Responding to the heightened need for mental health supports and continued demands from students for more resources, Seattle is funding a $4.5 million mental health pilot in five city schools.
The partnership between the city and Seattle Public Schools has allowed the district to hire extra staffers, including bilingual staff at schools with a high percentage of kids who speak a language other than English, as well as mental health clinicians. It’s also paying for trauma-informed trainings.
Public Health – Seattle and King County officials helped pick the schools with the greatest need for the pilot; they are Chief Sealth and Rainier Beach high schools and its two feeder middle schools, Denny and Aki Kurose, as well as Ingraham High, where a student was shot last year.
“What really got the ball rolling was how social media and gun violence and the impact of the stay-at-home order really kept our kids … away from their peers and trusted community,” said Dwane Chappelle, director of the city of Seattle’s department of education and early learning. “We’ve seen how the presence of anxiety and depression resulted in [a] student mental health crisis.”
At Ingraham High, mental health needs skyrocketed after 17-year-old Ebenezer Haile was shot and killed in a hallway on Nov. 8. After the shooting, community members asked for stricter gun laws, more mental health services, and better safety in schools.
Even before the shooting, students were asking for more mental health resources and an increase in counseling staff. During the height of the pandemic, students formed a new advocacy group, the Seattle Student Union, made up of students from across SPS.
After the Ingraham shooting, “students took to civic action by walking out of their classes to push lawmakers to do something, anything, that would make Seattle Students safer,” Seattle Student Union leaders said in a statement. “The Seattle City Council listened — authorizing 4 million dollars for youth mental health support and empowering youth who are the experts in their schools to lead the way on how to allocate those funds.”
Each school in the pilot received $125,000 this school year. The rest of the $4.5 million will be distributed over the next two years and include additional schools to be announced later — about $2 million each year. The money came from the city’s general fund and the Families, Education, Preschool, and Promise levy.
School leaders were given control over how the money is spent because each community has different needs, Chappelle said. “We know there’s no one-size-fits-all … and mental health struggles present differently across schools and community.”
Chief Sealth Principal Ray Morales echoed that idea. “A lot of folks tout diversity — but we truly are diverse,” he said. “All of that diversity is not just about ethnicity … and at the same time, diversity creates challenges. It’s [extra funds] what we’re owed if I’m being honest.”
Morales said Chief Sealth has higher rates of students with disabilities, students who are English learners, and students on free or reduced lunch than many other Seattle schools. All those factors contribute to the diversity of obstacles for students and staff.
Out of all SPS high schools, Chief Sealth had the lowest percentage of students who attended school regularly during the 2021-22 school year, about 59%, according to state data. Rainier Beach was next, at about 60%.
“Mental health presents in different ways and I think it’s really important to highlight that for young people,” Morales said. “It presents in just not going to school, it presents in depression, and you might be coming to school and just be completely disengaged from the majority of your classes.”
Over the last two years, an influx of Central American students enrolled, Morales said, including unaccompanied minors as well as students who immigrated with their families. The lack of Spanish-speaking staffers has become an issue, he said.
Some of these students haven’t been in school consistently over the years and the language barrier has also been an obstacle. It’s been a priority to make sure there are staffers who are ready to work with students who are at different levels, he said.
With the extra money, Morales said, the school hired Hugo Garcia, a bilingual staffer. Garcia said it’s critical for students to have trusted adults in the building.
“The impact of a caring adult who takes the time to connect with a student struggling with absenteeism can be a powerful catalyst for growth and development,” Garcia said in a statement. “My chronically absent students can face additional challenges, like language barriers, that can increase a sense of isolation.”
Chief Sealth is one of the most diverse high schools in the district. Hispanic or Latino students make up nearly 30% of the enrollment. And almost 20% of the students there are English learners.
With the funds, Chief Sealth brought in five extra staffers, including Garcia. The other staffers include mentors for Latino students and somebody to run an after-school program, Morales said. About 100 students have benefited from the services so far.
Looking forward to the next school year, Morales said he’s working to bring in more resources to close language gaps for East African students.
Chappelle, the city’s education and early learning director, said it’s important for middle schoolers to have the same resources as they transition to high schools.
At Denny Middle, the extra funds were used to contract with Southwest Youth and Family Services for two mental health clinicians for 30 hours per week, Principal Jeffrey Lam said. The school now has three clinicians in the building, and it can offer six hours of therapy for each student, along with their families.
“Student mental health needs are not limited only to kids but also the well-being of the family — the grandparents or aunts and uncles that they live with,” Lam said.
The funds were also used to support educators, Lam said, with trauma-informed training. Educators were taught how to be aware of emotional triggers that can prompt memories of trauma, prioritize student needs, and better manage their own stress.
“Our staff are people who have been traumatized and our kids are also dealing with trauma and sometimes what will happen our kids will trigger our adults and our adults will trigger our kids — it’s a pretty nasty spiral,” Lam said.
It’s too soon to know how successful the pilot has been through data, but anecdotes show that it’s helping, Lam said. All the staffers have felt the benefit of these dollars because they were struggling to meet student needs, he said.
“The beautiful thing about this opportunity — it gave us a lot of hope as a school community,” Lam said. “It gave us optimism to know that we have some resources we can use to support the needs of students.”
School leaders, students, and community and public health officials will convene in the next couple of months to assess the success of the pilot. Chappelle said the work is ongoing and “we don’t envision this just being a one-time thing.”
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