South Fulton High Schoolers Are First to Be Trained as Community Health Workers

Changing the world can sound daunting. Even achieving local change can be hard. But, 40 Atlanta-area high school students are changing the health and well-being of their community five people at a time.

High school students in the underserved Tri-Cities area of Atlanta, near the Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, have become the first in the nation to be trained as community health workers (CHWs), realizing the program’s dual goal of providing educational and economic opportunity to disadvantaged students, while increasing access to health care health education in an underserved community.

“Training and deploying local high school students to serve as ‘health ambassadors’ for their families, schools, and communities is a concept that our partners have been eager to rally around and support,” says Robyn Bussey, a research associate at the Georgia Health Policy Center. “Every time that I interact with the program participants, I get a renewed sense of pride in the work of the students.”

In 2014, the Atlanta Regional Collaborative for Health Improvement (ARCHI) brought together civic leaders, concerned citizens, health care providers, members of faith- and community-based organizations, educators, and government representatives in the Tri-Cities area, which includes College Park, East Point, and Hapeville. ARCHI provided administrative support, data, information on best practices, and technical assistance to inform and guide a community engagement process.

“The program is an ideal ARCHI project,” Bussey explains, “because it includes community residents and organization in the design and implementation of the program and it touches on each of the three ARCHI priorities that have been the framework for ARCHI’s engagement in the Tri-Cities community – care coordination, healthy behaviors, and pathways to advantage for students and families.”

The resulting resident-driven Tri-Cities Stewardship Committee envisioned they could create healthier people and neighborhoods in the Tri-Cities community by addressing four priority areas: health-care coordination, healthy behaviors, poverty and, access to health insurance. The group recognized CHWs could help make improvements in each of these areas.

CHWs, often members of the communities they serve, provide social support, informal counseling, and basic health care services, like blood pressure screening. CHWs serve as connectors — providing education about healthy living and linking residents to available health services.

But rather than just hiring CHWs, Tri-Cities decided to train their own.

Thirteen local high school students completed a paid CHW certification program in the summer of 2016 – the first in the nation for high school students. Building on their established CHW training program, the Morehouse School of Medicine provided the training and internship. The six-week pilot program included a total of 210 hours of instruction — 70 hours in the classroom, followed by 140 hours in the field. Continuing education is provided over the following year.

“I realized that community health workers really are for the community. They help not just with economic struggles, but emotional, so it is kind of like therapy, too,” says Razaar, from the 2018 class at KIIP Atlanta Collegiate High School and a 2016 graduate of the CHW certification programs. “I really like communicating with people, not just my age. That is a competency we learned about, which will help me, not just as a community health worker, but as a person.”

On August 5, the second group of 25 high school students received their CHW certification, many of whom were mentored by the previous summer’s graduates. Over the next year the students will monitor the health of five family or community members and connect them to needed resources, fulfilling the program’s goals of improving health monitoring and health literacy in the community.