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Q&A with Kelly Nelson, senior program manager at the American Public Health Association's Center for School, Health and Education

May 6, 2019

Kelly Nelson is a senior program manager at the American Public Health Association's (APHA) Center for School, Health and Education (CSHE). Nelson spoke with Interact for Health about the center's work with school-based health centers and health equity.

Interact for Health: Could you explain more about APHA's Center for School, Health and Education and its goals?

Kelly Nelson: Terri Wright founded CSHE in 2010 to elevate high school dropouts as a public health priority. Before the center opened, education didn't necessarily have a place in public health, but the literature shows healthy children are better learners and education is important to attain better health. Our center partners with schools, school-based health centers, health departments, community organizations and other agencies to increase their capacity to respond to all students' needs. We do this by implementing policy and practice changes that prevent and reduce the impact of social barriers to health and learning.

Interact for Health: Could you tell me a brief story that illustrates the effect of your work in the local community?

Nelson: Since 2013, CSHE's professional development program has reached over 600 youth-serving professionals who oversee more than 15,000 students in urban schools. One particular school represents a promising example of CSHE's work. Before CSHE's program, the school was not routinely assessing the effects of health, social, behavioral and academic risk factors on its student body. Our program provided a structure for the school to develop strategies to address food insecurity, substandard living conditions and other root causes of unhealthy behaviors and high dropout rates among students. With universally accessible and youth-inviting spaces, including laundry facilities, showers and food pantries, the school has made a significant turnaround from being a place where teen pregnancy rates were high and morale was low to a place where attendance rates are high and pregnancy rates are lower.

Interact for Health: What accomplishments of APHA's CSHE are you most proud of?

Nelson: For me, it's the innovation and peer learning that this work has brought to the fields of public health, education, and youth development. It's also the value our work has added to APHA's capacity to directly impact school health outcomes for youth in vulnerable communities. We've seen the schools we work with reduce disciplinary referrals and address anger and aggression, which is monumental because this drives down dropout rates and improves health outcomes.

Interact for Health: What lessons have you learned through your work?

Nelson: We've learned traditionally trained school-based health care professionals and educators do not have the capacity to actualize prevention-focused strategies to improve school-wide health without support. We've also learned it takes time to actualize longer-term impacts and sustained investment. Change, particularly at the policy and systems levels, is incremental, and schools cannot and should not have to do it alone.

Interact for Health: What about your work excites you most?

Nelson: For me, it's liaising with communities and peers who believe in building capacity within marginalized populations for them to lead transformative changes that disrupt structures that perpetuate inequities. I believe the potential is already there—in communities and youth—and it is my role as a public health professional to help them actualize whatever it is that they want to achieve. Given my professional background, there are so many different roles that I can take on to facilitate cause-driven work—and that's exciting!

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