Cedar Rapids school board approves new model for mental health services

Abbe Center to provide specialists to district

CEDAR RAPIDS — The Cedar Rapids school board on Monday evening approved a grant-backed agreement that will shift the model for the district’s mental health services from one that addresses problems through therapy to one where mental health specialists provide on-site consultation at the highest need schools in hopes of catching problems before they arise.

Under the agreement, Abbe Center for Community Mental Health will assign school-based mental health specialists to work in consultative roles, on a half-time basis, at seven schools. The remaining 24 district schools will split the services of one mental health specialist available for seven hours each week.

“We will be using mental health specialists that will consult with our building staff, with our support teams, with our students, with our families, to help determine what the needs are,” said Rhoda Shepherd, director of health services for Cedar Rapids schools. “They also will provide assessments for individual children. They will engage our families and our community mental health providers in developing plans for students and determining what services they could best benefit from and help them access those services.”

She believes ultimately more students will have access to help under this model, and this approach will better train the district’s staff. She also said the shift comes as money for mental health services is drying up forcing Abbe to shift to provide only billable services.

While the measure was approved, some feel it does not adequately address the district’s needs.

“This is not the best solution, but we need to do what we can,” said Gary Anhalt, a school board member. “We as a school board as we start developing legislative priorities … (need to) look at building that as one of the priorities with the school board association and our own board.”

The new model was made possible by a grant the Abbe Center received from United Way to provide a half-time specialist at Johnson Elementary School, McKinley Middle School and Metro and Washington high schools. An agreement with the Department of Human Services, for $150,000 annually for up to three years, will extend these services to Hoover Elementary School, Wilson Middle School and Jefferson High School.

In the past, Abbe provided multiple therapists — each serving three to five schools — to do on-site therapy with students as requested at all Cedar Rapids buildings. Shepherd estimated that 350 to 400 students each year received direct therapy on-site during the school day. This model does not allow for that, especially for the 24 schools that will be sharing a single specialist.

Parents would cover therapy for children in need on their own, Shepherd said.

Some school board members questioned the uneven access to services across the district.

“There’s obviously a huge need here and we are not meeting the full needs of the kids in the schools, so I will put this on my board for future discussions,” said board member John Laverty, adding he was appreciative of the Abbe grant from the United Way.

Shepherd said the need will be ultimately evaluated as this new model plays out.

“Our hopes for this are that we’ll be able to find more students earlier that have mental health needs, and use our teams and the mental health specialists expertise in helping us identify what will best service those students,” she said.

Superintendent Dave Benson said the local Area Education Agency has expressed interest in becoming a mental health pilot to services on a fee per service basis that could be pooled to get services at a better rate.

School board President Mary Meisterlin said many districts are looking to find the right way to address mental health needs.

“It’s something many school districts are paying attention to across the state,” Meisterlin said. “It’s a topic we are concerned about and we will continue to discuss.”

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