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Collaborative at UW, American Family Children’s Hospital a ‘huge blessing’ for school nurses

October 5, 2017 By David Tenenbaum

“School nursing has evolved from a public-health focus to chronic conditions and medical management. Our goal is to meet the medical needs of students so they can be in school,” says Pam Schaal of Mount Horeb Alexander Andre, School of Nursing

The workday is not quite over for a group of about 60 school nurses meeting at the UW–Madison School of Nursing on campus Wednesday evening. First comes a light dinner, networking and small talk.

And then a keynote talk aimed at keeping the nurses themselves healthy in a stressful job. The evening is capped by breakout sessions on two pressing topics: opioid addiction, and the impact of LGBTQ issues in terms of dress codes, bathrooms and bullying in school.

For a visitor, the first thing that becomes obvious is that school nursing is no longer focused on chicken pox, skinned knees and stomach aches. It’s about kids with chronic diseases like asthma and diabetes. And about kids who have trouble at home, or were just released from the hospital.

It’s front-line medicine, carried out in a setting where the focus is something else: education.

“The Healthy Learner Collaborative supports me as a school nurse. I am able to take a lot of knowledge back and I understand more about what my students and families are going through, so I can support them better,” says Valerie Hon of Portage. Alexander Andre, School of Nursing

The goal is straightforward, says Valerie Hon, a school nurse in Portage with 11 years of school experience: making sure that these kids get the support and understanding they need to be where they are supposed to be – in the classroom. But the same technology that helps reach this goal is a challenge in its own right, she adds. “The more technology that the students bring, the better they are able to control their diabetes, but it’s a learning curve for me with all these different devices. When a blood sugar alarm goes off, there are many steps in deciding what to do, and we have to pass that information along to others in the school – I am not always on site.”

The Healthy Learner Collaborative (HLC) was formed in 2010 by the School of Nursing, American Family Children’s Hospital and the Madison Metropolitan School District. It includes representatives from K-12 schools, health care organizations, and higher education institutions in south central Wisconsin. The goal is to promote collaboration among school nurses, educators, students, families and health care providers, including pediatric clinic nurses, says Lori Anderson, a clinical professor at the School of Nursing.

Lori Anderson, a clinical professor at the UW–Madison School of Nursing, said the goal of the Health Learner Cooperative is to promote collaboration among school nurses, educators, students, families and health care providers, including pediatric clinic nurses. Alexander Andre, School of Nursing

“The Collaborative focuses on supporting school nurses in the region, taking information we have and making it available to the nurses on the front line. We work in close partnership with American Family Children’s Hospital’s advanced practice nurses who focus on diabetes, neurology, asthma and allergies and have cutting-edge knowledge that our school nurses increasingly need. Mental health has also been a big focus of the group, with representatives from Madison Metropolitan School District providing expertise.”


“When kids are struggling, it may be a family issue. In schools, we work as a team, with counselors, social workers and nurses to remove the barriers to learning,” says Elizabeth Feisthammel of Sun Prairie. Alexander Andre, School of Nursing

“It’s hectic, fast-paced,” says Elizabeth Feisthammel, a district nurse in the fast-growing Sun Prairie school system with five years of experience in schools. “I was a pediatric hospital nurse before this. What I love about working in schools is the personal connection with the family, but it’s much  more complicated. We have students who rely on tube feeding or tracheal tubes, and we’re working with physicians and serving on teams with students who have Individualized Education Programs, where we are the only health person at the table. We have to do planning and training for the staff, so teachers and teacher’s aides are comfortable with these procedures.”

With a workload like that, Feisthammel says, “Having access to the information from the collaborative is a blessing because it’s not something we have in our backyard. This gives us access to the best information available.”

“School nursing can be a very isolated position, especially in a small district,” says Pam Schaal, who has 20 years of experience in the Mount Horeb schools. “We can’t go back to the nurse’s station and ask, ‘What do you think?’ We can’t phone a doctor on call when we need help. Having resources like the Healthy Learner Collaborative and other UW–Madison School of Nursing initiatives gives us the ability to do that.”