The Sonoma Valley High School Wellness Center, which opened with a soft launch on Aug. 15, has already provided drop-in services to 128 students and one-on-one support to 35 students.
“We are the first school in the county to launch this work,” said Jillian Beall, director of educational services, student wellness and inclusion for Sonoma Valley Unified School District, during a presentation at its board meeting on Oct. 18. “There are schools in other counties that have done the work of the wellness center, but we’re really excited to be the first school in this county to do this. We’re also partnering with the county to support other districts to implement it, as needed.”
Serving Sonoma Valley and Creekside high school students, the Wellness Center has three therapists who provide brief intervention in individual and group settings five days each week. The center offers students mental health services and a safe place to practice coping, regulation and self-care skills as well as opportunities to talk to a trusted adult and connect to off-campus services and resources.
The Wellness Center is funded by a $3.75 million Supportive, Achievement-based and Flexible Environments (SAFE) Sonoma grant, which the U.S. Department of Education awarded to the district in 2019. It’s a five-year grant, providing $750,000 per year, beginning with the 2019-20 academic year and will sunset in 2023-24. SAFE Schools grants stipulate some specific targets that must be realized each year (see sidebar).
During the Oct. 18 meeting, trustee Anne Ching called for a board study session to better understand if the objectives of the grant are being accomplished.
“I’m hearing from teachers on the front lines that restorative practices aren’t working,” she said. “I would like to have a study session where we can go through the data and see if we are doing the right things. Are we seeing the needle move? Is this the right investment? We also need to talk about the finances of this. I would like to see a detailed breakdown, as reported in the grant general performance report.
“We [board members] also have to build a budget, so we need to know the true ongoing costs of these investments, and if we have limited resources, we need to be able to make allocations where we get the highest return.”
After the school board meeting, Beall said that some current expenses of operating the Wellness Center will be reduced going forward, since they were startup costs. But financial support will still be needed.
“As a team, we are currently researching local, state and federal grants for mental health and future funding,” she said.
SVUSD intended to open the Wellness Center soon after receiving the grant, but then the pandemic hit, forcing the district to shift its focus to supporting students and their families with COVID-related issues.
At the board meeting, Beall discussed the progress that has been made in utilizing the grant.
“The SAFE team is building a system and an infrastructure to address the needs of our students by strategically implementing interventions and services designed to provide equitable, timely and responsive support to our students and families in the form of social-emotional learning development and wellness,” she said.
Beall explained that SVUSD is attempting to actualize these objectives by utilizing a multitiered system of support.
•Tier 1: Build, support and sustain this tier academically, socially and emotionally to ensure all youth are set up for success, and that they will be healthy, engaged, nurtured and connected.
•Tier 2: Increase capacity at all schools to support students’ mental health needs.
•Tier 3: Create clear, coherent systems for students to access all tiers of support (academically, behaviorally and social-emotionally) that are restorative, equitable, coordinated, safe and resilient.
The SAFE team consist of Beall as well as district social workers Camille Garcia and Michelle “Missy” Jackson, counselor Kim Bellach, bilingual community liaison Mariana Madrigal, and child welfare and attendance specialist Treytcy De Haro Martinez. They are assisted by 10 interns, most of whom have achieved or are working toward bachelor’s or master’s degrees in social welfare or family therapy.
“Our district social workers are able to support our team of interns in the work they do,” Beall said. “This team provides the Tier 3 support for our students.”
During the first three years of the grant, the SAFE team addressed Tier 1 needs by implementing a social-emotional learning curriculum and establishing weekly advisories in secondary schools as well as dedicated time daily in elementary school master schedules. Psychologists were assigned to each school in the district, suicide prevention lessons were provided at the secondary level, and behavior referral processes and procedures were implemented to support students’ academic, behavior and mental health.
Tier 2 accomplishments during the first three years included the formation of Coordination of Service Teams at nine school sites. In response to needs during the early years of the pandemic, these teams focused exclusively on supporting Tier 3 student mental health needs in 2019-20 and 2020-21. They now include community liaisons, nurses or health technicians, academic coordinators, administrators, psychologists, counselors, a district social worker and community partners.
The Tier 3 highlights include development of the high schools’ Wellness Center, supporting mental health needs through the service teams and an expansion of the intern and associates program to increase the number of on-site providers.
This school year, besides opening the Wellness Center, the SAFE team is establishing tiered supports for student mental health and wellness at all schools as well as partnering with the International Institute of Restorative Practices, a graduate school in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania.
“They will send trainers out to train our staff, who then can become trainers for restorative practices so that when we find ourselves in situations where not everyone can access the [restorative practices] training, we will be able to offer it even after the grant expires,” Beall said.
After the current academic year, the SAFE team plans to continue to build site-based supports — including wellness and mental health programs — establish middle and elementary school wellness programs, and provide continued support for site service teams and Positive Behavior and Supports implementation, which guides leadership teams in the assessment, development and execution of action plans for students’ needs.
Dr. Adrian Palazuelos, superintendent of the district, praised the work of Beall and her team at the meeting.
“Clearly, I’m proud of Ms. Beall and the educational services team and the work that she’s done because when I first arrived [in 2021], we were at a standstill when it comes to this work,” he said. “This is new ground for us, and we are very excited about the prospects of support for our students in the future.”
Beall said the district is focusing on maintaining long-term support for the project.
“As we look at these last two years with the grant, we are being intentional about building, supporting and sustaining multitiered systems of support, which will continue to support students beyond the expiration of the grant, such as supporting site Coordination of Service Teams and school Climate the Culture/[Positive Behavioral Intervention and Supports] teams.”
● Participating schools will report an annual decrease of at least 5% in the percentage of students with any office referrals for disciplinary reasons.
● Participating schools will report an annual decrease of at least 3% in the percentage of students with chronic absenteeism (10% or more of enrolled days absent) during each school year.
● Participating schools will report an annual decrease of at least 5% in the percentage of students with a G.P.A. of less than 2.0 during each school year.
● Participating schools will report an annual decrease of at least 5% in the annual number of suspensions and expulsions for any reason (based on number of incidents reported).
● Changes in school climate will be noted, as reported through assessment by Youth Truth, a national nonprofit organization that aims to elevate the voices of students and key stakeholders to help education leaders build healthier school systems.
Reach the reporter, Dan Johnson, at [email protected].
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