A "gold-standard" health clinic is about to open at Brooklyn Center High School, an operation that matches up with the best in-school centers in terms of services offered. The expectation is that it will be good for students' health and their education.

The $260,000 clinic, paid for with donations, will open Feb. 1 and offer regular dental, medical and mental health care. Few school clinics provide all of those services, and Brooklyn Center's may be the only one in Minnesota to do so, metro area health officials say.

"Kids come to school with barriers -- dental, mental health, physical or chemical abuse," said Brooklyn Center School District Superintendent Keith Lester. "If you can address those barriers, the kids are much more likely to learn."

Lester said the clinic, a partnership with Park Nicollet Foundation and others, will care primarily for the district's children from birth through high school. Those unable to pay will be covered by grants from the Park Nicollet and Pohlad Family foundations. The free service is crucial because 72 percent of district students are from low-income families, he noted.

"The high poverty meant a lack of access to both medical and dental care," Lester said. "We've seen an increase in mental health needs." He said healthy students are likely to improve academically.

Sam Gordon, 17, a Brooklyn Center senior who has written about the clinic for the school paper, is enthusiastic about it. "The clinic will be a huge advantage to our school because it will help kids without resources," he said. "It will be free and right in the school."

Dental care a plus

Dental care will be a distinctive feature. It's offered by only 10 percent of about 2,000 school clinics nationwide, according to the latest survey by the National Assembly on School-Based Health Care in Washington, D.C.

"Oral health is a big unmet need of young people and children," said Renee Sieving, an associate professor in the nursing and medical schools at the University of Minnesota. "The best school-based clinics are very comprehensive with mental health, physical and dental service. That's the gold standard at Brooklyn Center."

Most Minneapolis and St. Paul high schools have clinics offering medical and mental health care, according to health center officials.

A number of Minneapolis and St. Paul elementary schools and a few suburban high schools receive dental service as needed from Children's Dental Services, said Sarah Wovcha, executive director of the nonprofit group, which also will serve Brooklyn Center High. Park Nicollet Health Services will provide the medical care, and the Family and Children's Service and others will provide counseling services.

Behind the clinic

The 2,300-square-foot clinic, built in former classrooms, will have a dental office, counseling room and four rooms for primary medical care.

Lester and Dr. Chris Johnson, medical director for Park Nicollet Foundation, have attended monthly meetings of the Northwest Hennepin Healthy Communities group for a long time. "We've been working with communities in northwest suburbs for years, trying to identify needs and gaps that exist," Johnson said.

Lester, who became superintendent in 2005, said when he learned the area had no community clinic, he offered space at the high school. About a year ago, Park Nicollet agreed to be the major sponsor. Remodeling work started in late October, and equipment is arriving this week for the Feb. 1 opening, he said.

Park Nicollet also sponsors clinics linked to the Wayzata, St. Louis Park and Burnsville school districts, but none has dental care, Johnson said.

Linda Juszczak, executive director of the National Assembly on School-Based Health Care, said the comprehensive clinics tend to improve student attendance and sports participation (the clinics provide physical exams needed for sports).

"One of the unique things about this model is that when all three areas [medical, mental health and dental care] exist together, there is a synergy and sharing of an agenda to improve the health and academic performance of the kids," she said.

Jim Adams • 612-673-7658