Understanding the work of school health administrators

Confronting implicit biasDoctoral candidate Samantha Blackburn, left, discusses research with her dissertation chair, Assistant Professor Ester Carolina Apesoa-Varano, right, at a School of Nursing symposium.

Growing up the daughter of a school district administrator and a public school teacher, Samantha Blackburn chose to work in the environment she experienced from birth. Pairing her nursing profession with a passion for health promotion in schools, she embarked upon a career in school nursing and school-based health care and, ultimately, doctoral research on school health leadership at the Betty Irene Moore School of Nursing at UC Davis.

“From my 15 years of experience planning school health programs, I recognized that school health administrators do amazing work developing programs, managing staff across many locations and ensuring the well-being of students in their care,” Blackburn explained.

Armed with questions about how these administrators manage the job, how they perceive their role, and what skills and strategies they need to manage health programs, Blackburn launched a qualitative study to investigate the work of a group of school health administrators in California. She explored their job pathways and responsibilities, factors influencing their work and how they accomplish that work with limited funding.

Blackburn conducted 30 interviews across the state and concluded that limited funding leads to a marginalization of school health administrators. This marginalization requires them to work double duty, as Blackburn noted, “they must constantly attempt to get political support of ‘higher ups’ in order to get funding, hire staff and even operate on school campuses.”

“These individuals weather these challenges because they hold onto a greater mission around promoting children’s health and well-being. They derive joy and job satisfaction from a bigger purpose,” Blackburn said. “If we had more standardized job descriptions and consistent titles within the profession, we could give school health administrators more authority and indicate for others exactly what they do.”

Blackburn’s long-term goal is to create a professional training specific to school health administrators. Currently an assistant professor in Nursing at California State University, Sacramento, she plans to explore the possibility of partnering with the School of Education there to develop a combination credentialing program for school health administrators. She also hopes to discuss her findings with the California Department of Education to help develop agreed-upon skills and knowledge for a pilot school health administrator credentialing program.

Ester Carolina Apesoa-Varano, an assistant professor at the School of Nursing and Blackburn’s dissertation chair, says this nursing research helps identify systems-level barriers to health care delivery ― in this case, the provision of essential health services needed by children and their families.

“Samantha’s qualitative study on the work of school health administrators provides a new understanding of the structural challenges and leadership assets impacting our state's school health programs, which ultimately contribute to the availability and quality of health services provided to school children in our state,” Apesoa-Varano said.

Blackburn credits Apesoa-Varano and School of Nursing faculty for giving her valuable tools and developing leadership skills that benefit all facets of her life.

“This program positioned me to get my dream job ― to teach at a California State University ― and brought lifelong friendships and support from members of my doctoral class and faculty like Carolina,” Blackburn said. “I look forward to my next chapter as a researcher, educator and policy advocate.”