What is mental health prevention, and how could DCSD benefit from additional resources for it?
When it comes to mental health services, communities traditionally focus on supporting kids as needs arise. If it is discovered that a student is engaging in unhealthy behavior, such as drug or alcohol use, intervention specialists find them help and rehabilitation services. If a student is observed with behavioral problems, school and family counselors step in and work with them. If we suspect a friend is having suicidal thoughts, we intervene immediately.
This work is crucial for the safety of our students. Equally important, though, is prevention-based programming that can help, early on, prevent the social-emotional challenges our kids may be experiencing from escalating.
In DCSD, social-emotional support and intervention is a collaboration between administrators, teachers, parents, counselors, school social workers and school psychologists. We prepare students for learning and for life by engaging them in bully prevention and substance abuse prevention programs, building their coping skills, spreading awareness about teen relationship violence, and more. This prevention-based model is key in addressing the psychological safety of students district-wide.
Like most school districts, DCSD could benefit from additional resources, in order to meet the growing needs of the school district and to strengthen prevention-based programming in all of our schools.
Douglas County schools have access to a variety of resources for prevention such as Sources of Strength, Resilient Me, and the Student Wellness and Prevention Framework, as well as workshops and seminars facilitated by the district’s Universal Prevention team (“Team UP”).
In addition to working with students for their social-emotional health, school counselors also focus on students’ academics and college and career readiness. This looks a bit different at each level and in each school. Elementary counselors focus more on universal programming and mental health. Middle school counselors focus on all three areas with an emphasis on intervention for a targeted population of students. This can include daily check-ins with students, suicide assessments, student safety plans, addressing topics such as anxiety, divorce, and grief/loss, and connecting families with services in the community.
High school counselors handle class scheduling, college readiness, post-secondary planning and helping students with their plan after high school, as well as targeted social-emotional intervention.
In DCSD, funds are allocated to high schools and middle schools to hire one counselor for every 350 students. While this ratio is better than the national average, which is 482:1, the American School Counselor Association’s recommended student-to-counselor ratio is 250:1.
Feedback from high school students on DCSD’s 2017 Community Survey and from DCSD’s Student Advisory Group is indeed showing that they would like increased access to school counselors. However, the volume of demand is hard to meet, and with such a strong demand for their time, it can be challenging to focus on implementing schoolwide prevention programming.
Thanks to a new three-year grant received by the state last summer, each DCSD middle school gained an additional counselor. These counselors focus solely on prevention efforts in each of their buildings, and according to Zac Hess, DCSD Director of Health, Wellness and Prevention, their work has seen phenomenal results in the middle schools this year.
“These counselors now are really connecting kids to resources, they are able to adapt curriculum personally for each student, they are able to think ahead and take care of them well before an issue has the chance to escalate,” says Hess.
Given the success seen already with middle schools, Hess believes the model would work perfectly in high schools, where there is a strong need for proactive prevention work.
“One of the high school principals told me, ‘I have counselors doing a great job of supporting students with class scheduling, college and career planning, and addressing social and emotional issues and crises. I need someone who can get ahead of things and focus on executing upstream prevention efforts,’” he says. “This is a huge need.”
However, Hess and others are acutely aware of the reality that when it comes time to re-apply for the grant, there will likely be a large number of school districts competing for these limited dollars, meaning it’s not sustainable in the long term without a reliable source of funding.
“Our plan, for when it’s time to re-submit a grant application, is to request funds to renew the program and ask for nine additional staff members for the high school level. In reality, with the competition for grant dollars, I don’t know if they will reward that,” says Hess.
Further demonstrating the need for additional resources, principals at all levels are in overwhelming agreement that counselors are needed for elementary schools to address students’ potential social and emotional issues early on. While some elementary schools in DCSD do have a counselor on staff, a vast majority do not have a full-time position dedicated to this.
“We need school counselors at the elementary level,” says Hess. “At that level, counselors are not focused on scheduling classes like at the middle and high school levels. They will be able to devote time to prevention efforts. So, for kids who are already experiencing social and emotional issues, there’s already someone there working with those students, working with the teachers and staff, making sure those universal supports are happening in the school.”
He adds, “We have a small but very mighty team of staff members, both in the schools and at the district level, working tirelessly and doing excellent work. But we could use more resources for strong prevention-based programming at all grade levels in DCSD.”
What is DCSD doing to address mounting funding needs?
Over the 18 months, DCSD has carefully examined its budget, looking for any possible dollars that could be reallocated or more efficiently used. Positions at the central administration level have been combined or eliminated. In addition, departments cut as many expenses as they could, narrowing budgets down to their most basic needs, focusing on supporting schools. This process has resulted in more than $20 million in budgetary savings. However, with increasing demand and need for school building maintenance, special education services, safety and security needs, and more, these savings are simply not enough to address the growing needs in our schools.
Learn more about the Funding Challenges in Douglas County School District by visiting www.dcsdk12.org/funding