Solana Beach Schools commit to meeting students' social, emotional needs

The Solana Beach School District Board (SBSD) is focusing on social and emotional learning this school year, looking to fill the gaps to better take care of kids in need.

At a board workshop on Aug. 23, SBSD Superintendent Jodee Brentlinger said the district will form a work group that will meet throughout September and October to analyze existing social emotional learning services with the goal of implementing a comprehensive and consistent program district-wide—this could include the hiring of a licensed clinical social worker.

The board will expect to hear the work group’s report by December to begin piloting a program in 2019.

Student well-being has been a board priority, as the board designated $350,000 in the 2018-19 budget toward developing a health and guidance program.

“I’m excited about what we can do and what we can create. We have the ability to create a model that can be used in other districts,” said SBSD President Debra Schade.

Brentlinger said serving students’ social and emotional needs is a moral and ethical imperative.

“We believe schools play a vital role in teaching students to become knowledgeable, responsible and caring adults,” Brentlinger said. “If there’s anything that’s preventing that than we have to enlist support services and programs in order for that to happen, and teach and model those skills.”

Page McKennett, the district’s director of pupil services and special education, said the district will use the Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning (CASEL) model to build a common language throughout the district. She said CASEL is the “gold standard” to provide guidance in implementing social and emotional learning (SEL), defining it as the process through which children acquire and apply the knowledge, attitude and skills necessary to understand and manage emotions, set and achieve positive goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain positive relationships and make responsible decisions.

“We know social and emotional learning works,” McKennett said.

When integrated into the classroom, SEL can help increase high school graduation rates and minimize behavioral issues, issues with alcohol and drugs, and mental health problems—students with strong social and emotional skills are more successful in school and life, McKennett said.

Based on feedback from district staff, students in the district are facing a variety of challenges. Students’ needs surround family hardships, emotional dysregulation, anxiety, lack of empathy, eating disorders, grief and loss and divorce. Suicide ideation can become a result of some of those needs, McKennett said.

Of the approximately 3,100 students in the district, 547 received guidance services in 2017-18 and 207 received individual counseling.

“In the last seven years I’ve seen a huge increase in students with mental health diagnoses, some of them, not all of them on some serious psychotropic medications as well,” said Solana Vista and Carmel Creek school psychologist Viyan Stanko.

Stanko said she is seeing children with mood dysregulation, bipolar disorder and kids coming to her as young as kindergarten with serious diagnoses. Another trend Stanko has noticed is an increase in childhood trauma experiences—at least five students lost a parent last year that she and staff addressed with guidance and grief counseling.

“Many times we are the only type of counseling, mental health or social emotional service that these kids get. They don’t get anything outside of school,” Stanko said, which shows the need for the district to have licensed mental health professionals to address issues with proper interventions and counseling.

According to Robyn Hubbard, the district’s mental health services provider, 20 percent of American students have a mental health issue and only 20 percent receive services. Of the 20 percent who receive services, 70 to 80 percent are getting them at school.

“We really are the supports the students are getting,” Hubbard said.

Currently, services and supports differ at all schools—there are school psychologists, guidance staff, speech pathologists and a district mental health services provider. Some like Stanko split their time between two sites and others like Liz Schlicher, guidance assistant at Solana Vista, only work part time.

“Consistency is key, part time is not realistic,” said Schlicher who works from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., which incorrectly assumes there are no meltdowns before 10 a.m. “When I hear someone’s been crying since 8:30 in the morning and I wasn’t there until 10 …we need to do better for these kids.”

Jill Carter, the school counselor at Skyline School, said each school site should have its own credentialed counselor. If counselors are visiting multiple sites, they lose out on the opportunity to build authentic relationships with students and families, she said.

Carter’s sentiment was reinforced by the results from the district’s California Healthy Kids Survey of fifth graders in which 67 percent said they feel close to someone at school and 65 percent said they could find someone to talk to. The Speak Up survey given to sixth grade students showed that 60 percent believes their school cares about them and only 42 percent said that they had one adult on campus they could talk to.

“This is really bothersome in a district like ours with all the supports, all of our amazing teachers and things that are going on that we’re still getting these kind of numbers,” said Schade.

At the workshop, board members wanted to understand the greatest needs in staffing and where resources could be most used. They also stressed the need to educate parents to reduce the stigma of their students receiving services. Schade said how important it is to provide equity for all students—so that no matter what school they go to or what staff they interact with, they are going to get their needs met in order to rise above and be able to learn in the classroom.

The SEL work group will explore the gaps in ongoing training and communication for staff, the potential for additional hours for 1:1 counseling, wrap-around services for families and the utilization of staff at all sites, the issue that was most stressed by the staff members.

“I’ve spoken a lot of times about how close this is to my heart, not only for my personal employment,” Schlicher said. “It really comes from the best interest of these kids, they need it. They need help.”

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