The $1.9-million, federally funded program will expand in-school mental, behavioral, and academic supports for students.
By Matt Skoufalos | March 21, 2023
On Tuesday morning, Superintendent Fredrick McDowell cut the ribbon on the Collingswood High School Wellness Center, a sensory-friendly private office suite tucked away in the corner of the campus media center.
“This is a great day,” McDowell said.
“This is huge for our school community, and we believe it’s going to pay tremendous dividends. But it does not stop there.”
A cross-stitched sign reading “EVERYONE IS WELCOME HERE” hangs outside the center doorway; a lavender fragrance floats at its threshold.
This morning, the room was lit mostly by sunlight, and partially from the gently pulsing LED glow of a sensory tube, a five-feet-tall tower of bubbling water, fizzing away gently in the corner. There are no fluorescents.
A beach sunset, Wellness Center Director Kristin O’Lexy’s “happy place,” is projected on the rear wall, above a swinging chair nest that is becoming one of her favorite places to sit when meeting with students.
Opposite O’Lexy are bean bag chairs that are student favorites, along with a matching nest chair and couch. Gentle music provides an auditory backdrop, and every table has a selection of haptic toys for students to engage with while they visit. There’s even a tea station in the corner.
Every feature in the room is designed to help calm students when they’re at their most reactive; to get them comfortable enough to speak freely about the things that are hardest for them to articulate. The center has been designed with student input, which district professionals hope will help them build the trust necessary for its programs to flourish.
O’Lexy, who began her counseling career in Collingswood as a social work intern before becoming the district’s elementary counseling coordinator in 2020, said she’s been “incredibly impressed” with the student buy-in so far.
“You’re always concerned with getting the people who will benefit from the program onboard,” O’Lexy said.
“They’ve come up in the past few weeks, and given us great ideas for the things that are going to benefit them.”
Students are able to access services at the center by self-referral, or a note from a teacher; staff may also self-refer.
The center offers wellness-themed activities and supports by appointment, plus professional development and team-building activities for staff.
Most importantly, however, it’s also a safe place for students to land when they’re in crisis; O’Lexy said they’ve already begun to access drop-in services at the center.
“We have a couple students who’ve experienced big emotions throughout the day, and needed a space to come down in the moment,” she said. “It’s been a nice space for them to not be stuck in the hallway, having a panic attack.”
O’Lexy wants the center to be able to reach as many people as possible in the grant period, to give Collingswood students “a strong social-emotional learning foundation as they push through the years,” the better to self-regulate their own behaviors through crisis.
Students don’t have the same skills for de-escalating intense situations that adults do, she said, and must be coached to apply them successfully in a classroom environment.
“We forget about that as adults,” O’Lexy said. “I think we’re very reactive, and everyone is on edge as a result of everything that’s going on.
“When I have a student that’s in the hallway, panicking about something that’s happened, I want them to know in the moment that they can help themselves,” she said.
As students build trust with the center and its professionals, they’ll learn to manage their behavior better, and build healthier habits, which ultimately should lead to improved academic achievement, McDowell said.
“When students see that there’s a direct connection between things that they do and participate in and the outcomes that begin to improve in their lives, they start doing more of those things,” he said.
“When students are mentally healthy, they do better in school.”
Although the impact of the wellness center can be measured in data points such as student attendance and discipline referrals, “what it can’t measure is a sense of belonging and connectedness,” which the superintendent believes will emerge amid greater availability of mental health services.
“It’s very difficult to quantify that, but it’s one of the pieces that we believe will begin to manifest, and that changes culture in other ways that can be measured,” McDowell said.
Collingswood Mayor Jim Maley praised the district for opening the center, and underscored the need for the services it will provide.
“Our schools, our kids, our community, the world, just seems to be in a very precarious place right now,” Maley said. “There’s a lot going on in the world coming out of this pandemic. It’s presented challenges that are unique to any we’ve seen over the past couple decades.
“This component of what you’re doing with the wellness center is one piece of it at a time when we need to do everything we can to help our students feel safe and secure in their environment here; safe and secure in their community,” the mayor said.
“This is great work that’s happened,” he said. “Let’s not stop here. Let’s do what we can to keep everybody in a safe space all day, every day, not just when they knock on the door here.”
Camden County Executive Superintendent Carmen Rodriguez described the center as “uniquely Collingswood,” and praised the district for taking the steps that opened it. Rodriguez also spoke about the need to help young people develop the coping skills that they’ll need to survive the even more complex world of their adulthood.
“If we start with the child, and help our children learn to be healthy mentally as well as physically, we will have a whole adult who will be ready to answer the challenges of a new world, and walk us into a new era,” Rodriguez said.
“It begins with every single one of you, and being open, understanding, and having compassion for everyone,” she continued. “Compassion is always good, but compassion and caring need to be always taught.”
Collingswood Board of Education President Regan Kaiden said the wellness center is “a much-needed resource for our schools,” and praised the team of professionals that staff it.
“They come with the experience, the passion, and they’re excited to get to work, so I know that the longer they have to grow into the roles, the more we’re going to get out of this center,” Kaiden said.
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