school. What I cannot remember about it — what escapes my memory twenty-odd years later — is whom it was who treated me. My mind cannot summon up an image of the school nurse and what he or she did in order to help me through my attack.
The fact that I was not well acquainted with my school nurse illustrates how lucky a child I was growing up. I never had a chronic condition (other than mild exercise-induced asthma) that required constant care, nor did I experience injuries at school.
Many children are not so lucky. Around 15 to 18 percent of children in the U.S. are diagnosed with a chronic condition.
Children spend 943 hours of their lives each year in school — and they need to be healthy to succeed academically. Nurses are charged with the vital role of attending to the students’ health and wellness needs.
That’s why the Highmark Foundation (see sidebar) — a private, charitable corporation of Highmark Inc. — created its Advancing Excellence in School Nursing awards. The 2016 award winners have just been announced.
The Highmark Foundation started the Advancing Excellence in School Nursing awards in 2015 as part of its Creating a Healthy School Environment Grant and Award Program.
The awards honor nurses in the regions that the Highmark Foundation serves, including all of West Virginia and all of Pennsylvania with the exception of Bucks, Chester, Delaware, Montgomery and Philadelphia counties. There are five categories of recognition:
School Nursing Practice and Leadership Award: Given to someone who is in a leadership position in a school district. This person usually oversees several school nurses, would have published research and has obtained multiple credential degrees in their field.
Winner: Maureen Callas, MEd, BSN, RN, CSN, certified school nurse, Duquesne City Education Center, Pittsburgh, PA
“Families are fractured and struggling to make ends meet. They have less time and resources to address the health issues they face that can also be barriers to learning. The School Nurse is part of the team that helps the student pull it all together and succeed despite what life challenges they face.”
Winner: Carrie L. Piccinini, certified school nurse, Edinboro Elementary School, Edinboro, PA
“Every day is different … filled with the challenge of determining the exact issue that brings a student into the office.”
The Transformation Award: Awarded to someone who has a way of rethinking school health and finding innovative and creative ways to make improvements — including designing a program that transforms ways to care for someone.
Winner: Maureen Mahoney, certified school nurse, Lackawanna Trail Elementary Center, Nicholson, PA
“I worked in pediatrics for many years. After being asked to sub at my kids’ school, a position opened up and I was lucky enough to get my present position.”
Spirit of the Year Award: Given to someone who exemplifies the classic “health cheerleader” position for the school. This person is finding ways to approach school health in a fun and engaging way and is involving parents and community members.
Winner: Joyce A. Cotroneo, RN, BSN, certified school nurse, Western Pennsylvania School for Blind Children, Delmont, PA
“Nursing became an interest to me as a teenager when my mother had a surgical procedure. Watching the nurses take care of her was inspiring and fascinating to me.”
Winner: Bethany Kilinsky, certified school nurse, Elizabeth Forward School District, Jefferson Hills, PA
“I have always had a passion to work with children and a propensity for teaching. After becoming a nurse, I started my career at Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh working with adolescents. One day, a friend told me about a school nurse position at Elizabeth Forward and I thought that would be an ideal way to combine my two favorite interests.”
Collaboration Award: Awarded to someone who has created partnerships with other school districts, or with various buildings within a district. He or she has collaborated to help implement a program or service in various locations — and might go above and beyond the normal allocated resources in order to provide care.
Winner: Charity Istone, MSN, CRNP, certified school nurse, North Allegheny School District, Hampton Township, PA
“The most common misconception about being a school nurse is that we just give out medication and band aids. Spend a day with one and you’ll see that is far from all we do!”
School Nursing Advocacy Award: This person is advocating for school nurses on a local, state and/or national level, as well as following and implementing legislative actions within his or her school or district.
Winner: Ellen Danowski, certified school nurse, Elizabeth Lee Black School, Erie, PA
“I can’t recall a specific event that made me want to become a school nurse, but the power to make a difference in a child’s life is what drove me to become one.”
In West Virginia and Pennsylvania (except for the counties mentioned above), anyone can nominate a nurse for one of these awards (see sidebar). The winners receive funding to use for professional development or to put back into their schools.
Many schools don’t have the resources to send school nurses to conferences or to implement key programs. These awards recognize the men and women who are already doing good work that benefits children.
Highmark Foundation President Yvonne Cook is passionate about the Advancing Excellence in School Nursing awards. “School nurses do more than just tend to scraped knees and upset stomachs,” she explains. “They play an integral role in keeping our kids healthy. These nurses are operating at high levels. We applaud and want to support the school nurse as a leader in the schools.”
Jane L. Brooks, who works in community affairs for Highmark Blue Shield, coordinated the 2016 awards. “School nurses tend to get taken for granted, but they are providing so much care to these kids,” she adds.
“We did a survey with Penn State Pro Wellness — that’s how we determined some of the issues that these school nurses are fielding,” she says, noting that nurses deal with health issues ranging from asthma to cancer diagnoses, and from cardiac issues to behavioral health challenges. “We need to be able to get these nurses the resources to be better educated on the issues they see — and the resources to provide the care.”
Cook emphasizes that school nurses fit into much broader efforts to improve children’s health. “Many of these nursing professionals act as leaders of health and are building and running a culture of wellness in their schools,” she points out.
That’s particularly important when you consider that school is the second most influential environment in a child’s life, after his or her home. Unfortunately, the health habits in a child’s home aren’t always good ones. Brooks says that in some cases, “students come to school without taking care of basic needs — like brushing their teeth or taking a bath the night before. These are the things that the nurse is ultimately responsible for taking care of.”
As a web page on the CDC’s initiative for healthier schools puts it: “Schools play a critical role in promoting the health and safety of young people and helping them establish lifelong healthy behavior patterns.” School nurses are critically important in how well a school fulfills that role.
Programs like First Lady Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move! understandably get a lot of attention for raising awareness and improving children’s health in that respect. But it’s good to see a program like Advancing Excellence in School Nursing shining a spotlight on the hard-working nurses who are helping young students develop into healthy individuals every day.
2016 is the second year for the Advancing Excellence in School Nursing awards. Brooks says they saw a slight increase in nominations this year, but they’d like to see nominations grow more in the future. She says that one challenge is getting the word out: “We’ll send out notifications, but is that notification going to the right person? Are they seeing it as junk mail or are they seeing it as something valuable?” (If you’d like to make a nomination, or help get the word out, be sure to read the “Nominate a Nurse” sidebar.)
Cook points out that continuing to grow the program is vital, not only to support local school nurses and their work, but also to increase the general community’s awareness of their value. That also serves the larger purpose to “make sure that schools can operate in a way that is helpful to our children no matter what.”
While I might not be able to recall the name or face of my former school’s nurse, my hope is that the children of the coming generations have a completely different experience. If we’re going to succeed in conveying the importance of health and well-being to children and their families, we must also lift up school nursing professionals and give them the support they need. They deserve it.
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