Small school district makes big effort to help with students' mental health

Small school district makes big...

ADAMS-FRIENDSHIP, Wis. - Walking into Julie Wysocky’s classroom at Adams-Friendship Elementary, you may mistake it for a fourth- or fifth-graders’ dream living room. 

She spent the summer collecting donated benches, couches, standing desks, and other seats. She repainted them in bright colors, matching -- or clashing with -- the new paint on her walls. Those redefined desks are arranged randomly throughout the room, surrounded by emojis all over walls and bulletin boards.

The reaction has been as mixed as Wysocky’s seat choices or color palette.  Parents aren’t sure whether their kids will actually concentrate better if they get to choose between a cushion or the floor, but Wysocky knew it was time for a change.

“Learning to be in this environment and developing the ability to work with these kids is huge,” Wysocky said.  “Our kids need to know that we're here for them.”

After 21 years in the same building, Wysocky knows her kids need more than a strong curriculum.

“Once they walk in the door, if they know someone cares, they feel safe, it's okay to be themselves, and it's okay to relax in here and know that they can learn, they can have fun, they can be themselves, and that's important,” Wysocky said.

Crystal Holmes is another long-term resident of the Adams-Friendship community.

“My feelings for the community run very deep. They're friends and neighbors that I see in school, I see in the grocery store, I coach their children, I have dinner with them,” Holmes described. “It's important to me that there's change here.”

The need for change became clear with one simple, but terrifying statistic.  After surveying the district’s middle and high schoolers, she learned that about one in four of her students had a plan for killing themselves.

“Knowing that 24 percent of our student population has seriously considered suicide, that number would be devastating to our community. That number would be devastating to our families,” Holmes said.

What the Adams-Friendship area has in open space, the community lacks in services like grocery stores, dentists, and counseling.  The closest therapist is at least a 45-minute drive away if there are even client openings.  Holmes says parents are doing everything they can, but it’s not easy.

Along with transportation, mental health isn’t a financial priority for many families in the area.  About half of families rely on food stamps, and about 80 percent of students qualify for free and reduced lunch.  Holmes says the paperwork is another major deterrent.

“We have a lot of people who recognize our students' basic needs need to be met, and with that, we've recognized that mental health is a basic need,” Holmes explained.

Holmes is now the student services grant coordinator for the district and works with other staff members to increase access to mental-health services. With the help of grants, $1 of every $20 in the school district budget is going toward mental health-related priorities.

Barbara Gransee, the district’s director of pupil services, has been working with Holmes and other staff members to make sure that $1 million dollars or so is going to good use. It was apparent that to help students, the services had to be brought into the schools.

“It's in the school that the student is attending every day.  There's no reason for them to miss their session,” Gransee said.

The district hired social workers to help families through the insurance paperwork, also making it less difficult for therapists willing to work with their kids.  They also offered mental health providers gas money, knowing they would miss out on one or two sessions on the drive alone.

“We recognize how important those social workers are and how do we keep that movement going forward,” Holmes said.  “We've recognized rural communities, we need to look attractive to those providers who are driving 50 minutes and losing an entire hour of billable time.”

Last year, 63 children got professional therapy with at least that many on a waiting list.  This year, Gransee is excited to bring a second provider into the schools to help even more students.

“I keep thinking that's 63 students that didn't have access to mental health services prior,” Gransee said.

Along with the providers in schools, the district has introduced suicide-prevention and awareness efforts in classrooms. Teachers are talking more about emotional wellness, positive thoughts, and even self-harming behaviors.  There are peer-led efforts, encouraging kids to intervene when they see bullying.  Holmes says there’s even a “word of the week”, helping students identify feelings as easily as they do on the emojis around Wysocky’s room.

In addition to all of that, 415 faculty and staff members have gone through the Youth Mental Health First Aid course.  That training is now a requirement for all district employees.  The bus company Adams-Friendships contracts with for student transportation is voluntarily training all of its drivers in Mental Health First Aid as well.

“You feel a little more protected knowing that the people in your community are here and they care for you, and they're going to support you,” Holmes explained.

So far, the improvement in statistics has been slow.  Holmes says while it’s frustrating, the team has to appreciate the little victories.

“You may have saved one child,” Holmes pointed out.  “Even one, think about if we lost that one child what that would do to our community.  That conversation that we would have to have if we lost that one child, have that conversation before you lose that child.”

The future of the change in Adams-Friendship is in jeopardy as the grant funding for a lot of these programs runs out in the spring. Gransee says the district will have to secure more grants to keep resources, like the social workers on staff.

"We've got to be planning for the future, and the future is end of April for me right now," Gransee says. But we'll see how it goes.  Maybe, maybe we can appeal to enough people that we need those positions

Wysocky can’t wait to see her students in September, in part because she knows they were without so many services over the summer.

“They need to know to me that they're more than just my students.  They're my kids,” Wysocky said.

Just as Wysocky is changing her classroom, Holmes and Gransee hope to continue changing the way their entire community looks at mental health.

"Let's start with the kids," Holmes said. “Let's make the next generation healthier for their next generations to come."

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