It Doesn't Take Millions to Support Students' Mental Health

Brand-new charter school Washington Leadership Academy (WLA) has already drawn national attention for its commitment to incorporating the latest in tech, including virtual reality, into student learning. But what blew me away on a June visit to the school was their commitment to the foundation of all learning: deep relationships based on smart psychology. In most public schools, school psychologists spend most of their time testing kids to determine whether they are eligible for special education services. They ride the circuit among four or five different schools a week. No one really knows them. Not at WLA. They hire a full-time school psychologist who works directly with students, families and fellow school staff. Part of the psychologist’s salary comes from the staff’s decision to eliminate school security guards. Executive Director Stacy Kane talked me through the finances at some length so I could understand exactly how they beefed up their mental health personnel. Beyond the school psychologist, WLA also has two school social workers. Most city schools have one on a part-time basis, if they’re lucky. To hire the second social worker, school staff decided to hire one fewer teacher and have all staff not in teaching positions take one class during the school day. That freed the school to hire a social worker instead.

Creating Safety and Security through Mental Health Support

There’s a deep logic to those decisions than may not be apparent to anyone steeped in the school-to-prison pipeline. Psychological support creates safety and security in a much more sustainable and foundational way than hiring rule-enforcers. The need for psychologically-skilled adult support is great. WLA intentionally recruited students from some of the neediest and most underserved areas of Washington, D.C. While not everyone in poverty is dealing with mental health issues, there’s no question that mental illness and material poverty are linked in a vicious circle. If you’re poor, you’re more likely to be anxious and less rational. And if your feelings are clouding your judgment, it’s harder to hold down a job and stay present to your children. At WLA, these kinds of effects can manifest in families dealing with domestic violence and child abuse as well as homelessness and unemployment. The effects also appear in students who arrive angry, grieving or unable to focus. It takes time and dedicated adult attention to help them work through their feelings and redirect their energy back to learning.

Suicide Prevention Starts with Agreements

After the controversial Netflix series “13 Reasons Why” aired, WLA staff began monitoring a number of students who found themselves thinking about suicide as a result of watching the show. While schools around the country have experienced similar problems, WLA took concrete steps to help that aren’t standard practice everywhere. Students made agreements to check in regularly with staff and made lists of at least five—often many more—friends and family members to call when they were feeling suicidal. They brainstormed other actions they could take to shift gears, too, such as going for a walk or engaging in other mood-boosting activities. Most people hear about XQ Super Schools and think “Wow, I could do amazing things, too, if I had an extra $10 million to work with.” But it didn’t take WLA $10 million to make an outstanding commitment to the mental health of their students. They did it with just the same dollars every other D.C. public school receives. That’s unusual, especially among U.S. high schools. At Washington Leadership Academy, the really amazing part is what they do with the money every other school gets.
Maureen Kelleher
Maureen Kelleher is Editorial Partner at Ed Post. She is a veteran education reporter, a former high school English teacher, and also the proud mom of an elementary student in Chicago Public Schools. Her work has been published across the education world, from Education Week to the Center for American Progress. Between 1998 and 2006 she was an associate editor at Catalyst Chicago, the go-to ...

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