September 27, 2023

Jeff Bryant: Why society is increasingly turning to community schools to address the youth mental health crisis

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Independent journalist Jeff Bryant looks at a rural school district in New Mexico, and what it tells us about the role community schools can play in making life better for students. He starts with the story of Kaci Rodriguez and her son.

“I felt I had lost my child,” she said. “I had nowhere to turn.”

Her growing anxiety eventually prompted Rodriguez to seek help from mental health services. But getting her son evaluated took time. “The lack of access to mental health services is a huge problem where we live,” she said. Where she lives—Roswell, New Mexico—is a town of nearly 48,000 people located in the high desert plains in the southeast corner of the state.

Eight months passed before Rodriguez could get her son an evaluation. He was diagnosed with ADHD and placed in the moderate to severe range of the condition. And it was recommended he be placed on medication.

Getting a prescription was also a challenge. Pediatricians are few and far between in Roswell, according to Rodriguez, and wait times to get an appointment are lengthy.

But once the meds kicked in, “the difference was like night and day,” Rodriguez said. “I felt like I had my boy back.”

The difference was also reflected in her son’s schoolwork, as his grades rose from failing to C’s and B’s.

The whole experience left Rodriguez with the lasting impression that finding mental health access for children shouldn’t be so difficult. “Parents in this situation don’t know what to do,” she said. “Teachers don’t know what to do either. They haven’t been trained for this.”

Her experience motivated her to go back to school to get certified as a special education teacher. She completed her certification and now serves as a resource teacher at Del Norte Elementary School in Roswell.

It also persuaded Rodriguez that when her son transitioned from elementary to middle school, they should find a school that offered an educational approach, commonly called community schools, where the school acts as a hub for accessing a wide range of student and family services, including mental health services.

“We specifically selected Sierra Middle School because of its community schools program,” she said.

Rodriguez is not alone in linking her child’s mental health struggles, and the lack of access to treatments, to the need for more schools to adopt the community schools approach.

In the aftermath of the tragic school shootings in Uvalde, Texas, in 2022, U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona testified at a congressional hearing in May 2022 that his department’s 2023 budget would prioritize mental health supports for K-12 school children, and he linked that effort to expanding the number of community schools nationwide, according to K-12 Dive.

But Rodriguez’s success in placing her son in a community school that provides ready access to mental health services hit a snag this summer when she learned that Sierra Middle School would reopen for fall classes without continuing its association with the nonprofit that operated the school-based health center.

Although the school will continue to adhere to the community schools approach, it will need to pursue new partnerships in order to provide mental health support for students and their families.

The school district’s partnership with a local nonprofit La Casa Family Health Center, which operated the school-based health centers, ended abruptly in June, and it’s not clear what alternatives are being put into place instead. (Repeated inquiries by Our Schools to La Casa and the Roswell Independent School District (RISD) went unanswered.)

The only explanation for the school-based health centers’ apparent demise is that “the funding ran out,” according to sources Our Schools spoke with, which is a way of saying that the philanthropic community and governments failed to sustain a program that was providing an important service to the community and was necessary to ensure the welfare of the students.

“Not having [a school-based health center] is a huge disservice to staff and students,” Rodriguez said. “It’s a travesty. Really horrible.”

The despair Rodriguez expressed might as well be a rallying cry for families everywhere as evidence mounts of a mental health crisis among children and teens nationwide.

Read the full piece here. 

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