The U.S. Health and Human Services grant will fund additional mental health professionals and the creation of a wellness center for students at the high school campus.
By Matt Skoufalos | December 14, 2022
In the coming months, Collingswood Schools will establish an on-campus wellness center and expand in-school mental, behavioral, and academic supports for students, thanks to an infusion of federal cash from the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services (DHHS).
The “Trauma-Informed Care in Schools Grant” is funded by a two-year, $1.9-million award through the DHSS Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA).
The grant supports the hiring of several professionals: two social workers, a behavioral therapist, a nurse practitioner, a social-emotional learning coach, an academic intervention coach, and an administrative assistant/grant secretary.
The rest of the funds will be used to convert a large classroom into an on-campus wellness center in the Collingswood High School, where those professionals can deliver medical care, group therapy, counseling, and other supports.
Collingswood Superintendent of Schools Fredrick McDowell said the program could be up and running by early 2023.
The influx of money will enable the district to provide “a greatly expanded level of service” to a school population that has a growing need for that help, McDowell said.
“We have students on a daily basis experiencing sometimes-extreme levels of depression and anxiety, which manifests in disruptive behavior; sometimes avoidance behavior,” McDowell said. “Many times it creates an inability to learn, especially at a high level. We are trying to remove those impediments.”
In 2019, Collingswood voters approved a ballot initiative dedicating $225,000 annually to the district budget for elementary school counseling and case coordination. At the secondary level, however, the district was still referring students out for services.
McDowell said the SAMHSA grant will afford a greatly expanded array of supports for some 1,200 Collingswood middle- and high-school students.
“Because we have a forward-thinking Board of Education and administration, some of this infrastructure was established back in 2017,” the superintendent said.
“What we could not have forecasted was the unexpected implications of the pandemic and how it weighed on the mental health of our pre-teen and teenaged students.”
The funds come at a time when McDowell said that the district has shifted from “pandemic mode” to “learning recovery mode,” as officials unpack the social-emotional learning (SEL) implications of the pandemic.
Moving from a “triage-and-treat” model into one supported by dedicated staff will allow educators “to treat what’s happening in the immediate, and get them back on track,” the superintendent said.
“We’re still triaging the needs, but referring for more intensive services,” he said. “We’re trying to shorten that window so students can receive more services on campus with less disruption to their education.
“Some of the challenges students are facing are heartbreaking,” McDowell said. “Family disruption, increased levels of homelessness and food insecurity, suicidal ideation, criminal behavior, violence, degradation of physical and mental health.
“We don’t want to wait [to address these things],” he said. “Our children are struggling now.”
The district currently maintains a counseling center at Garfield Elementary School as well as a part-time licensed clinical social worker at the high school. School psychologists and social work interns under the supervision of fully certified staff also guide students in small groups. McDowell described the team as “a great organization that is really trying to do good work.
“We’re not perfect, and the work is really hard, but we have a lot of really good folks who are asking the right questions, and folks who are looking to put the best foot forward to help our kids,” he said.
“We’re trying to close the loop, and figure out what’s the appropriate balance of services to meet a need that’s overwhelming our system,” the superintendent said. “How do we build long-term support for students on campus?”
The grant will be disbursed over two years at $970,000 annually, with an option to extend it for as many as three additional years. McDowell expects to know the prospects for doing so within the next 12 months, but expressed his confidence that the district can sustain the initiative for at least the five-year period.
“As long as our federal partners play ball, this will be a significant investment for our students,” he said.
Please support NJ Pen with a subscription. Get e-mails, follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, or try our Direct Dispatch text alerts.