When Jean Zdanys entered the rigorous Yale School of Nursing program in 1994, one of her electives was a clinical course in school-based health that required her to work at a school-based clinic.
“I loved the idea of being located in a school because I could have a more personal contact with my patients,” Zdanys said. “Seeing them in the context where they learn and grow every day, and seeing them when they are well, makes it easy to identify problems when they are ill. It also provides the opportunity to share in their triumphs and encourage them when things aren't going well.”
In 1997, Zdanys started working as a nurse practitioner in her own school-based clinic at New Haven's Brennan Rogers School, an inner-city school faced with many of the traditional urban problems.
She's been there ever since.
Brennan was identified as a “Tier III Turnaround School” due to its poor academic achievement. A major infusion of resources followed, including a new principal and staff of teachers who received intensive training. Zdanys says scores have begun to rise and that U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan visited the school last spring as a model of educational reform.
Zdanys — or Mrs. Z as she is affectionately known to the throngs of children whose lives she has impacted — is employed by the New Haven Health Department, but proudly says she serves the students of New Haven. At Brennan, she collaborates with classroom teachers, specialty teachers, a social worker, administrators, parents and support staff. At the New Haven Health Department, she maintains ties with various divisions including maternal/child health, environmental health, epidemiology, AIDS, emergency preparedness, school health and the Bureau of Nursing.
“I am partial to nursing because I work with school nurses on a daily basis and greatly admire the skill and dedication they bring to their jobs,” Zdanys said.
Zdanys, who serves on the district Wellness Committee and school's Wellness Team, is responsible for helping students succeed by staying healthy and providing guidance around growth and development. Some of the issues she addresses are basic health maintenance, pediatric obesity and asthma. Brennan also has several classrooms of autistic children with their own special needs.
“My role has changed over the years along with the changes in the New Haven School System. Wellness has become a priority,” she said. “This movement started about 12 years ago as New Haven began to address nutrition in schools as a response to the epidemic of pediatric obesity.”
“We removed soda machines, junk food, and made changes to the quality of school breakfasts and lunches. Gradually this expanded to liaisons with local farmers as suppliers, and hands on programs like gardening, which has begun at several schools including my own.”
There is a definite emphasis on physical activity and wellness — the P.A.W. Program — that focuses on encouraging exercise, healthy eating, and a healthy environment at school and home for children, families and school staff. For example, instead of a typical holiday pizza party or birthday cupcakes, children and teachers celebrate with a student-staff volleyball game or a game of kickball. The school has also collaborated with community sponsors to provide nutrition and cooking classes for parents.
In addition, the City of New Haven has an employee wellness program that is affiliated with the St. Raphael's branch of Yale New Haven Hospital. Zdanys is the school's liaison with that program and has been able to coordinate on-site exercise programs like Pilates, nutrition counseling on an individual basis as well as health screenings for cholesterol, blood sugar and blood pressure.
During Hurricane Sandy, Zdanys and her colleagues worked to coordinate the storm shelter at Career High School in New Haven for 150 people.
The Brennan school's collaborating physician, Steve Updegrove, who has known Zdanys for nearly 15 years, describes her as “effective, thoughtful, caring, compassionate and entirely committed to the children.”
“She goes to great lengths to engage the students at her school,” Updegrove said. “She leads by example — demonstrating to teachers and administrators how attention to student wellness pays dividends in terms of academic achievement. Whether at work or as a volunteer, she puts others first and does whatever is necessary to assist the person in her care.”
For Zdanys, a Wallingford resident, it all comes down to the children.
“I believe that raising children is the most important job anyone can have,” she said. “It is a very difficult and demanding responsibility. I am honored to assist parents in this capacity. That is why I am passionate about my work.”
“Each day is full of firsts for somebody, and that makes each day exciting and interesting.”