Mental health professionals at North-Grand High School in Chicago, including school counselors, case managers, and a social worker, have been tasked with creating a behavioral health team to support students struggling with low attendance, poor adherence to discipline, and out of school issues. The effort is part of a larger one that the city of Chicago has taken on with a a goal to start similar teams in every school within the next couple of years with the help of federal funds. It is part of a district-wide initiative to train staff in trauma-informed approaches.
The $24 million mental health plan offers a sneak peek at Chicago’s plans to spend a portion of the $1.8 billion in federal stimulus funds over the next three years to expand behavioral support services currently available in 200 of its schools. It seeks to expand to 500, asking for support from community partnerships through grants. There is an identified need for “culturally relevant and trauma-supported approaches to helping Chicago students,” the announcement indicated.
Training support workers and educators already familiar with the school system is the city’s priority at this point. “That work has only become more urgent since the pandemic,” Chief Education Officer, LaTanya McDade, said. “We want every single school to be able to coordinate wellness support for our students. That should come from “the individuals that are already in the building, people who students already know and trust.”
The 2019 agreement between the district and teachers’ union also included the assignment of at least one full-time nurse and one full-time social worker in each building by 2023. COVID-19 has left Black and Latino communities with higher rates of illness and death, and students are experiencing increased anxiety and grief. As a result, there has been decreased classroom engagement in all environments, including in-person, hybrid, and virtual schooling.
Brooks College Prep in Chicago has nearly 1,000 students and only four counselors – that’s a 1:250 counselor-student ratio. With the federal funds, however, a discipline dean might help by reaching out to students whenever a student appears disengaged or is engaging in problematic behaviors, and can direct the student to a community partner, which McDade said she “hopes all schools can develop, to provide extra help outside the classroom.”
The program is modeled on ‘care teams’ created by Liz Dozier, founder of Chicago Beyond. “By bringing together different staff to focus on students who were struggling with family issues or attendance,” Dozier said, she “was able to create a web of supports for her students, many of whom were struggling with a range of problems, from neighborhood violence to poverty. You could see at an individual level that things had begun to shift. You see a child showing up to school…and just living a whole and free life.”
There has been a heightened focus, in general, on health-related services amid the coronavirus, which has caused increased stress levels, substance use, and isolation. As Chicago Public Schools indicates, “For many students, schools are places of psychological and physical safety. During this time of uncertainty and disruption…students may feel a sense of loss, grief, anxiety, and depression; while students who are exposed to chronic stress and trauma are especially vulnerable.” These programs are vital to offset the pandemic’s negative impact on mental health.