Students’ mental health and their behaviors at school are top concerns for most Eastern Iowa school districts, regardless if a district is “rural, urban, suburban, small, medium or large,” Grant Wood Area Education Agency Director John Speer said.
But resources that could help students often are cost-prohibitive or not immediately available to students in crisis — a problem Speer said he hopes three pilot programs announced Monday could fix.
The pilot programs will launch this school year in more than 20 school districts in the Grant Wood AEA’s region, which includes Linn, Johnson, Benton, Cedar, Iowa, Jones and Washington counties.
Many of the schools receiving new services through the pilots are in rural areas, such as North Cedar Community School District. North Cedar is located about halfway between Cedar Rapids and the Quad Cities, Superintendent Mark Dohmen said, which can make it difficult to consistently access qualified therapists.
North Cedar is participating in the AEA’s Site-Based Mental Health pilot program this school year, which will place local mental health providers in several schools. Other school districts in the program include Benton, Alburnett, Springville, Anamosa, Lisbon, Monticello and Olin.
“Sometimes students are quiet, sometimes there are behavior issues” when students are in crisis, Dohmen said. “The main thing with the manifestation of this that causes concern is, when they bring those issues to school, their capability to learn drops a lot. We need to deal with mental health issues first, so that student learning can happen afterward.”
Funding for the pilot programs is a mix of dollars from the Grant Wood AEA’s general budget, school districts’ budgets and what’s left of the $2.1 million appropriated last session by the Iowa Legislature to create a children’s mental health system.
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Most of the state dollars allocated to the Grant Wood AEA — about $200,000 after funds were split among nine area education agencies — is being spent on providing Youth Mental Health First Aid training to educators, Speer previously told The Gazette.
Partnering with outside agencies to provide counseling can cut significant costs for districts because agencies bill insurance or Medicaid to cover their services, Jacob Christensen explained at a Monday news conference. Christensen is the founder of the Marion-based clinic Covenant Family Solutions.
“Most of the students we see have Medicaid, so that’s the standard, but a lot of them do have private insurance as well,” he said. “When we find kids that don’t have any insurance and don’t have any way to fund the services they receive, sometimes that will fall under the schools to compensate … . We really haven’t had a situation where we’ve had to turn people away from services.”
The other two pilot programs establish Crisis Intervention Mental Health Counseling and Interconnected System Framework Sites in more than a dozen other schools.
The Crisis Intervention pilot program will scale up a program known in Cedar Rapids schools as J-FAST, the Juvenile and Family Assistance and Stabilization program, run by Foundation 2, a Cedar Rapids crisis center. School employees can call J-FAST if a student is struggling and a counselor will be dispatched to the school.
The AEA pilot program widens J-FAST’s reach to Belle Plaine, Iowa Valley, English Valleys, Mid-Prairie, Center Point-Urbana, Central City, Springville, Lisbon, Mount Vernon, Solon and West Branch schools.
Districts will share costs and the program will be subsidized by the AEA.
Finally, the Interconnected System Framework Sites program identified four school buildings — Anamosa Middle, Longfellow Elementary in Marion, Vinton-Shellsburg Middle School and Midland’s secondary school — where the AEA will work to integrate existing positive behavior incentive systems into mental health programs.
Strawberry Hill Elementary in Anamosa, Starry Elementary in Marion and Prairie Crest and Prairie View in the College Community School District participated in the pilot program last year and will continue to do so.
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“Our goal is to prove that this could work,” Speer said. “Our goal is to prove that it doesn’t matter if you live in Iowa City or Olin, you can have access to competent licensed mental health services. It shouldn’t matter where live, who you are or how much your family makes, you should have access to services.”
State Sen. Liz Mathis, D-Hiawatha, said she hopes the Grant Wood AEA’s efforts eventually could be replicated elsewhere in the state. The AEA programs “go hand in glove” with state efforts to address children’s mental health, said Mathis, who is on the Children’s System State Board.
“They’re taking that next step forward here, locally,” she said. “And I commend them, you know, because they’re faster.”
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