Increasing Achievement and Equity Through Mental Health Programs
By Robert Low
For students in Jacksonville, FL and surrounding Duval County, where non-academic barriers often interfered with success in school, the implementation of mental health programs and other wellness initiatives has been accompanied by significant improvements in graduation rates and other important metrics.
Ways to provide these types of services were discussed during a recent edWebinar, hosted by AASA, The School Superintendents Association and AASA’s Leadership Network. The presentation featured Dr. Diana Greene, Superintendent of Duval County Public Schools, Katrina Taylor, Director of the district’s School Behavioral Health and Full Service Schools Program, Dr. Gregory Bostic, Principal of Jean Ribault High School, and Charis Scurry, Community Partnership Coordinator for the Wolfson Children’s School Based Health Centers.
Dr. Greene emphasized the importance of establishing a comprehensive infrastructure to make mental health services and other wellness programs accessible to students, while also providing staff members with the training and support they need to help their students and maintain their own well-being.
Implementing a Districtwide Approach for Students
Duval County Public Schools (DCPS) uses a three-tier mental health model similar to the Response to Intervention pyramid, with Tier I programs providing support to all students, Tier 2 programs providing small-group counseling sessions for some students, and Tier 3 programs providing individualized counseling and therapy for a few students. Students must have parental approval to participate in counseling and therapy programs, which may occur once a week, biweekly, or on a monthly basis.
Noting all students should have equitable access to health care, including mental health services, Taylor explained DCPS mental health programs help students improve behavior, alleviate personal issues, and cope with stress. Services are available for students whether or not they have adequate insurance or transportation, and bilingual therapists can be provided for English learners.
All students participate in Wellness Wednesdays during the first Wednesday of each month, with a K-5 curriculum focused on social-emotional learning, and a standards-aligned mental health curriculum in grades 6-12. Students participate in the creation of scripts and videos that are shared districtwide, with a focus on topics such as 10 Stress-Busting Tips, and then class discussions following the videos.
Showing data from a district mental health dashboard, Taylor pointed out the top three diagnoses were for depression, adjustment disorders, and anxiety disorders. She also noted there had been increases in the number of referrals and the intensity of diagnoses since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.
With much of the district using remote or hybrid learning models during the pandemic, counselors and therapists have been using telehealth technologies to provide services to students when needed. Referral forms are available online, and virtual resources such as strategy summaries can be accessed via websites, the district’s family academy, and social media.
Districtwide Initiatives for Educators
Educators receive Youth Mental Health First Aid Training, which was established statewide after the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in Parkland, FL. This training enables educators to identify students who are experiencing mental health challenges, disorders, or crises, and then to provide support until appropriate assistance can be provided or the situation is resolved. The educators learn to recognize signs and symptoms of mental health issues, and are encouraged to listen, offer reassurance and information, and provide referrals.
To help educators implement the district’s student-centered initiatives, there’s a Wellness Wednesday newsletter for the staff and professional development that includes culturally responsive practices, which can increase students’ sense of well-being. There is also a focus on changing the language used during discussions of mental health topics, in order to normalize them and decrease any stigma associated with them.
For the educators’ own well-being, there are lunch-and-learn workshops on coping and stress, as well as mindfulness activities. And for educators who need additional support, employee assistance programs are available online as well as on-site. The district leadership also actively participates in creating and sustaining a supportive environment for staff members.
Dr. Bostic explained how improvements in his school’s graduation rate had accompanied his efforts to turn the school into a “one-stop shop” providing wrap-around services that help students focus more effectively on learning.
A Calm Classroom program—a research-based mindfulness program that includes techniques teachers can use in the classroom—provides tools to manage stress, as well as time to reset and refocus during the school day. There are also support groups in which students can discuss what they are thinking and what is happening at school, and a mentorship program through which students can have “a safe place and a safe person” to talk to and build supportive, long-term networks.
A separate program provides services for students dealing with drug abuse, criminal justice issues, and conduct violations. The services including case management and trauma-focused counseling, and as Scurry explained, there’s also a school-based health center that provides physical exams, vaccines, and treatment of chronic conditions such as allergies, asthma, and diabetes, thereby alleviating health issues that can contribute to emotional and mental health issues.
As Taylor noted, schools alone cannot provide everything each student needs to succeed academically, and in Duval County, a variety of partnerships are helping to provide additional services for the students who have more needs.
This edWeb broadcast was hosted by AASA, The School Superintendents Association and AASA’s Leadership Network, providing premier professional learning for educational leaders.
About the Presenters
Dr. Diana Greene
Dr. Diana L. Greene became Superintendent of Duval County Public Schools (DCPS), the 20th largest school district in the nation, on July 1, 2018, and serves 130,000 students within 200 schools and manages a $1.7 billion budget. Dr. Greene’s tenure as Superintendent of Duval County Public Schools has already been marked with significant accomplishments. District academic performance has continued to improve. DCPS is now within one percentage point of becoming an “A” district under Florida’s rigorous school grade accountability system. The district also achieved another historically high graduation rate. In less than one week, Dr. Greene and her leadership team converted more than 120,000 children, 13,000 teachers and staff, and 160 schools to an online virtual learning environment—Duval HomeRoom—in response to the COVID-19 pandemic in spring 2020.
