Sept. 29, 2021: District partners with Onondaga County for greater student mental health supports
Thanks to a partnership with Onondaga County, Jamesville-DeWitt Central School District students are already receiving greater access to mental health supports and community resources, and soon a new mental health clinic will be operating within J-D Middle School.
“We recognize that across the country, including here in the Jamesville-DeWitt community, students have been dealing with increased mental health challenges that the COVID-19 pandemic brought about by causing many students to feel socially isolated and academically challenged,” J-D Superintendent Peter Smith said. “However, partnering with the county in this area is not a new concept for us. Several years ago, we began discussing with county officials the idea of working together to provide our students with more mental health support and their families with greater access to community resources, so this program is a welcome addition to our schools.”
In March, the county announced a $5.5 million expansion to its School Based Initiatives program to include a three-tiered approach to provide schools more mental health services and access to community resources. To provide these services to schools, the county is contracting with agencies that have expertise in providing mental health services and coordinating community support services, including Arise, Coordinated Care Services, Helio Health and Liberty Resources.
Tier 1: Promise Zone Specialists
The county’s Tier 1 service is designed to increase the capacity and efficacy of service delivery to all students to ensure social, emotional and academic achievement, according to the program overview. Each of J-D’s three elementary schools will have a Coordinated Care Services Inc. employee assigned to the school as a promise zone specialist. This person is charged with helping students, families and staff identify what may be hindering a student’s academic success and to intervene accordingly, which could include sharing their observations with a district staff member, performing student check-ins and check-outs and supporting the district’s Second Step program, which focuses on developing students’ social-emotional skills.
The promise zone specialists essentially serve as another set of eyes and ears on the ground, interacting with students at times such as arrival and dismissal, lunch and recess, said J-D Director of Pupil Personnel Services Tracey Menapace. They are watching for students who may need additional support and are helping to continue to foster an overall positive school environment.
Promise zone specialists are already on site in the schools. The promise zone specialists are involved in team meetings with school staff weekly to discuss individual student and family needs. Daily communication between the promise zone specialist and the school building leaders, social workers, elementary counselor and staff are on-going throughout the day.
Tier 2: ACCESS Specialists
The county’s Tier 2 service provides for ACCESS Liaisons employed by Coordinated Care Services to work in each of the district’s five schools. ACCESS Liaisons review referrals from school staff or families and seek to provide connections between families and health and human service agencies that could provide assistance with critical needs, such as heat, food and shelter. Their areas of expertise include solving student attendance challenges, increasing student engagement so students feel more connected to their school community and navigating the mental health system, including the state Office of People with Developmental Disabilities.
“Our social workers and counselors spend so much time trying to connect our students and their families with outside support and services; it will be really helpful to them to have a partner in doing so, especially since these liaisons are connected to everything, everywhere,” Menapace said. “Our students and families are already benefiting from this service as referrals are already coming in and connections are being made.”
The liaisons can assist families in finalizing paperwork to enroll in assistance programs, make connections with mental health providers and conduct home visits to engage with students and families. They will typically work with the same students and families for a period of 30-90 days to ensure their identified needs are being met.
The liaisons will meet throughout the year with school staff to take referrals and problem-solve and brainstorm ideas for solutions to individual student and family needs. At the elementary and high school levels, the liaisons are meeting bi-weekly with the building principal, social workers and psychologists. The middle school meetings will take place weekly.
Tier 3: School-Based Mental Health Treatment
The county’s Tier 3 service provides for a school-based mental health clinic. The clinic at J-D will be operated by Helio Health and based at J-D Middle School. It will be staffed by one clinician who is a licensed social worker and one case manager. Both are Helio Health employees. The district anticipates that the clinic will be operational by Thanksgiving and that the model will be replicated at J-D High School in the 2022-23 school year.
“I’ve always thought this district needs an on-site clinic,” Menapace said. “Mental health directly impacts a student’s academic experience. They can’t learn if they are stressed out. They can’t even think about academics. If students are struggling, stressed and lack the strategies to address their social, emotional and mental health needs, it can really set them up for what the rest of their lives are going to look like.”
During the summer, the district converted a conference room in the middle school’s fifth-grade wing to serve as the clinic space, meeting all of the state Office of Mental Health requirements for the physical space, such as a separate exterior entrance, Americans with Disabilities Act accessibility requirements, a dedicated space only accessed by the therapist and a confidential environment, to identify just a few of the School Based Mental Health Satellite Site Requirements under the Office of Mental Health guidelines.
The clinician can have up to 25 patients at a time and will see J-D students who are referred to the clinic the same as if the clinic was operating at an off-campus location. While the district is providing the space for the clinic, it will operate independently from the district. The clinician will bill insurance, and the district is not involved in patient care or clinic finances.
The benefit to the district in having the clinic in one of its schools is that students who are under the clinician’s care will be able to be seen during the school day, potentially reducing the amount of time they would miss instruction if they otherwise would have to be picked up during the school day and taken to an off-site provider. Also, when not in client sessions, the clinician will be available to consult with school staff. The clinic hours will be 7:45 a.m. to 4:15 p.m. Mondays and Wednesdays and 7:45 a.m. to 12:15 p.m. Fridays. The extended hours on Mondays and Wednesdays will allow students and parents to attend together should the need arise.
“I feel like we’ve built a safety net below our children,” Menapace said. “Kids are going to fall, but now we have that big net in place with additional supports to help catch them. This could not have come at a better time. I’m so thankful and grateful to the county for collaborating with us on this initiative.”