In a high-needs district, upping mental health supports improves school climate, teacher retention
- When Nelson Van Vranken — principal of Fort Logan Northgate, a 3-8 school near Denver — was given more control over his school's budget, he decided to prioritize the mental health needs of its roughly 600 students, 25% of which are homeless and 15% of which are classified as having special needs, Chalkbeat reports.
- Over the past two years, the school has hired two social workers, a district-level psychologist, a behavioral teacher and two interns, who help with counseling and therapy groups. These additions, Chalkbeat notes, have better addressed student needs, improved behavior and shifted school culture by aiming to destigmatize mental health, and they've also helped educators — the teacher retention rate has risen more than 50% since the 2015-16 school year.
- Van Vranken was able to increase these supports by replacing a school counselor — which he eventually hired back through a state grant — with the first social worker, and a state grant helped him hire the second social worker. The interns work for free though a partnership with Smith College in Massachusetts and receive course credit for participating.
Many schools — especially those which a large number of students facing stress and trauma — can benefit from increased mental health resources on campus. The topic of mental health in schools has been more pronounced in recent years as school districts — and donors — are moving more toward approaches that support the whole child. It has also cropped up in many discussions on school safety, as some argue mental health issues can spur some to become violent and, therefore, posing a threat to the school community.
Many sources report that as many as 1 in 5 students suffer from some form of mental illness, but nearly 80% are left untreated. Students with mental health issues often have trouble focusing in the classroom and have behavioral issues that can sometime disrupt the school environment. These factors have a direct impact on student learning, and, in more severe cases, mental health issues including depression and suicide can cause extreme disruption to the classroom. And, unfortunately, some of these issues are on the rise among U.S. youth, leading to districts seeking ways to address these issues.
While superintendents need to examine the need for increased mental health supports across their districts, principals, given their in-school placements, are often in better positions to recognize what's needed. Additionally, giving principals more control over their schools' budgets can allow them to find ways to better meet those needs, whether through multi-tiered supports or by working to provide school-based services, similarly to some community school models.
The increase in mental health supports also benefits teachers in the long run and may help keep them in place, as poor working conditions is one of the biggest reasons teachers leave the classroom. If classroom educators can spend less time dealing with the behavioral and emotional needs of students — which can contribute to their own trauma and feelings of burnout — they will likely be able to spend more time doing the job they were hired to do: educate students.