In August of 2020, the district reopened in the pandemic, providing families the choice of a traditional on-campus learning option or two options for remote learning. Most notably, Dr. Greene unified community support for schools, orchestrating the passage of a voluntary surtax to renovate and replace the district’s crumbling school infrastructure with a $1.9 billion master facilities plan. These accomplishments and more led the Florida Association of District School Superintendents (FADSS) to select Dr. Greene as the 2021 Florida Superintendent of the Year, making her the 33rd superintendent and the second African-American woman to receive this honor.
Prior to her work in DCPS, she was the superintendent of the School District of Manatee County, where she made significant strides forward academically, financially and in terms of its public perception. Known for her positive nature and engaging personality, Dr. Greene initiated her time as Superintendent in Manatee County by putting forward a leadership plan that consisted of what she named the Five Cs: Calmness, Consistency, Civility, Confidence and Community. Leading by example, Dr. Greene has overseen a district that has improved academically to the point that it received a B grade from the state two of the last three years (2015, 2017), after receiving a C grade the previous three years, even in the face of more rigorous standards. In addition, the Manatee District’s graduation rate rose 5.6% during the 2015-2016 school year, and was 2.8% higher than the statewide graduation rate.
Dr. Gregory Bostic
Martin Luther King, Jr. once said that “the ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.” Dr. Gregory D. Bostic epitomizes these words. He began his tenure as an educator in Duval County Public Schools in 1991. He started his educational and leadership journey as a teacher at Andrew Jackson High School and during his tenure served in the exceptional student and business education departments while also serving as the activities director. During his 29 years as an educator, he spent nine years as a teacher, two years as an assistant principal, five years as a vice principal and 13 years as a principal.
Dr. Bostic has a passion for developing people, with a strong desire to build relationships that help individuals reach their fullest potential. John C. Maxwell stated, “People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care,” and Dr. Bostic wholeheartedly personifies that philosophy. His ability to help underserved students become graduation and college ready exemplifies this. In his capacity as a principal at two urban high schools, he raised the graduation rate in both schools to over 95%.
As a member of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Inc., Dr. Bostic enjoys volunteering and supporting various educational initiatives.
One of his favored mottos that he sincerely embraces and shares with all students, colleagues, friends, and associates: “Education is a great equalizer…We cannot choose who we are, but through education, we choose who we become.” He encourages his students daily to choose their futures. “Make it a great day or not—the choice is always yours.”
Katrina Taylor is the Director of School Behavioral Health and Full Service Schools for Duval County Public Schools. As the School Behavioral Health Director, she manages and oversees all aspects of behavioral health in the district and schools. Mrs. Taylor also leads and coordinates all of the district’s school behavioral health initiatives and programs, manages and collaborates with community partners, providers, DCPS administration, staff, and stakeholders. Under Ms. Taylor’s leadership, she manages the district’s multi-million-dollar budget to ensure the implementation of the Duval County Public Schools behavioral health model.
Ms. Taylor has over 15 years of experience in school and community-based mental health. Prior to her work as the School Behavioral Health Director, Ms. Taylor fulfilled the following social services roles: Mental Health Grant Manager, School Counselor, Parent Educator and Social Worker. Ms. Taylor is a national trainer and presenter and has presented nationally at multiple conferences to increase mental health literacy and has trained hundreds of educators, support services employees, and leaders to improve mental health access.
Ms. Taylor is very passionate about school-based mental health and believes that school districts must focus on the social-emotional wellness of all students to ensure academic success.
Charis Scurry is the Community Partnership Coordinator for the Wolfson Children’s Health Centers located on the campus of Ribault Senior High School. As the Community Partnership Coordinator, Charis’s primary goals are to ensure children and youth are healthy and to bring awareness of this resource to the community. Previously, Charis held the position of Manager of Education Strategies for the United Way of Northeast Florida. There she managed the Achievers For Life Program, an Early Warning & Response System for middle school students.
About the Host
Dr. Valerie Truesdale joined AASA early in 2019 as the assistant executive director responsible for guiding leadership development services and programs. With years of experience in the superintendency and roles in instructional technology, she knows that AASA’s Leadership Network can be a substantial resource for school leaders trying to keep pace with the rapidly changing delivery of K-12 education.
Join the Community
Leading for Equity is a free professional learning community on edWeb.net for school and district leaders who face many challenges leading schools and driving school improvement for all students, especially now with COVID-19.
The AASA Leadership Network drives superintendent success, innovation, and growth, shaping the future of public education while preparing students for what’s next. We are the largest, most diverse network of superintendents in America. Passionate and committed, we connect educational leaders to the professional learning, leadership development, relationships, and partnerships they need to ensure a long career of impact.
Robert Low has more than 30 years of educational publishing experience, ranging from editing and product management to online advertising and content development. He also works with edWeb.net to write articles on their professional learning edWebinars.