Giving Compass' Take:

• Yesenia Robles reports that the Sheridan school district has hired mental health professionals and seen a corresponding increase in teacher retention and student improvement. 

• How can other districts follow this model? How can funders help districts overcome cost and logistical barriers to hiring mental health professionals? 

• Learn more about the need for mental health support in schools

At one school in the tiny district of Sheridan south of Denver, two social workers roam the hallways with handheld radios, responding to crisis after crisis.

It might be a student crying in class for unknown reasons, a disruptive student, or a fight. Less urgent requests, such as a check-in for a student who just seems to be having a rough day, usually come through email.

“It’s very much boots on the ground,” said Maggie Okoniewski, one of the social workers at Fort Logan Northgate.

The school has just under 600 students in grades third through eighth. The demographics are typical of the Sheridan school district. About one in four are identified as homeless — the highest rate for any school district in the state — and about 15 percent qualify as having special needs.

In between those calls, Okoniewski and her fellow social worker Danielle Watry check in on students they’ve identified as a priority. Every week the list includes about 60 students. In the last year, the list includes students from the heavily Hispanic population who have especially struggled with deportations or fears of separations, they said.

“And if I’m in the classroom, it’s almost certain that another student will flag us down,” Watry said.

Staff members say the resources that Principal Nelson Van Vranken has rolled out in the past three years are making a world of difference. That includes hiring Okoniewski and Watry. But it also includes two nearly full-time interns who help provide in-house counseling and therapy groups for students. The school also has a district-level school psychologist.

And just this year, Van Vranken hired a behavioral teacher who helps teachers work with students who have behavior problems such as lacking focus or blurting things out in class. In one-on-one sessions, she coaches them on skills to change their behavior. She also sits in class with students to help them apply the new skills. As a state and national conversation grows around ways to increase mental health supports in schools, staff at Fort Logan Northgate say the benefits are worth the investment.

Fewer students are slipping through the cracks, administrators, social workers, and teachers say. They also say culture is changing as students become more comfortable with each other and themselves. And teachers are staying longer, no longer overwhelmed by the challenges their students bring.

Read the full article about bringing in mental health professionals by Yesenia Robles at Chalkbeat.