Mesa schools home in on student mental health
Tribune - 7/31/2019
Jul. 31--By Jordan Houston
Tribune Staff Writer While Mesa Public Schools students prepare to head back to class in August, the state's largest school district is getting ready to double down on its mental health support for them. From support dogs to extra counselors, first-aid to suicide prevention training, Superintendent Ember Conley says the district is homing in on how it views mental health for a variety of reasons. "The idea of why we have public education is to have a workforce that is educated around being a productive citizen -- that's really why we're here," she said. "We need to look at what the barriers are to us being able to have our students graduate with those outcomes." Conley cited an increase in teen suicides -- 35 East Valley teens have taken their lives since July 2017 -- as a major factor in addressing mental health, as well as the mushrooming opioid epidemic and statewide Hepatitis A outbreaks. Homelessness, the superintendent added, is also one of the district's primary concerns. "We've seen such an uptick of students that are unaccompanied or doubled up with multiple families," said Conley. "How do we get them from zero to five into our buildings?" she continued. "And then provide wraparound services from 12th grade into higher education so that we can break that cycle of poverty, addiction and abuse?" The idea of implementing an equity model, in which schools are analyzed based on their specific risk factors, is a first step. Aside from educating teachers on how to better handle implicit biases and so-called "microaggressions," the district is focusing on tailoring its mental health efforts to the specific needs of each school. "It's this whole idea of taking an equal playing field -- like every school receives one principal and a half-time counselor -- but then taking each school piece by piece and breaking it down into what we would call risk factors," she explained, adding: "Like looking at their poverty rate or specific subgroups and then having an extra layer of support for them." MPS has added 35 elementary school counselors -- something Conley said is a major win. The district also wants to train students to be "teen counselors" to their peers. In the event that a friend or family member tells another student that they're having suicidal thoughts or drug problems, the teens can be prepared, said Conley. The Alice Cooper Solid Rock after-school program will be coming to Mesa as a way to provide a "safe space" for students to spend their time during non-school hours. "I'm really excited for the partnership -- it's just a safe place for students to be able to either learn about music, engage in music and do some of the production of music," said the superintendent. "It's a very structured program." Another initiative that Conley said she is looking forward to is the "Pawsitive Peers" program, which will incorporate support dogs into five of the district schools this fall. Once the four-legged friends and their owners complete the rigorous trainings, Mountain View High School, East Valley Academy, Johnson Elementary School, as well as Kino and Rhode junior high schools will pilot the program. Suicide prevention trainings are also going to be incorporated as required training for staff members in the future. "We want all of our staff to be trained -- from bus drivers down to our food service -- because it [suicide] just doesn't affect our students," said Conley. "It affects our families." MPS will be doing a "slow rollout" of the trainings to help "people understand why [we're] doing these," she added. The district isn't only focusing on the well-being of its students, though. A new benefit for employees called "Smart Dollar," a financial wellness program by Dave Ramsey, will soon be available to help ease financial stress and teach money management tips. According to the program's website, the mission is to aid staff members in taking control of their money "once and for all." Some of the benefits include advice on emergency savings, paying off debts and investing for the future. "I think that it [mental health] has been a conversation in Mesa for a really long time," Conley said. "The district has really been setting itself up to be ready to do this -- I was just fortunate enough to be able to say, 'we're doing it.'"
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