When the economy took a turn for the worse we saw many of our families struggling with job loss and foreclosure. Not surprisingly, we saw increases in the number of our students who were and are struggling with mental health problems. Our students are not alone. A national study by researchers at five universities confirmed that teens are suffering from depression and anxiety more now than at any time since the Great Depression.
Because mental health problems have a negative impact on learning, we decided we needed to take steps to help students deal with these concerns so they can lead happier, healthier lives and do well in school. Last year we hired a mental health consultant, Dr. Nita Kumar, who did an extensive evaluation of the district’s current support system provided for students. She found some duplication of service and some gaps and recommended a number of changes that will be implemented this coming school year.
One of the biggest changes in the area of mental health is our new school-based mental health program. It will go well beyond the prevention and intervention services we have provided to this point. In the past, if it was determined that a student needed clinical mental health services, the family was required to make arrangements and bring the child to a community-based mental health provider. This often meant parents had to take time off work to transport their child. They were not always able to follow through, especially if they didn’t have health insurance coverage. Beginning this year, students will be able to receive clinical mental health services at school – but only after we get permission from parents or guardians.
We know the need for help doesn’t go away in the summer when school is not in session so our program will be available year-round and therapists will be able to conduct sessions at families’ homes if necessary.
Another unique aspect of this program is that much of the cost will be covered by billing students’ health insurance plans. District funds will cover costs for students who are uninsured or underinsured so that a child who has a documented medical need for help will be able to get it.
Mental health services will be provided through a contract we signed with Headway Emotional Health Services. Headway will provide 14 full-time clinicians who have either masters or doctoral degrees and are licensed as either social workers, psychologists, professional clinical counselors or family therapists. The contractor will also do the billing. This is a unique arrangement. I believe we are leading the way with a model other school districts may want to follow.
In addition, we re-examined some of the support services provided primarily for our students of color and American Indian students by our student learning advocates and Indian education advisers. As the result of a drop in funding, we needed to reorganize to fit within the revenue available. In these areas, too, we found some duplication and some gaps in service.
In developing the new structure, Dr. Jinger Gustafson, associate superintendent for middle schools, and the student support realignment team followed direction from the school board to ensure that the new support structure reflects the ethnic diversity of our student body and continues to provide the encouragement students need not only to stay in school but also to push themselves to succeed academically and grow into responsible young adults.
The new model brings back all but one of the Indian education adviser positions we had last year and all but two of the student learning advocate positions. In the past, the student learning advocates were concentrated at the middle and high school levels. In the new structure, student learning advocates will be renamed student achievement advisers and they will serve all schools and be organized by feeder schools. This means that the student achievement adviser for each high school will work with the advisers for the middle and elementary schools whose students feed into that high school. This communication protocol should help students as they transition from one level to the next.
Another key aspect of the reorganization was to clearly define the role of the Indian education adviser and student achievement adviser in the schools so staff members will know who will be able to best provide the help each student needs. For example, if a student is working with an achievement adviser and it becomes clear the student really needs the help of a mental health clinician, the adviser will set up an appointment for the student and may even attend the first meeting with the student. That way we can ensure students will get specific help for their specific need. We are also continuing to examine other student support roles to ensure alignment to student and family needs.
I am confident our new school-based mental health program and the continued realignment of our student services restructure will serve our students well so each will be able to reach high levels of academic achievement and be prepared for life when they graduate from our schools.
Dennis Carlson is the superintendent of the Anoka-Hennepin School District.