NEW ALBANY — Students in New Albany-Floyd County Schools will soon have easier access to mental health services — and it all started with the counseling department at New Albany High School making some changes.
In the spring of 2016, school staff went to Indianapolis to learn more about how to earn an “Indiana Gold Star.”
“We were looking for opportunities to make [our counseling department] better, to better impact the school as whole and in a concise way and, as assistant principal, I wanted a way to get the counselors the recognition they deserve,” Nancy Givens said.
Afterward, building staff decided to “embark on this journey to reshape our counseling department,” as Givens put it.
According to the Indiana Department of Education, “schools that have obtained the Indiana Gold Star have demonstrated that they have a comprehensive and accountable school counseling and guidance program, aligned to Indiana School Counselor and Student Standards, as well as national (ASCA) standards.”
A steering committee was formed, comprised of the school counselors, facilitators and building principals to help guide the school towards the Gold Star, according to Givens.
Students were surveyed and asked “questions about goals and aspirations, personal struggles, relationships with people in the building,” Givens said.
Counselors were also asked to keep track of how they spent their working hours.
The steering committee compiled that data and brought it to a larger group — the Gold Star Council — made up of teachers, counselors, students and community members. The council used the data to select four areas for the school to concentrate on: attendance, yearly individualized graduation plans, improved organizational skills and class participation.
The changes that were made paid off and the school achieved its goal, obtaining its first Gold Star.
A DISTRICT-WIDE MODEL
With the major success of the program at New Albany High, the district is implementing the same program at each school starting this fall. The approach is unique, according to Louis Jensen, assistant superintendent of high school education for the district, because typically school counseling programs focus on elementary schools, whereas this will be a K-12 approach.
“This is a very time consuming and in-depth model of what we are going to do in the entire district,” Jensen said.
The first step, surveying students, starts this fall.
“We are going to go through the same process… We are going to do a K-12 comprehensive program. It will be district-led instead of a building-led model,” Jenson explained.
A FOCUS ON SOCIAL, MENTAL HEALTH
The data collected from the student surveys helped guide the Gold Star Council, but also showed some areas of concern that school officials suspected were there but didn’t have hard data on.
“We had a lot shortfalls," Jensen said. "Mental health resonated. We really needed to address our students' mental health."
According to Givens, on the surveys students reported feelings like “I’m not always comfortable,” “I don’t always feel safe,” “I don’t always feel appreciated” and “I don’t always feel that people are comforting.”
“They are loving their [guidance] counselors at high rates, but don’t always know who to go to,” Givens said.
Jensen confirmed that the Gold Star data, combined with data parents provide outlining what areas their child may need help in, made it clear the district needed to make a change.
“Kids struggle," Jensen said. "They come to school with a lot of issues … the environment they're living in, loss of a parent. They come to us with a lot of needs and a lot struggles.”
To help students with those challenges, the district is partnering with several local agencies to bring licensed professionals into schools across the district.
LifeSpring and Family Ark will pilot a program, with LifeSpring offering services at New Albany High School and Green Valley Elementary School and Family Ark at Mount Tabor and Slate Run elementary schools.
“We are going to start slow,” Jensen said.
The set-up at each school is a little different — as Jensen put it at Monday’s board meeting, they are “building this plane as [they] go.”
“Our goal is to start off small and by them building up their caseload, they will be able to sustain themselves,” he said.
Those schools were selected using the same parent-reporting database that officials tapped into to begin with, according to Jensen. Basically, a higher number of students at those schools seem to need these resources.
“We at Family Ark have a long history of serving kids in our community and sometimes there is a barrier for families because of transportation or busy schedules. We were delighted when the school asked for a partnership,” Kristi Glotzbach, treatment director of Family Ark and licensed clinical social worker, said.
Glotzbach said that, at least at Slate Run and Mount Tabor, the professionals placed in the schools would offer case consultations, team meetings with staff, crisis intervention, professional development and could even introduce groups for students to tackle hard topics such as bullying.
“A peer-driven setting can work wonders if you have the right person leading the way,” according to Glotzbach.
Either the student’s insurance, Medicaid or grant money would pay for services rendered, Jensen said.
“We are excited ... there are situations where students have made comments about self harm or behaviors … and just having that resource person, being able to bounce ideas off them or being about to collaborate with them is huge,” Givens said.
These mental health professionals will work at the handful of schools in the district a few days a week, but the ultimate goal is for them to be available full time to students, a vision that could become a reality as early as January 2018.
THE LILLY GRANT
Earlier this year, the district applied for a significant grant through Lilly Endowment Inc.
“Lilly was looking for schools to come up with an innovative K -12 counseling program that would be different, support social and mental health and college career readiness,” Jensen said.
The district opted to focus heavily on social and mental health, triggered by the data from the Gold Star student surveys and parent data base, and developed partnerships with local agencies.
Though the district centered on mental health, professional development of counselors and preparing students for higher education or their career.
The winner of the grant is announced at the end of the September and if NA-FC Schools wins, it means a total of $1.1 million gets pumped into the district over the next four years to get the program off the ground.
“...the money would help tremendously would speed up the process but we are moving forward regardless of if we get the grant or not,” Jensen said.