When Bridgewater-Emery School District Superintendent Jason Bailey talks with administrator colleagues, it’s not uncommon to discuss the challenges of providing the mental health support students need to be successful.
The Bridgewater-Emery School District is one of the first four school partners in South Dakota’s Project AWARE, which stands for Advancing Wellness and Resilience in Education. We recently checked in with Superintendent Bailey to learn more about how things are going as the district begins its first full school year of the program.
“Our hope is to give our staff the tools necessary to recognize and respond to these behavioral health issues,” Bailey says. “A wide variety of training opportunities have become available to us through the Project AWARE grant. We are hoping to provide mental health services previously unavailable to students and families in our community.”
According to the Data Resource Center for Child & Adolescent Health, over 20% of students in public schools nationwide have a diagnosable mental health disorder that warrants additional supports. Of that 20%, more than 70% receive interventions in a school setting.
In South Dakota, 10.4% of children ages 2-17 have been diagnosed with one or more emotional, behavioral, and/or developmental conditions. That means there is an estimated gap of 9.6% of students in need of support who are not identified for care.
The Project AWARE grant, a partnership between the South Dakota Departments of Education and Social Services – Behavioral Health, is built on an interconnected systems framework, the base of which is home and community awareness, with the goals of de-stigmatizing mental health issues through awareness training, building self-healing, trauma-informed communities, and creating community partnerships.
“Continued outreach and community engagement to promote positive mental health will be a goal this coming school year,” Bailey says. “In addition, a general increase in awareness of mental health issues will continue to be a major focus. We’re partnering with the National Alliance on Mental Illness for this aspect of the work.”
NAMI gave three presentations to staff, middle school students, and parents in spring 2019 and will be back with a booth providing information for families at the open house in Emery Aug. 19. In addition, NAMI will give a presentation to all students in grades 6-12 in September. The Ending the Silence presentation features individuals whose lives have been affected by mental illness and provide real-life perspectives based on personal experiences.
Tier 1 of the framework is universal prevention, incorporating universal behavioral health screenings and support for school/home partnerships, trauma-informed training for school staff, Positive Behavior Interventions & Supports, and other prevention activities.
Bailey says all Bridgewater-Emery staff is currently receiving training in PBIS and is excited to get started on implementation. During the 2018-19 school year, the district also began using a universal screening tool to assess students’ risk level for behavioral health issues and helped those who needed assistance to access services.
The local Community Project AWARE Manager, Jenelle Sigler, is on-site daily at the Bridgewater-Emery School District and provides prevention-based social-emotional learning lessons and training at the classroom level, using a program called Second Step. Sigler is a certified school counselor and also provides targeted interventions, such as counseling, for students with Tier 2 needs.
Tier 3 of the framework encompasses supports for students in need of wraparound services. The district works with Systems of Care Coordinator, Dena Smith, through Southeastern Behavioral Health to assist students with these kinds of needs.
Bailey is also looking forward to working with the data component of the project: “There’s a data component that will help us see how things are going by looking at our own local data to ask, ‘What’s working?’ ‘What do we need to get better at?’ ‘Where do we go from here?’”
The first cohort of school partners involved in Project AWARE, which also includes Black Hills Special Services Cooperative, the Sioux Falls School District and the Wagner Area School District, began receiving behavior and mental health supports through the grant in October 2018. More schools will have the opportunity to receive supports through the grant in subsequent years.
Partners including the National Council of Behavioral Health, the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI South Dakota) and Prevention Resource Centers are helping deliver evidence-based training for schools and communities.