By Ben Rodgers
BROWN COUNTY – Four area school districts have received grants to address mental health in schools, and each is doing something different to address a problem that is widespread throughout Wisconsin.
The Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction distributed $6.5 million in grants to 120 districts last week as part of the School-Based Mental Health Services Grant Program.
“According to the latest Youth Risk Behavior Survey results, more than four in 10 students had a mental health need over the previous year,” said State Superintendent Carolyn Stanford Taylor. “These grants will help those children. Students in every region of our state, in small and large districts, rural and urban communities, and everywhere in between, will benefit from mental health services they wouldn’t otherwise receive.”
Grants were up to $75,000 per year for two years.
Ashwaubenon School District
The Ashwaubenon School District will receive $73,650 each year for the next two years.
The district is using the funds to hire a half-time student wellness coordinator to administer the grant, grow programs and ultimately help students, said Tammy Nicholson, Ashwaubenon director of pupil services.
“It’s all about healthy mental health conversations with peers,” Nicholson said. “How do we teach kids to hear warning signs from one another and connect and listen and have good conversations? Because I think with social media we have a lot of conversations with kids that aren’t always healthy.”
She said the focus will be on social and emotional learning, of which mental health is one piece.
From there, Nicholson said she wants students to develop soft skills and strategies to keep themselves mentally healthy.
The district will also expand its Signs of Suicide curriculum to more grade levels and start a Hope Squad, a school-based peer support team that partners with local mental health agencies.
“People feel lost and they do not know what to do, so they don’t do anything,” Nicholson said. “We can always give support and ideas, and that could never hurt. The more informed we are, the more people we can help.”
She said staff will possibly work with the school board and community to determine if the position can be funded after the grant expires.
Unified School District of De Pere
The De Pere school district has no plans to hire someone to facilitate the grant, but to use the funds to expand programs.
“There are several districts that added mental health navigators with this grant,” said Jerry Nicholson, De Pere director of student services. “It’s not a direction we have chosen to go. We have more work to do in other areas first.
We are still looking at an increase in support, but we are looking at social work as one thing of expanding.”
Part of that expansion will be looking at the existing Hope Squad at Foxview Intermediate School and expanding it to the middle and high school levels.
He said the district will also look at developing a process around the Columbia-Suicide Severity Rating Scale, which supports suicide risk assessment through a series of simple, plain-language questions anyone can ask.
“It is a process that is used by two of the three medical providers in Brown County and the third is transitioning to it,” Jerry Nicholson said. “Dane County has transitioned to it and many of those school districts are on board.”
He said Allies in Mental Health, a partnership between CESA 6 and CESA 7, will also work with the district to look to enhance work at De Pere High School that focuses on awareness and understanding, character development, empathy, engagement, compassion and other skills students can use to support each other.
De Pere’s grant totals $74,674 for each of the two years.
Jerry Nicholson credited Melanie Brick, social worker, and Kari Stryhn, program support and 4K coordinator, for spearheading this grant.
Green Bay Area Public School District
The Green Bay school district is looking to target specific student populations with the grant funds, which total $75,000 each year.
“We hired a project manager position (last year) called the mental health navigator,” said Katy DeVillers, associate director for pupil services in Green Bay. “She worked with our district in a work group to target two populations, the Somali and Hispanic populations, because we recognized they have barriers to accessing mental health services, understanding it and how they view it culturally.”
DeVillers said just under 30 percent of the student body in Green Bay schools is made up of Hispanic students, while she didn’t have numbers for Somali students.
The part-time position works with Casa ALBA and COMSA to connect community agencies that focus on those populations with the district.
While working to grow programs to help those two populations, DeVillers said the part-time staff member will also look to increase referrals to mental health service agencies in the area.
“The plan is to have this seamless pathway of framework so we are consistent in our referrals for students with mental health services,” DeVillers said.
The third area of focus Green Bay will have is on social and emotional learning.
“We recognize that we have the need to provide some instruction to students in the areas of social and emotional learning, so we are looking to identify resources, and identify some schools to start in and have them start and work it into the curriculum.”
Six of the 42 schools in the district have been selected for the upcoming school year.
Howard-Suamico School District
The Howard-Suamico School District will also receive $75,000 each year over two years and will not add staff with the funds.
The district sent an email to The Press Times with what it hopes to accomplish with the grant. It plans to:
• Focus on social and emotional education at all grade levels to meet the needs of all students through universal and targeted instruction.
• Strengthen current school-based mental health framework through the use of student data, coaching and program assessment.
• Partner with community mental health providers to strengthen understanding of student mental health needs, screening, referral pathways and current school-based mental health programs.
• Through all of this, building adult capacity to support the whole child and understand their role in the social and emotional wellness of students.
From there it will use a data-driven method of decision making to guide practices and implementation of a strong social and emotional framework for all students.
The district plans to connect and strengthen the district-wide school mental health framework to ensure the needs of all students are being addressed, and work on a consistent process for accessing services at all levels.
That includes two years with Allies in Mental Health, like the De Pere school district.
Finally, evidenced-based, universal social and emotional curriculum will be provided to all schools to support the needs of students at all levels.