Fighting Failure, part 3: Mental health’s toll

Editor’s note: This is part three of a series about the statewide problems in Oregon’s education system, and how it affects local schools in the Southern Willamette region. This week’s story follows mental health’s role in student academics.

A school’s primary mission is teaching and learning, but when a student is struggling with matters in their personal life: Those problems don’t stop at the door.
According to Creslane Counselor Amy McCormick, there’s a direct correlation between mental health and its effect on academics.
”How students function emotionally and mentally affects thinking, behavior, relationships and feelings,” she said. ”All are at play at school in classroom and it affects the student’s ability to learn.”
Unlike most Oregon elementary schools, especially due to Creslane’s size of 600 students, McCormick works as a full-time counselor. A licensed social worker, she focuses on supporting student success through skill building, therapeutic interventions and emotional support, as well as working with student groups on conflict management and with families to check in on a student’s home life.
”If we want kids to be academically successful, we need to be able to support their mental health to fulfill our mission to teach students,” McCormick said. ”Even though it may seem like mental health should be separate from education and mental health should be addressed through other ways, what I’ve really noticed through my work at Creslane is that school is almost the perfect place to provide these supports.”
She added that the school sees everything in action: Students having a hard time saying goodbye to their parents, the aftermath of a child being removed from the home or a parent’s separation, students working through the death of a family member, trauma from moving or the family’s electricity being turned off.
”There’s so much opportunity to teach skills and help kids move through it at school,” she said.
Throughout Creswell School District, there are programs in place to help students work through mental health problems, as well as learning disabilities. David Bascue, director of special services, works with students who have disabilities, academic or emotional and behavioral needs. He said the programs are wide-ranging and specific to a student’s circumstance.
There’s Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports (PBIS), which develops positive behavior through an established behavioral support and social culture; classroom break areas which are a calming or active space, although the active space is if a child has earned the break; the comprehensive learning center, which offers a higher level of behavioral support; high school to elementary school mentor program; the check-in/check-out program, which connects a student to a trusted staff member to discuss their evening before and their feelings that morning, as well as talk about what happened during the school day before the student goes home; and counseling support.
”These tools and strategies are effective,” McCormick said. ”Once students find the right combination of intervention, time and attention, after a few months they’re back in the classroom most of the the time. There are less meltdowns and they’re interacting better; it works.”
CSD even brings community programs into the school to help students better address their mental health concerns; for example, therapists come from child centers like Looking Glass or grief counselors from PeaceHealth.
”When it comes to mental health, we do have some people in the school system who are trained for that, but it’s less in our common wheelhouse than the educational side of things would be,” Bascue explained. ”That’s why we end up having partnerships with agencies.”
Although CSD offers many opportunities for students with mental health concerns, Superintendent Todd Hamilton said the challenge is ”being able to do everything the depth we want to do it.”
He explained that funding received from the state focuses on teaching and learning, and while the staff are doing what they can to focus student’s on learning, if there is a need for mental health supplements – it comes out of the same pot of money.
”We don’t have a lot of the services of Eugene, Springfield and Bethel, but we have supports and clinics in place,” he said. ”We’re doing everything we can for students here and have made good decisions.”
McCormick said it would be better to have a separate funding stream for mental health, to give districts a focus on both emotional support and teaching and learning.
She added that almost every day she thinks there could be one to two people also in her position and they’d be just as busy as she is.
”We’re doing a good job with the resources we have,” she said, ”but we could be reaching a lot more students and preventing issues from getting worse if we had those.”
Despite funding, CSD said they are making mental health a priority. There is a full-time counselor at each school to focus on emotional and mental needs, along with a staff member who focuses half-time on traditional counseling activities like college and schedules.
”I’m thrilled we have three and a half counselors, but it’s not enough,” he said. ”We have just one at the elementary school, which is awesome, but she has 600 kids she’s responsible for supporting. The need is there, but the funding from the state doesn’t match that need yet.”

The next part of the series will follow the Quality Education Model, as well as Creswell and Pleasant Hill school districts’ goals and dreams for the future.



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