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Staff Photo by Robin Rudd/ Dr. Saundra Williams speaks to a student in one of the examining roms. Chattanooga Girls Leadership Academy launched a new on-site full service health clinic at the school. The clinic was photographed on September 16, 2019.
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CGLA health clinic

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Dr. Saundra Williams likes for her patients to be as informed as possible about what they are going through, whether it's a sprained ankle or a sinus infection.

She'll take out her anatomy book or point to an in-depth diagram of the head and the body's sinus and respiratory system to explain why a patient is hoarse or why they have sinus pain.

Her vision to empower her patients matches that of where she practices — Williams' patients are students at Chattanooga Girls Leadership Academy and she is the full-time physician who staffs the school's new health clinic launched this school year.

Located on CGLA's campus, the new facility includes two exam rooms and is staffed by Williams, medical assistant Dee Henderson and a rotation of students from the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga's nurse practitioner program.

Elaine Swafford is the executive director of the all-girls public charter school that recently celebrated its 10th year. It serves girls mainly from some of Chattanooga's economically disadvantaged communities such as Highland Park and surrounding neighborhoods.

Swafford said the clinic was launched to help remove barriers to health care and keep students in school.

"We've been dreaming about this for years, so when we started the renovation, we knew it was the time and place," she said of the facility. "It's keeping kids from having to go home for something that could be treated here."

Since the school year started Aug. 1, Williams has seen 203 students. Of those interactions, 96% of them were interventions that allowed students to stay in school, officials said. Students are able to visit the clinic for free. It cost CGLA about $50,000 to open the clinic, not including staff salaries.

Williams, who spent her career in a variety of medical settings including working at urgent-care facilities in low-income communities, said the clinic serves to close the gap between a student getting sent home from school and seeking — or not seeking — treatment for an illness that prevents them from returning to school.

Students also have the opportunity to get more comfortable with the same doctor and staff — folks they see in the hallways every day.

"It gets them more comfortable with access to health care and breaks down that barrier," Williams said. "I want them to feel comfortable here and to grow up and feel comfortable seeking health care for themselves in the future."

The school has not previously had a school nurse or an on-site clinic. Most schools in Hamilton County might have a nurse, but it is rare to find a licensed physician who can write prescriptions and administer tests, such as those for strep throat or the flu.

Students who are required to take regular medications, such as insulin shots or asthma inhalers, also are able to visit the clinic each day to receive those.

Williams doesn't usually don her white coat, as she wants to appear approachable. She goes through the treatment form that she'll send home with each student during their visit, making sure they understand what she has explained.

Whereas doctors might often be rushed at urgent cares or physician offices because of large numbers of patients or insurance limitations, Williams is able to show students the diagrams from her anatomy book or explain why they might be experiencing certain symptoms.

"I have the time to do that here," she said. "They are such a special student body."

Swafford said her hope is that the clinic will help reduce the time students miss school. Students are considered chronically absent if they have missed more than 10%, or 18 days, of school each year, and school attendance is now one of the state's accountability metrics when determining if schools and districts are on track.

Some of the neighborhood schools that CGLA students often are zoned for, such as Brainerd High School, have had chronic absentee rates as high as 55% in past years.

"We know that if children are sick or experiencing a health-related issue, they are distracted and less able to be academically engaged," Williams said in a news release. "Because CGLA is offering on-site, free, quality health care, students can address their health issues during the school day and hopefully receive interventions that allow them to remain at school."

CGLA faculty and staff also are able to access the clinic, and Swafford said she hopes it will be available to students' families in the future. For now, Williams staffs the clinic from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday through Friday.

The school's neighboring all-boys school, Chattanooga Preparatory School, does not share the clinic.

Contact Meghan Mangrum at mmangrum@timesfreepress.com or 423-757- 6592. Follow her on Twitter @memangrum.

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