Erica Ortiz looked down at her tiny daughter, Kristina.
“Baila,” she whispered, encouraging the 1-year-old to dance along to the music playing on the day care stereo.
Kristina leaned to one side and paused. Then her hands went straight into the air, and her face melted into a frown. She'd rather be held by her mama than dance today. Ortiz picked her up and squeezed.
Ortiz is a few months away from graduating high school, and a few days away from giving birth for the second time.
She misses school whenever Kristina is sick or has a checkup, but sometimes she skips doctor visits for herself so she doesn't get too far behind in her classes.
“It's hard to do that,” Ortiz said. “ ... It's hard to keep your grades up.”
A new health clinic at her high school could allow Ortiz and students like her to spend more time in class while also providing more access to health care.
Oklahoma City Public Schools will build a clinic inside Emerson Alternative High School, and nonprofit Variety Care will run it.
Emerson had a clinic for more than 30 years, but it closed in 2009 after state funding cuts.
The new clinic will be open twice a week, said Debbie Johnson, health administrator for Oklahoma City Public Schools. It will be open to students, their children and staff.
Johnson said students with no access to health care will be able to see a professional, and expectant mothers will be able to get prenatal care.
“My goal is for the kids not to wait until they're six months along to get care,” Johnson said.
The school likely will remodel the obsolete boiler room in the school basement, Oklahoma City schools Superintendent Karl Springer said.
It will cost about $150,000 to $200,000, Springer said, but who will pay for that is still up in the air. The district may use cash from its building funds, or officials might be able to request the MAPS Trust pay for the project.
Either way, Springer said he wants the clinic to open soon. Students need health services now. So do their young children.
“For these babies, we have them in school in four years,” Springer said. “It's so important we get them off to the right start.”
Board OK's clinic
The Oklahoma City School Board approved an agreement this month with the nonprofit Variety Care to run the clinic.
Variety Care announced earlier this year plans to open a clinic at Capitol Hill High School, 500 SW 36. The clinic will be open to students, families and staff.
Emerson advocates have been working to reopen the clinic since it closed four years ago, said Geremy Rowland, an attorney and chairman of the school's Community Advisory Board.
“I think in retrospect, myself included, we got off on some tangents that we did not need to, roads we should not have gone down,” Rowland said. “We probably should have approached Variety Care or another partner to investigate their willingness. Hindsight is what it is.”
But a new partnership among the advisory board, Variety Care and school board member Laura Massenat got the project back on track, he said.
“I don't think this would have gotten anywhere — just as it has in the past — but for Laura really doing a fine job in articulating our needs,” Rowland said.
Variety Care officials toured the boiler room, which had been suggested as a clinic site when the original clinic closed in 2009. The space was deemed suitable for a clinic, Rowland said.
The previous clinic was a modular building, which was left rotting behind the school will be torn down during MAPS renovations.
The construction timeline is uncertain for now, Rowland said. The clinic likely will open after a few months but hopefully in less than a year, he said.
The sooner, the better.
“These kids have little if any help at home,” Rowland said. “They have, for all intents and purposes, been relegated and disregarded to Emerson. They've been forgotten.”
The clinic will boost attendance, Principal Sherry Kishore said.
Many students have state-provided health care, but many don't have transportation or time to go to a doctor, Kishore said.
Some end up walking to St. Anthony's Hospital a few blocks away, Kishore said. By the time they get through the emergency room, come back to school and drop off their children, students miss most of the school day, she said. For some, it's too much time out of school.
“The girls don't go back to the doctor,” Kishore said. “We have pregnant girls who have never really seen the doctor.”
Karla Rodriguez, a junior, takes her son to a pediatrician at the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center. She said she's missed school many times for checkups or emergency visits for her boy, Izack Perez, 1.
Earlier this month, Rodriguez was preparing for her end-of-instruction English exam, a test mandated for all Oklahoma seniors to pass before they can earn their high school diplomas. Then Izack got sick and needed to see the doctor.
She missed the testing window and now has to wait for the next time later this year.
“I was really trying, but it just went to nothing,” she said.
While she doesn't mind taking time off to take care of Izack's health, she said she doesn't go to the doctor for herself.
“I don't really go home when I'm sick because I have to miss because of him,” Rodriguez said. “That's one of the reasons I don't go.”
She said she's hopeful that the new clinic will allow her to take care of her health, as well as her son's.