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Health Ed.

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Educators know that there is a connection between children’s health and their ability to do well at school. With the hiring of Dr. Maritza Alvarado as director of medical services last fall, the Syracuse City School District has made a strong commitment to balancing these factors in its 36 schools—no small task.

The woman charged with making inroads is a veteran of pediatric medicine and neonatology. Alvarado, a New York City native, says she sees this position as an opportunity to apply her clinical experience on a broader scale. In her new role, Alvarado will address specific health-related questions from students, parents and staff.

Alvarado, 52, says the district expanded the role from a part-time position, and she intends to become a key link between the administration and each of the district’s schools.

“Day to day, I’ll be dealing with questions staff and parents may have about how health-related issues affect the children in the district,” Alvarado says. “The nice thing is, if the nurses or other staff have questions, they come to my attention.”

Since her appointment in September, Alvarado has been getting to know the various buildings, and gathering information from the 47 nurses, four nurse practitioners and one part-time physician she will be collaborating with.

“The gist of it all is building relationships,” she says. “We are working together for the good of the students, and I want to get to know the staff in the individual buildings.”

Alvarado most recently was a staff pediatrician with Summerwood Pediatrics in Liverpool and has a long list of community and professional affiliations. The opportunity to take on a new challenge came at just the right time.

“I was exploring how I could get into a public health role,” says Alvarado, who is currently pursuing a master’s degree in public health at SUNY Upstate Medical University and Syracuse University. “I loved the personal relationships I established with individual children and their families through private practice, but I was looking for a way to make a broader contribution.”

As director of medical services, she will be able to draw from her clinical experience in addressing preventative strategies at the district level. “It’s the melding of pediatrics and public health, which is perfect,” says Alvarado, who lives in Syracuse with her husband, Andrew Knoll.

This is not the first time Alvarado’s commitment to the Syracuse community has influenced her career path: She’s a former executive director of the Spanish Action League, a role in which she coordinated the delivery of services to the city’s Latino community.

Although Alvarado will be addressing health care from more of a “big picture” perspective than in her previous roles, she plans to be accessible to school staff and families. “I’m hoping the ability to figure out how to deal with family health care needs will be something I can draw from to help them in their work,” she says.

Six of the city schools have on-site health centers. Many of the families with children enrolled in those schools are members of the health centers. Alvarado said one issue she has already focused on is how the district keeps track of immunization schedules and student health records when fiscal cutbacks have made it necessary for the district to close buildings and move students.

“We do have a system to ensure that there is continuity in following students’ health histories, and that’s important.” In addition, some neighborhoods in the city have large populations of refugee children, and the district does all it can to ensure their immunizations and immediate health needs are addressed. “The schools have services in place that help with that, and I give a lot of credit to the school nurses who work with those families.”

Alvarado will also coordinate the district’s response to alerts and recommendations from the county health department. She sees last year’s flu season and the local response to the H1N1 outbreak as a learning experience for the city. The district implemented preventative measures like making hand sanitizer readily available to students and educating students on how to help reduce the spread of flu viruses. Alvarado says when addressing more serious issues such as containing a flu virus or even methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus infections (MRSA), it is important that the schools and the county be unified in their message to parents.

When asked what the biggest challenge is for parents with children in local schools today, Alvarado says there is never just one particular health problem that affects school communities—and that’s one of the challenges that most interests her in this new role.

“You have to look at the whole picture,” she says. “It can start with something as basic as educating parents on the importance of rest and good nutrition. I like what is happening in our schools with preventative care. There are habits we can start to nurture at each grade level—little things like using hand sanitizer and sneezing into sleeves. If you teach the kids early, healthy habits become the norm. And if something’s the norm, it becomes part of what they know. Little consistent messages go a long way.”

Award-winning writer Tammy DiDomenico lives in DeWitt with her husband and two sons.

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