A half-dozen local school districts are launching a three-year effort with Wright State University and other agencies to reduce health and mental health problems that hinder K-12 students’ education.
The project, funded by a $500,000 Ohio Higher Education grant to Wright State, dovetails with the Ohio Department of Education’s new strategic plan aimed at educating “the whole child” beyond just reading and math.
“We’ve always thought just about education outcomes, but now we’ve realized the intersection of education and health. To have successful kids academically, you need healthy kids,” said WSU professor Kevin Lorson, who added many schools feel overwhelmed by newer non-academic demands. “We’re not about adding more to a school’s (tasks), but organizing, prioritizing and charting a path forward to see where it makes sense to go first.”
The schools involved in the local project are Miamisburg, Huber Heights, Northmont, Brookville, Northridge, Valley View and the Montgomery County Juvenile Courts’ school arm. They’ll work with the Montgomery County Educational Service Center on training, with likely sharing of resources.
Northridge Superintendent Dave Jackson talked about student challenges, saying his schools feed, clothe and support students who “experience conflict, stress, trauma in their homes on a regular basis.” He said some of those students come with a “flight mentality” and aren’t prepared to learn.
“We were all traditionally trained from a disciplinary practice that if a kid does something wrong, we consequence them, not that we try to understand why it’s happening and try to fix the underlying root cause,” Jackson said. “We have to find time and money for training, and we have to bring in new types of people — social workers, social-emotional learning people — so that all of us learn to become empathetic and compassionate engagers of kids.”
A half-dozen representatives of each school held a planning session Thursday to begin analyzing data on the issues their districts face and build support structures so their projects are long-term and sustainable, rather than quick knee-jerks.
As a state, Ohio has room for health improvement, ranking in the bottom 15 in obesity, infant mortality and drug overdose deaths, according to Lorson’s project summary. He said the solutions are not always simple, as one local school district learned its low vaccination rate was largely due to families with transportation problems who needed services brought to them.
But Lorson said the main focus points of this program are substance abuse prevention along with mental and behavioral health.
Huber Heights Superintendent Sue Gunnell said schools can help build behavioral strategies — managing conflict, teamwork, empathy, decision-making — that will help students beyond school, in the workforce and life in general.
“Those types of things haven’t technically been part of a school curriculum,” Gunnell said. “We’ve tried to teach them through modeling, but now we’re actually taking the time to focus on it.”
Northridge is implementing the Love and Logic behavioral program in one school as a pilot program.
“We’re seeing great changes — less suspensions, less disciplinary referrals, and an atmosphere of calm and peace in that building that we’ve not experienced before,” Jackson said.
Consultant Jessica Lawrence, who is working with WSU on the project, said schools need to keep a focus on high attendance and good academics en route to high graduation numbers, with health and behavioral strategies helping them get there.
Recent listening sessions in Huber Heights showed parents are looking for help from both their schools and the community as a whole to find health resources and build kids’ social skills, Gunnell said, as well as learn how to help their children academically. Jackson said Northridge has launched parent-teacher teams to address some of the same issues.
Jessica Davies, social-emotional learning director for the Montgomery County ESC, said her agency will help the schools build their multi-year plans and help districts share staff as they figure out who will actually do certain work.
“I’m just really excited that we have so many schools from our county involved,” she said.