Healthcare Was Hard to Come By. So This Superintendent Stepped Up

Finding a pediatrician or behavioral-health specialist is a time-consuming endeavor for parents in rural Jones County, N.C.

With only one private pediatric practice and few local organizations offering mental- and behavioral health services for the county’s nearly 1,700 children, parents often wait long hours to see a medical professional when they finally snag an appointment.

That’s why the telehealth program in the Jones County public schools has been such a game changer for the district’s 1,110 students and 215 employees. They now can visit with health-care professionals via a secure remote connection for minor medical conditions such as sore throats and ear infections, nutrition counseling, and mental health issues—all without leaving their school buildings.

The initiative, the brainchild of Superintendent Ben Thigpen, is the first of its kind in this agricultural community, about 100 miles southeast of Raleigh. It launched at a fortuitous time in 2021—amid the global COVID-19 pandemic, which has severely disrupted school systems and catapulted students’ mental health and social-emotional well-being to the top of district leaders’ minds.

Remarkably, Thigpen got the program up and running just one year after arriving at the five-school district in January 2020. To him, the initiative simply made sense.

“You learn that [a] student’s academic outcome is affected by a lot of different things, including their health,” Thigpen said. “And school is where they all come together. It’s where we serve them.”

Lessons From the Leader

  • Have a Shared Vision: The vision—or idea of what you want to create—must be collective, in the sense that your stakeholders must be able to see the concept and how it moves the organization forward. It is that conception and lens that inspire action.
  • Remember the Law of the Farm: Quick and easy don’t work on the farm. Educational systems and progress are also subject to natural laws. We must prepare the ground, put in the seed, cultivate it, weed it, water it, and then we’ll see gradual growth and development.
  • Expand Boundaries: Communities must come together to solve quality-of-life and economic issues. Partnering with organizations outside the school system and engaging them to address community concerns are key. It involves listening, learning, patience, and persistence.

Leaning into established partnerships

Luckily, Thigpen, 58, didn’t have to start from scratch; he’d overseen the start of a similar school-based telehealth program in the Duplin County district, in nearby Kenansville, where he worked as an assistant superintendent before moving to Jones County.

The inspiration came from a trip he took with the district’s nurses in 2016 to the far western part of the state to learn more about the work of Steve North, the founder of the Center for Rural Health Innovation’s Health-e-Schools. A teacher-turned-physician, North started the school-based telemedicine program after seeing his former students struggle academically because

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