Schools get creative to support students, asking for community help to fill gaps

7 Investigates: Supporting Students
Published: Jun. 8, 2023 at 11:59 PM CDT
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(WSAW) - Helping provide students with resources to have an equal opportunity to succeed is nothing new for schools. However, in 2023 there are more needs, particularly mental health deficiencies, needing to be addressed than even a few years ago.

“School often is a kid’s safe place,” Allie Libby, school counselor at Merrill High School explained. “So they’re coming to school and unloading, a lot of times, what’s going on in their life. And those things were there before the pandemic, but I think people are feeling more comfortable talking about it now.”

Libby underscores it is a good thing more students are willing to share so they can get the help and support they need. However, the adults providing mental health resources are drowning.

“Myself (sic) and another counselor have 420 kids to be able to help with, along with scheduling, and standardized testing, and making sure kids have clothing,” she listed. “So, just the amount of needs is not getting any smaller.”

She said it is tough to see so many kids who are telling her really difficult things they need help with, and then quickly switch to other duties like supervising testing.

“That’s really hard on professionals too; like dealing with that and feeling like you don’t know, what can you do? You know, you reach out for resources and those resources aren’t necessarily there. The counseling waiting lists are eight weeks to six months.”

”By that point, it could be detrimental to a student if they wait that long to get help,” her counterpart at Wausau West High School, Haley Kerswill, noted.

While some students who go to counseling do so when their mental health is relatively manageable, many others are either encouraged to go or seek it out themselves when they can no longer function or are participating in highly risky behaviors and need help more immediately.

So, despite the overload of needs and duties many mental health professionals in schools face, as school social worker and mental health navigator for the D.C. Everest School District says, they have to make the most of even the brief interactions they have with students.

“We always need more people, you know, I will always advocate for that, but also being in the present with the students that you’re working with today? And how can we help one student at a time?”

Schools across the country are failing to meet the nationally recommended student-to-mental health professional ratios; 1:250 for school counselors and social workers, and 1:500 for school psychologists. In Wisconsin, the average school has 1:414 school counselors, 1:1750 social workers, and 1:901 school psychologists.

Districts are getting creative to manage students’ needs while navigating shortages. That includes training staff, like teachers, to watch out for signs and be aware of what resources exist.

”They are already experts in the learning and academics and all of those things,” DCE Student Services Director Gina Lehman said, “but they were never educated as what is it to be a counselor or a therapist.”

One of the programs at least 50 school districts in north central Wisconsin have been using is the b.e.s.t. program, which is supported by Marshfield Clinic Health System. The acronym stands for Behavioral Emotional Social Traits; it is a program that was crafted and started by Dr. Eric Hartwig that trains teachers for free about behaviors they can look for in students.

“Dr. Hartwig has 40 plus years as a school psychologist,” Jay Shrader, MCHS’s vice president of community health, health equity, and health promotion said. “He’s a local guy; he was an administrator over at school, so he gets kids. He understands and he’s got a lot of expertise and knowledge.”

Teachers assess each of their students based on behaviors they have seen and are provided simple tools to navigate those behaviors and work with families. The assessment is completed a second time in the year to look for change.

“There’s three scales that he measures that ultimately produce a health of a school,” Shrader explained. “It’s really beneficial because it can be used to inform policies and procedures. It’s used to train teachers on additional work or different practices.”

This training approach also takes into account students who may not want to ask for or get help for their mental struggles. Including teachers in connecting with students on a human-level also is beneficial to help kids learn.

”It’s about building those bridges between the teacher and the students,” DCE Senior High science teacher, Tony DeGrand said. “And once you have that connection with the students, they’ll listen to you. And that’s when you can teach them.”

Districts have also partnered with therapists in their communities to bring them directly into the schools. The Marathon County School-Based Counseling Consortium is one example that has been growing since 2017.

”Our goal a few years ago was to have a therapist in every building in Marathon County,” Andy Grimm, the pupil services coordinator for the Wausau School District stated. “And we accomplished that; it was an awesome feat. But through the pandemic, there’s been less and less (sic) available therapists, and the less need to fill your caseload by being in the school. So, that means less therapists are willing to work in schools.”

Students having insurance that covers these sessions also is a barrier.

”That, in itself, oftentimes is the reason why students aren’t able to seek help, because their family can’t afford it,” Kerswill said.

While there have been government dollars allocated to school mental health resources, it is often grant-based and those grants, given the need everywhere, are competitive.

“Do you receive that grant? Do you not? If you don’t, how do you provide services? How do you provide funding from within the district? Like, we know it’s a need, but again, is it a district need or a community need,” Grimm asked. “How can we build more support from the community? Are there other agencies that are willing to donate funds to provide in-school or school-based counseling?”

Schools are also asking for community members to be engaged and educate themselves about mental health so they can help support either their own children or those in their community with building resiliency skills and helping when their student is in need. It also helps to break down the social barrier, or stigma, some feel in seeking help.

Rural school challenges

7 Investigates: Supporting Students

While schools across the nation face similar challenges when it comes to addressing students’ mental health needs, rural districts tend to have those challenges amplified.

For example, in 2018 the Wisconsin Policy Forum stated 55 of 72 Wisconsin counties face a “significant shortage” of psychiatrists, with 20% having none at all; those being rural counties. At the time, Wisconsin ranked 41st among the 50 states for the prevalence of mental illness, meaning there is a high prevalence of mental health and substance use issues. The report states more than half of Wisconsin adults in need of mental health services go without care.

