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'We are all in': Whitewater schools expand mental health support services

Janesville Gazette - 9/15/2019

Sep. 15--WHITEWATER -- A Whitewater elementary school student experiencing a crisis sometimes had to wait a day before seeing one of the district's two busy school counselors.

This year, the school district has added one more part-time counselor, making them more available to students at the three elementary schools.

"Now we're able to say today, you'll see the school counselor today. We can help you right away," said Lanora Heim, director of pupil services.

"And that's critically important to meet the students where their needs are and when their needs are because some of our children are dealing with some super significant things."

Now Washington and Lincoln will have a full-time elementary counselor, and Lakeview will have someone there every weekday afternoon, Heim said.

Heim hopes that position and others the district added will increase students' access to mental health services. She spoke about the staffing additions at the Aug. 26 school board meeting, where she praised the board for funding them, and in an interview with The Gazette.

The new positions for the five-school district are:

* An elementary school counselor (0.5 of a full-time position).

* One full-time school psychologist.

* A full-time behavior interventionist at the middle school.

* A mental health therapist to cover grades 4K-12.

In addition to other responsibilities, the elementary school counselors teach lessons in classrooms.

Every six days, classes get a developmental guidance lesson through Second Step, which Heim called a "popular" elementary social-emotional learning program.

Early on, such lessons might be about being a good friend. Heim said one example is teaching children to be a bucket filler versus a bucket emptier. Fifth-grade students, however, might learn about peer conflict.

"My own children go to this school district, and I've seen them talk about those lessons as they come home," she said. "And so it's just a delightful thing to have the children have some of those skills."

Adding a school psychologist brings the district's total to three, and Heim said they will have a "very large" mental health impact on the schools.

She said the district has employed two psychologists for almost 2,000 students for the 19 years she has worked there.

Heim said there's a national shortage of school psychologists. Having a third will allow for more consistency, and she said the psychologists can work with struggling students to make assessments, create plans and provide therapy.

The psychologist also can support staff with teaching students who are struggling, she said.

The behavior interventionist has a background of working with adjudicated youth in Jefferson County, Heim said.

An interventionist, who might have a social work background, can work with students and families to provide more complete care and address root causes of behavior. The person might have more chances to do home visits, too.

Bringing a mental health therapist to the district has been a seven-year "mission" for Heim.

For the last few years, the district has made a therapist available at the middle school and high school about once a week.

Now, the district is contracting with Fort HealthCare to have a professional based solely in Whitewater, Heim said. In grades 4K through 12, the therapist can work with families all the way down to the minutiae of medical billing.

The service is available at no cost to families, Heim said, which helps families who face barriers, such as with insurance or transportation.

Superintendent Mark Elworthy said Whitewater's prioritization of mental health is part of what drew him to the district three years ago.

"Right now, we just felt it was just incredibly important to better support our students," he said.

Heim said all these positions are district officials' answer to the data they saw and the "cry for help" they heard.

"We're all in," she said. "We're just all in.

"In olden times, when you think about reading, writing and math at school--we're a far cry away from that," she said.

"We recognize that school districts have a responsibility to do way more than that and to help the children.

"And if we won't do it, who's going to do it?"

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(c)2019 The Janesville Gazette (Janesville, Wis.)

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