Jeff Bryant: Why Some Schools Are a Step Ahead in Addressing Student Mental Health Needs
Independent journalist Jeff Bryant looks at how the community school model can help with the current mental health crisis among our nation’s teens. He visits two very different schools.
“We needed a lot more mental and behavioral help after COVID,” Meredith Mullen told Our Schools. Mullen is the community school director for Mahatma K. Gandhi Community School (PS 23) in Jersey City, New Jersey. “During the lockdown and transition back to school, people had traumatic experiences. They were experiencing grief. They weren’t being socialized. Coming back into the school setting was hard for many students. Behavior also became more of an issue. Teachers reported higher numbers of students who were withdrawn, or not participating, or they were sleeping in class.”
More than 1,300 miles away in the North Woods of the Upper Midwest, public school educators face a similar situation.
“Many of our families are experiencing grief,” said Deanna Hron, community school coordinator at King Elementary School in Deer River, Minnesota. “Even before the pandemic, a lot of our students were affected by primary caregivers passing away,” she said, “but since COVID, it’s been like an epidemic.”
Other sources of trauma that are affecting student mental health, according to Hron, include parent incarceration, suicide, substance abuse, homelessness, and divorce. One student’s family called the school looking for sleeping bags. They had become unhoused and were living in a tent in the woods. Another student started missing school regularly after her mother committed suicide.
Although each of these schools is having a shared experience of widespread mental trauma among their students, the schools serve strikingly different communities.
Jersey City Public Schools is a highly diverse urban school district consisting of 39 schools located across from Lower Manhattan in New York. Mahatma K. Gandhi Community School, a Pre-K through grade eight school, is in a neighborhood people call “Little India,” according to Mullen, due to the high percentage of first-generation immigrant families from India and south-central Asia. There is also a large population of families from Middle Eastern and North African countries, she said. “We are one of the most diverse schools in Jersey City. We have families that come from, I think, 59 countries.”
In contrast, Deer River Public Schools is a rural district serving about 900 students, according to Hron, drawn from an area of more than 500 square miles that includes the tiny town of Deer River—with a population of 900 people—and other surrounding small towns. About half of the students in King Elementary identify as white, according to Hron, and the rest are mostly Native American, including families from the Leech Lake Reservation, which is home to around 10,000 members of the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe.
Here’s just one slice of how it works, from the perspective of mental health professional Brittany Sutherland:
According to Sutherland, because the families know Hron, it’s much easier for North Homes to start developing a relationship with the family. In other schools Sutherland works with that don’t use the community schools approach, she has to “cold call” the family, which can be awkward. Often those families are experiencing a crisis and may not be ready to start a conversation about mental health with a stranger.
“Without a [community school coordinator], it takes longer and it’s much harder to establish a relationship with a family,” Sutherland said.
In fact, among the schools she works with, King Elementary is the only one that uses the community schools approach, Sutherland said, and having a community school coordinator to work with makes a “huge difference.” In the schools that do not have a coordinator, she said, there’s a greater likelihood that children will “fall through the cracks.”
“I can’t emphasize enough how much more impactful it is to have someone on the school staff who is specifically dedicated to supporting families and checking up on them,” Hron said. “Teachers and administrative staff don’t have time to do this.”
For instance, in the case of the unhoused family sleeping in the woods, Hron found them donated sleeping bags and camping equipment.
For the student whose mother had committed suicide, Hron found that she was living with her grandfather who did not have reliable phone service or transportation. Hron arranged for the installation of a low-cost landline in her grandfather’s home so the student could call the school on days when she needed a ride to school.