”It’s about how do we layer multiple, multiple systems of support together,” noted Heidi Siebert, the director of pupil services and special education with the Antigo School District.

Antigo reflects the experience of many rural school districts in Wisconsin.

One of those challenges, she said, is Langlade County has the third highest number of kids per capita entering the juvenile justice system in the state behind Racine and Milwaukee.

”You’d think, what? Antigo, Langlade County? But we have a pretty diverse community, and we do, we have needs that are not always acknowledged by the greater community that we have people that might be struggling more.”

The district serves nearly all of the students in Langlade County, more than 80% of them. Overall, 65% of its students qualify for free and reduced lunch; at the elementary level, Siebert said four out of five kids qualify. Without proper support, poverty is a risk factor that can lead kids to have poor mental health, but that does not mean people cannot have high expectations for those students.

“What we have to be cognizant of is in those early years is how we support them and make sure that we are building the things that they need that they might not have, and be bringing parents in,” she explained. “Because it’s just a-- it’s a data set, but it’s doesn’t really speak to what our kids are capable of. And that’s what we need to see is, what do we do for all students to help all of them reach their goals, knowing that we have some barriers that we need to make sure are not barriers for kids. We have to take those barriers down so that they can access and achieve at high levels.”

Removing barriers typically takes more resources, which often costs extra money. Seibert says districts like Antigo do not have the same level of local taxes, state and federal aid, or general funding for students compared to districts with less poverty.

“So then we have to try to supplant it, instead of supplement,” she continued. “And so we want to be able to at least say, ‘This is what a district offers students at a level that’s equitable across the state,’ which it is not. You have districts like us, high poverty $10,000 per student, you have... other districts that spend around $20,000 per pupil and have about 10% poverty. So, you’re going to have different outcomes; it’s just going to happen. And we have to start realizing that that has an impact. And then we shouldn’t be judged by the same metric, then if we’re not going to have the same level of funding.”

So rural districts get doubly creative to work within their means.

“The mentality that we have had here in Antigo is nobody’s coming to rescue us. So, what do we do with what we have in the best way possible?”

‘Nobody’s coming to rescue us’

7 Investigates: Supporting Students

Like nearly all districts, Antigo does not have the recommended mental health professionals for the size of its student population. It can also be difficult for rural districts to recruit and retain professionals when communities have limited resources and pay that is not competitive with larger, more urban districts.

Until two years ago, the district did not have a school social worker. Now, Amanda Mohr manages the number of students that national best practices recommend eight social workers to cover.

”My goal is to get that stigma removed and help families understand that my job,” Mohr stated. “My goal is to really bridge any gaps between the family, the community, and the school.”

She said she has been able to proactively build relationships with students and families, but they are missing a lot of prevention opportunities being stretched thin.

“Right now, we’re reacting instead of being able to get ahead of it.”

For example, she -- like all of the school districts 7 Investigates spoke with -- regularly checks bathrooms to see if students are vaping or using marijuana. She laughed saying many students turn around when they see her going to the bathroom.

She works to understand why those kids are using substances, or doing whatever challenging behavior such as not showing up to school, so she can help address the underlying needs. If appropriate, she tries to connect them to therapy, but the wait times can be six months long, providers can be a hundred miles away, reliable internet for telehealth providers may not be available at home, or the provider is not covered by their insurance.

All of these barriers are why the district utilized one-time pandemic ESSER funds to create a mental health navigator position to build a better system of resources for students. This includes bringing in outside therapists into the schools, whether in-person or virtually in private therapy bays.

”Over the last five years, we went from having the services maybe one time, two times a week for just our high school to, we have access to a therapist every day,” Seibert said. “And we actually have elementary students also being able to be referred for those services.”

This does not cost the district to have this resource, as providers bill students’ insurance, but it is not a perfect solution, as insurance coverage is not the same for all students. However, getting those services in schools has been found to create equity and reduce several barriers for students to access these resources, including social barriers related to stigma.

”They’re not missing as much school, they’re, you know, doing their session and going right back to class. Parents aren’t having to take off of work. So, you know, in a community that has a high level of poverty, not being able to remove those barriers is very important,” Mohr noted.

After-school programs like the Boys & Girls Club of Antigo also have worked closely with the district to address the needs of students between school and going home. A year and a half ago, Corie Zelazoski, the director of operations stated the club was assessing how they could best support the community and they determined that adding a mental health coordinator and a teen center, a separate space just for teens, were two big needs. They also worked to make the transition from school to the after-school environment more seamless for kids of all ages.

“Transitioning from school, where there’s all these rules and all these expectations to the club where there might be all these rules and expectations that don’t match or align, that can be a really big struggle for kids,” she said. “So, trying to help make that transition better by collaborating with the school district about OK, we have this kiddo who’s struggling and this is what we’re doing to help them.”

When it comes to therapy, they have taken down yet another barrier for its members.

”We do have a mental health coordinator here at the Boys & Girls Club, who sees our members for free and provides one-on-one counseling for them,” Corie Zelazoski, the director of operations stated. “She’s a licensed therapist, and she’s been amazing for our members.”

It is through these community partnerships, education, and brainstorming to form solutions that districts everywhere are asking for help from community members to fill the gaps and support students.

“You can only address See the system to the degree of the resources that you have to support it,” Seibert urged. “And our community and our school has to recognize that you cannot separate the social-emotional from the academic; kids or whole, we have to treat them as whole children.”

correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly spelled Amanda Mohr's name; it has since been corrected.