To Improve Climate & Student Engagement, Invest in Health

By Juan Taizan, California School-Based Health Alliance

The Student Perspective: Omar’s Story

For Omar, being a part of a gang simply meant he had other men from his neighborhood in whom he could confide, trust, and depend on to look out for him like a brother or son. These relationships often put Omar in situations where he had to stand up for his friends, which sometimes meant physically fighting other students.

After being suspended for one such fight, Omar was referred to his high school’s school-based health center (SBHC). The SBHC at his school makes sure students and their families have access to health care, but it also provides valuable health education – beyond what many teachers are able to do in the classroom – so students and parents can make better decisions that positively impact physical health, behavior, and academic success. As part of an agreement with the school administration, Omar’s suspension would be reduced if he agreed to participate in the SBHC’s Latino male engagement program and made an effort to improve his academics – Omar also had a D average and regularly missed a lot of school. Omar agreed. He met with a health educator from the SBHC several times over the next couple of weeks and created an academic improvement plan.

Because of the relationship he had built with the health educator, Omar agreed to join the SBHC’s after school program – Homies United in Solidarity to Teach, Learn, and Survive (HUSTLAS)–where he was able to connect with other young Latino men. He learned about Latino history and examples of men that fought for civil rights. After the sessions, Omar and the other young men often stayed to play football, soccer, or handball. Twice a week Omar showed up for the program. On more than one occasion Omar commented about he found it funny that for the first time in years, he was actually choosing to stay longer at school.

Omar was quickly seen as a leader in the program. He actively recruited other friends and family members to attend. He participated in other programs the SBHC offered, including a mural project, youth leadership retreats, and a talent show where he starred as the main character in a play about the school to prison pipeline. Omar was so proud of his commitment that one day he invited his mom to the SBHC to see the mural he and the other young men had created.

Over the course of his participation, Omar’s academics improved. He started attending school more regularly and admitted that most of the time this was so that he could attend the young men’s group. Teachers commented that his behavior in class had also improved. More impressive was Omar’s willingness to make and maintain new friendships with other students that were not from his neighborhood. Many of these new friends helped Omar with his school work and encouraged him to get involved in other youth leadership programs.

Omar didn’t graduate the top of his class and didn’t go on to a prestigious Ivy League college. Instead, he did something much more important and impressive: Omar survived. He graduated, learned a trade, and got a union job. He grew up, started a family, and bought a home. He achieved all of the goals he set out for himself.

Omar was the exception. Many of his friends did not have the same opportunities, and too many ended up dropping out, being locked-up, or not surviving. But Omar’s story can be replicated. His is an example of what can happen when school administrators invest in comprehensive health services and prioritize students who need support.

How Did the School Do It?

In 2006, the administration at Tennyson High School in Hayward was looking for better ways to support their Latino male students. Many of these young men were affiliating with local gangs and the number of on-campus gang related fights was increasing, leading to increased suspensions, expulsions, and arrests of Latino students. The school principal turned to the school-based health center (SBHC), sponsored by Tiburcio Vasquez Health Center, Inc., for support. Together, the principal and the SBHC initiated a Latino male engagement program.

The program elements included:

  • Enhanced referrals for support
  • Individual case management
  • Family support
  • After school programing
  • Alternative to suspension

For more on how to establish or expand your SBHC, check out Why School-Based Health Centers Matter or visit the California School-Based Health Alliance at www.schoolhealthcenters.org.

Why School-Based Health Centers Matter

Physical and emotional well-being are essential for a child to succeed in school. Yet, many children come to school suffering from conditions that seriously affect their attendance, achievement, connectedness to school, and dropout rates. Left untreated, these conditions can have a devastating and long-term impact. California’s school-based health centers are located in schools serving some of the state’s most vulnerable children. This chapter of “student Supports: Getting the Most out of Your LCFF Investment,” details how school districts can establish or expand their own school-based health centers to support progress on the LCFF priorities.

Averting Crisis in Our Classrooms

By Alicia Rozum, California School-Based Health Alliance

Jared had been acting different. Typically an excellent student, he started falling asleep in class or putting his head down on the desk. He seemed “out of it”–that’s how his Chemistry teacher wrote it on the referral form to the high school’s comprehensive mental health program. As the school social worker managing this program, I decided the signs noticed by his teacher were enough to warrant scheduling an appointment that week.

However, within days, we received three more referrals for Jared — one from a friend who said Jared “seemed sad and lonely”; a second from his art teacher reporting that his work had lately been focused on death and destruction; and a final referral from Jared’s sister, who attended a different high school. His sister confided to her counselor that her brother had been talking about suicide. The counselor had the training to know that this was a serious risk and contacted me immediately.

Thanks to the willingness of all these referral sources — two high school teachers and two high school students–we were able to intervene immediately with Jared. We learned that he was, in fact, contemplating suicide and had a plan to kill himself that weekend.

We implemented our school’s crisis intervention protocols: Jared was assessed by a mental health professional, his family was contacted, and he was transported to the hospital for treatment. After his release from the hospital, Jared was paired with our on-site mental health therapist to receive ongoing counseling. Two years later, Jared graduated from high school and was on his way to college.

In many ways, the comprehensive mental health program on site at this high school helped save Jared’s life. The program had several components that made it successful:

  • All students had access, not just those in special education.
  • It was publicized to students through classroom trainings, activities, and posters around campus.
  • Teachers knew about it through professional development and consultation.
  • It offered crisis intervention, one-on-one counseling, and case management services on site.

Your school district can have services like this too! Student mental health is a big concern among educators, with over 20 percent of youth having a diagnosed mental health disorder. Many classroom behavioral issues, like acting out, poor self-regulation, and attention issues, are related to mental health concerns. With the advent of the Local Control Funding Formula (LCFF) and the increased focus on student engagement and school climate, mental health services in schools are a cost-effective way to increase attendance and reduce suspensions/expulsions.

Mental health professionals on campus also help schools prevent and address crises, train teachers in effective classroom strategies and how to support struggling students, and involve youth in delivering services that best meet their needs. To learn more about best practices for building comprehensive school-based mental health programs, check out Why Student Mental Health Matters or contact Alicia Rozum: arozum@schoolhealthcenters.org, Project Director, Mental Health, at the California School-Based Health Alliance.

Why Student Mental Health Matters

Unmet mental health needs rank among the most pressing concerns for California educators, directly affecting student attendance, behavior, and readiness to learn. Schools have an important role to play in addressing mental health needs of school-aged youth. But schools can’t do it alone – by partnering with counties and community-based agencies and clinics, schools can create comprehensive mental health programs that serve all students.