Students in Central Falls, R.I., are about to learn more about how good health impacts every aspect of life — and how they might someday join the medical professionals who provide care to improve the health and lives of others.
As students in the city’s Calcutt Middle School return for the 2022-23 academic year in August, the school will be home to a SMART Health and Wellness Clinic thanks to the generosity of the Warren Alpert Foundation. It will also serve as the inaugural site for SMART Plus — a professional pathways initiative led by Brown University’s Warren Alpert Medical School designed to spark student interest in health and medicine careers.
In sum, health professionals and medical school students will join forces to care for student patients in the school’s embedded SMART Clinic and to provide inspiration, mentorship and health education in classrooms.
Dr. Joseph Diaz, associate dean for diversity and multicultural affairs at the Warren Alpert Medical School, said the medical education component is particularly important given Central Falls’ federal designation as having a shortage of health professionals in relation to the population.
“We are extremely excited about the opportunity to introduce Central Falls students to a variety of careers in health care and to increase their sense of possibility in terms of what types of professional futures are available to them,” Diaz said. “This opportunity provides students access to ongoing mentorship and conversations about health and health care careers.”
Diaz noted that the Warren Alpert Medical School is the first medical school to partner with a SMART Clinic, and the project can serve as a model for medical schools and communities throughout the country. “Pathways” programs like the one the medical school will lead can be effective in low-income communities, where students may have limited access to resources that position them to pursue success in fields like medicine.
The launch of the SMART Clinic, announced on Tuesday, June 28, comes as the result of a partnership between Central Falls Schools, the Ginn Group Collaborative and the Rhode Island Department of Education with funding from the Warren Alpert Foundation and support from Brown’s medical school. The new clinic will join established SMART Clinics at Mt. Pleasant High School and Roger Williams Middle School in Providence, with a third opening at George J. West Elementary School next fall.
SMART clinicians work to proactively identify and address the physical, behavioral, social and emotional risks to classroom success, then design and deliver needed interventions through on-site, real-time health services. The clinics treat all students — without regard to insurance or immigration status — and they never charge students any out-of-pocket fees.
“The pandemic has made it clear to all how health care gaps hurt students and families in Central Falls every day — that is why we are so excited to welcome the SMART team to our community,” said Central Falls School District Superintendent Stephanie Downey Toledo. “Our bold, new strategic plan is tailor-made for this approach to providing focused health and academic support. Our students, families and school community will benefit from this SMART Clinic for years to come.”
This opportunity provides students access to ongoing mentorship and conversations about health and health care careers.
A pathway from middle school to a career in health and medicine
The medical and behavioral health teams that provide care to students via SMART Clinics include a family nurse practitioner, a licensed and independent clinical social worker, a utilization and engagement manager, a certified medical assistant, a licensed practical nurse and/or registered nurse and a health and wellness coordinator.
As the Central Falls School District and its partners launch the Calcutt Middle School clinic in August, the partnership with Brown will leverage the expertise and experience of medical school students, faculty and staff, Diaz said. Members of the medical school community will assist with clinical treatment of middle school students in the clinic and participate separately in classroom engagement.
David Upegui, a science educator at Central Falls High School, recently welcomed Diaz and second-year Brown medical student Carey Favaloro into his class on anatomy and physiology. Upegui worked with the pair to come up with ways to bring the science lessons to life. Diaz and Favaloro talked to the class about anatomy in the context of examining patients, making diagnoses and identifying health disorders.
“Because of their experience and knowledge as medical professionals, they could augment my teaching — for example, they could talk about case studies and situations they’ve dealt with in a clinical capacity,” said Upegui, who is an adjunct lecturer in education at Brown.
Upegui has been inviting Warren Alpert Medical Students to talk to his classes for years and says he’s looking forward to the formalization and consistency of the visits as part of the SMART Plus pathways program.
“The SMART Plus pathways program is another way to have Central Falls students middle and high schoolers see medical students and clinicians who look like them, or who don’t look like them but are clearly taking an interest in their academic and professional success,” Upegui said. “There’s so much underdeveloped talent and capacity in Central Falls schools, and this is a way to get these young minds participating at a higher level.”
The initiative is the first step in a broader set of pathways programs at the Warren Alpert Medical School. Through the new SMART Plus program, Central Falls middle school students will start learning about medical education. In high school, students will continue learning about health and medical careers, and may choose to participate in a summer or after-school program with the Warren Alpert Medical school. Then in college, they may apply to the Month of Medical School program with Brown, or apply for a related internship, or connect with mentors at the Warren Alpert Medical School — mentors that they first met in class years ago.
“This program increases the potential for Central Falls students to attend medical school, do their residency in Rhode Island and then stay to practice medicine in the community,” Diaz said.
Even those students who don’t choose medical careers will be empowered by expanded health literacy, Upegui said, and will be able to use biomedical knowledge to solve other problems faced by their communities.
Professional role models and mentors
In addition to classroom content, an important component of pathways programs is the role modeling, mentorship and advising students receive from health care professionals.
“Medical students will help prepare students for health care professions through education, advising and mentorship,” said Dr. Michele Cyr, the medical school’s senior associate dean for academic affairs. “By sharing their own educational journeys, as well as by working as health providers in the SMART Clinic, they can also inspire students to consider similar paths.”
Cyr and Diaz conceptualized the SMART-Plus Pathways program in partnership with the Ginn Consulting Group, who created the SMART Clinics model. Luckson Omoaregba, director of pipeline programs at Brown’s medical school, will oversee and manage the SMART-Plus Pathways program. Medical school students have shown strong interest in the program even as it’s just getting off the ground, Diaz said.
“The students are intensely aware that the health care workforce doesn’t reflect the communities that we’re caring for,” Diaz said. “They want to be involved because this pathways program has the potential to bring more types of people into the field, ultimately diversifying health care professions.”
While the program is intended to nurture the ambitions of individual students, it is also intended to have a long-term beneficial effect for the community. Pathways programs have been shown to promote a culturally competent, diverse and prepared health care and biomedical research workforce that enhances patient care and ensures health equity.
“It is the ultimate hope that students who participate in the pathways program will return to their communities as health professionals and serve as role models for future generations of students,” Diaz said.
A deep commitment to improving health
The SMART-Plus Pathways program in Central Falls is being made possible with the generous support of the Warren Alpert Foundation, which is committed to improving health of the public through grants and programmatic activities progressing toward medical treatments or cures through basic and translational research as well as through health education.
As part of a competitive awards program, Brown’s proposal for SMART Plus Pathways program was selected by the foundation to receive $2.4 million in support. The foundation grant will cover all technical assistance, training, start-up operations and infrastructure costs to develop the new SMART site, while the medical school will fund an additional $2.4 million in program costs.
This award to fund Brown’s role in the SMART Clinic comes amid other foundation support for the life sciences at Brown. Over the past 18 months, the Warren Alpert Foundation has also funded the following high-impact projects: $4.6 million to the research and development of an mRNA malaria vaccine for children; $3.4 million to investigate a novel therapy for pancreatic cancer; $2.5 million to study targeted intensive case management of veterans at risk of suicide after inpatient hospitalization; and $1.2 million for a public health project evaluating a skilled nursing facility payment system.
The total amount from the foundation over the past year and a half — $14 million — supports a variety of innovative research and education initiatives, aimed at ultimately improving the health and well-being of people in Rhode Island and beyond.
The Warren Alpert Foundation is also the largest philanthropic donor in the school’s 50-year history, giving $100 million in 2007, which renamed the school, and $27 million in 2016 to support the training of physician-scientists.