Will resource shift help kids?

The Educational Leadership and Support Center for the Cedar Rapids Community School District. (Liz Martin/The Gazette-KCRG)
The Educational Leadership and Support Center for the Cedar Rapids Community School District. (Liz Martin/The Gazette-KCRG)

As the Cedar Rapids School Board prepared to dramatically change the way the district provides mental health services, board member John Laverty asked the key question.

“Is this going to detract from our mental health services for students, or does this somehow enhance, or keep it on the same playing field?”

Unfortunately, we don’t have an answer, yet.

For years, professionals from the Abbe Center for Community Mental Health provided in-school therapy in each of the district’s 31 schools. They spent as little as an hour a week at some schools, a few hours at others, depending on need. A patchwork of district money and grants covered the costs, although students’ families were billed for therapy sessions, usually through health coverage.

Now, seven mental health specialists will work half-time in seven schools: Johnson and Hoover elementary schools, McKinley and Wilson middle schools and at Metro, Washington and Jefferson high schools. United Way and Department of Human Services grants will cover the cost for three years. But for the other 24 schools, only one mental health specialist will be available just seven hours weekly.

And the focus won’t be on in-school therapy. It will be on consulting with school staff, assessing kids and referring them and their families to services outside of school.

“Our hopes for this are we’ll be able to find more students earlier that have mental health needs,” Rhoda Shepherd, director of health services for the district, told the board.

Abbe makes a good case that this could be a better model, at least for the seven schools that get more attention. There, Abbe staff will have far more time to consult with teachers and get to know students. The goal is to get a richer understanding of kids who need help, along with their families, and make a much more informed decision on treatment they need.

“Overall, we think we’ll be able to reach more kids, provide services and more service options for families,” said Cindy Kaestner vice president for community mental health services at Abbe.

But I’ve got concerns.

The district has known for months that change was coming, but planning and option-weighing was largely done behind the scenes. There should be a more transparent, public process for altering services for 300 to 400 students yearly. Are there other options? In the end, the board was stuck in the position of approving this model or no model.

Moving from in-school treatment to outside help raises transportation issues and other barriers that could pop up between kids and help. Abbe, to its credit, has pledged to address them. The focus on seven schools prompts serious equity concerns, as board members indicated. “There’s obviously a huge need here, and we’re not meeting the full need of the kids in the schools,” Laverty said.

Just think if the new model were available in all 31 schools. But, yet again, our best hopes are no match for a lack of cash. We can afford the best we can do, but not what needs to be done. We’re shrinking from our responsibility to care for children, with consequences that should keep us up at night.

l Comments: (319) 398-8452; todd.dorman@thegazette.com

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