Schools going ‘out of the box’ to address mental health

J. Patrick Eaken

        Local school administrators say times are changing and they are finding themselves dealing more and more with students who are struggling with mental health issues.
        Three local school superintendents, one high school principal and a Catholic school president spoke at the Eastern Maumee Bay Chamber of Commerce’s annual State of the Communities breakfast at Mercy Health – St. Charles Hospital Wednesday morning.
        Waite High School Principal Todd Deem noted the impact that social media has on students. “Trying to get folks to understand that their world is not on that little screen in front of them; it’s easy to say things, but again it’s the teaching and the struggles that go with it,” Deem told breakfast attendees.
        School officials said they also deal with challenges of helping students coming from low socio-economic backgrounds.
        “Like these guys, I spend as much of my time feeding and clothing kids as I do educating them anymore, and our school district is meeting the needs of kids who have mental health issues, hunger, insecurities and things that are plaguing society,” Lake Local Schools Superintendent Jim Witt said.
        “One of the programs that we’ve started in the last couple years is called MVP — Making Valuable Partnerships. That started two years ago, and it’s doubled this year. We have over 45 staff members who mentor a child from kindergarten through high school once a week. They just spend time with them, which is really important. They have their special nights a year,” Witt continued.
        “About a month ago they met after school. They had pizza, hung out and then went to a basketball game together,” he said. “The look on the face of the kids was only exceeded by those of the adults. It started off as a mentoring program and honestly, I think our adults get more out of it than our kids do.”
        With the goal of improving the mental and physical welfare of its students, Lake is doing something totally out of the box next year.
        “Next year, we are going to flip our school day,” Witt said. “Research has shown – and we worked closely with two brilliant doctors from Mercy Children’s Health – that adolescents and teens do better in all aspects of their life, when they have more sleep. So, next year we are going to change our starting times at our middle school and our high school — from 7:45 to 8:45, and our elementary kids are going to start at 8:10 and be out earlier.
        “The research exists that shows that adolescents who get more sleep at night perform better. They are more alert. They behave better. There are less athletic injuries and there are fewer accidents on the road where schools start later. As it is with all change, there have been some bumps in the road, but we are going to start that next year. We’re excited about it.”
        “It has to do with circadian rhythms. When I first heard this, I thought, ‘Oh yes, take the device away and make them go to bed earlier’ – that’s not the way it works,” Witt said. “There is a scientific explanation behind it. We think it’s going to help our kids.
        “We also think a hidden aspect of it is our elementary is not air conditioned, and if you’ve ever walked in there at 3 o’clock on a hot September or a hot May day, it’s pretty warm in there,” he said. “We think overall, it’s going to be a really big benefit to our kids and to our community and we’re looking forward to that.”
Mental health partnership
        At Oregon City Schools, a partnership was created to bring mental health counseling directly into the district’s buildings.
        “We now provide mental health services to our students in a timely manner, Oregon City Schools Superintendent Hal Gregory said. “I’ll tell you, getting mental health services in a timely manner is difficult. There is a lot of bureaucracy out there. Our kids, or our parents, don’t have time to deal with bureaucracy. I mean when they need the help, they are usually pretty close to a crisis point.
        “We have recently contracted with a local provider and partnered with Mercy, who are now providing more mental health care services than ever before inside Oregon City Schools, inside the rooms, the counselors’ offices, the conference rooms, wherever. This year, right now we have over 65 students who are being served by those folks,” Gregory continued.
        “I guess what we’re finding is the need isn’t ending; the need is growing,” he said. “Social media is amazing, what it is doing to kids and us, and the parents. Helping kids understand how to deal with that is a priority for us right now; we have to. It is distracting from the learning we need to do.”
        Gregory says special needs students are a high priority at Oregon, too.
        “Our school system continues to prepare our students to become the best versions of themselves by providing a range of educational experiences and courses. We have opportunities for students to achieve very high success, and programs for students who need a more hands-on approach,” he said.
        “As we all know, we have a mix of kids in Oregon. We take great pride in serving our most needy students — we have over 13 percent who are special needs students that are on IEPs that have individualized programs. Along with those who are on our gifted and talented programs, we have programs throughout the district for fourth grade through high school
        “Forty-five percent of our families have significant economic challenges, and our biggest challenge is to equalize that education with the other 55 percent, which we strive every day to do. Kids come in at all different places in their lives, as we know, and part of a public education is to take every one of them and do everything we possibly can to get them through,” he said.
        Jason Kozina, superintendent at Northwood Schools, said being proactive and forming partnerships helps the district address the needs of students with special needs and those coming from families facing socio-economic challenges.
         “One of the things we found unique in Northwood is, in Wood County, we have the highest percentage of low socio-economic students and we also have the highest number of special needs students in the county. So that presents some challenges, so we don’t pass over them.
        “We have great partnerships out there with the Children’s Resource Center for mental health counseling as needed. We’re working with United Way on some different services for our families. We’re hoping that our foundation can help us with some of those things as well, but it does present itself with some unique challenges for our students,” he said.
        “It is kind of a unique situation where we are on that border of Wood County and Lucas County. A lot of the services that are our families would look for in Wood County are in the Bowling Green area, which poses a little bit of a challenge sometimes from the top end of the county, so there are a lot of Lucas County services that also help provides for us,” Kozina said.
        “Educationally over the last two years, our biggest focus has been the intervention services that are needed and being more proactive versus reactive. You know, the student doesn’t pass the state test and then all of a sudden, we need to intervene. We are trying to flip the script on that a little bit and do more ahead-of-time in preparing those students,” he continued.
        “We also have over 150 students in our over 1,000 student district that are open-enrolled and are choosing to come and be a part of our community and be a part of our school,” he said. “We have to get to know them and their families and have to get to know their needs and their struggles as they come in.


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