Sometimes. But not always.
Eight years ago, SCORE Prize finalist Johnson City Schools (JCS) won a sizable federal grant: $5 million in Safe Schools/Healthy Students funds, received over the course of four years. The grant allowed JCS to establish the HEROES program, a comprehensive set of services designed to meet a wide range of student mental health and safety needs.
“We tried to inundate our schools with support,” said JCS’s Greg Wallace, director of the HEROES program. “We essentially established local mental health clinics in all our schools.”
JCS’s use of the funds was so successful that the district received a national Voices of Prevention awards from the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. It’s challenging to isolate academic benefits of the program, as many kids receiving services are also enrolled in Response to Instruction and Intervention (RTI2), but documented measurable results do include decreases in drug and alcohol use, bullying events, and student absences due to fear.
In 2012, the grant ended – but the services didn’t.
JCS and community partners decided the HEROES program was too important to lose, collaborating to locate funds necessary to maintain the level of investment initially made possible through the grant. Individualized mental health services have been provided to about 20 percent of JCS’s students.
“We’re like everybody. We don’t have a ton of money floating around. But we’ve made it a priority,” said Dr. Wallace.
The HEROES story is just one example of how JCS allocates resources to support student well-being. High academic expectations are set for all students in the district, and kids are fully supported in meeting them. From a thoughtful, comprehensive RTI2 program to nutritional services designed to truly meet kids’ needs, JCS has achieved success by caring for every student.
“We plan for the whole child,” said Debra Bentley, director of instruction and communications for JCS. “When a child feels safe, when a child feels mentally and emotionally sound, then the academics will come.”
High academic expectations are the district-wide standard at JCS. Instead of thinking in terms of what 70 percent of students can achieve, Dr. Bentley said, the goal is always 100 percent. School and district culture supports this, as do community members and local funding bodies. Throughout the district, higher-order thinking and instructional differentiation are hallmarks of instruction.
Facilitating this at the district level starts requires outstanding administration at each school.
“The expectation of high standards, and the personal needs of all students, begins with the building principal,” said Dr. Bentley. “The district has strong leadership in all schools.”
JCS committed $2 million to RTI2 investments two years ago, funding system-level RTI2 coaches and allowing JCS to build RTI2 programming intentionally. This proactive approach has helped the program be successful, Dr. Bentley said.
Professional development for teachers is centered squarely on student achievement. All instructors in the system – including those who work in part-time positions, like classroom assistants and tutors – have full teaching credentials.
“When you can hire someone to work four to five hours a day to work with at-risk students or kids struggling, it’s great if they are fully credentialed as teachers,” Dr. Bentley said.
Setting the stage for academic success, JCS deploys a range of programs to ensure students are very well supported. For example, thoughtful food services ensure all students have access to nutritious meals and snacks. High-schoolers have the option of a pick-up breakfast after first period, since many kids this age tend to arrive at school just before class. Kiosk service offers healthy snacks throughout the day. Kids needing help with meals over the weekend can opt into a backpack program that sends food home Friday afternoons.
Individual schools have programs to help with everything from delivering dental care to ensuring hands are washed, said third-grade teacher Nancy Miles, an instructor at JCS’s South Side Elementary. Such programs are in keeping with the district’s culture, Ms. Miles said.
Through the HEROES program, every school in the district has a master’s-level therapist, as well as a case manager, in addition to school guidance counselors. With HEROES in place, guidance counselors have more time to focus on helping kids in academics and other ways. Concentration of resources is based on the needs of individual schools.
An important component of the program is the presence in schools of highly trained school resource officers (SROs). The district’s ten SROs come from the local police department; all are accomplished law enforcement officers, and most have also completed mental health training to identify student needs that aren’t strictly disciplinary. The officers are an integral part of each school’s team. At one JCS school, an SRO was voted top staff member of the year by the entire school staff and PTA, Dr. Wallace said. While funding for these officers was originally provided by the federal SS/HS grant, the Johnson City Police Department now pays for this portion of the HEROES program.
JCS began investing in mental health support in the late 1970s, using money from the district’s budget for special needs students. Offerings were expanded over the years when the district was able, eventually reaching expenditures of about $80,000 each year in 2008. The SS/HS grant allowed JCS to build massively on existing programs, spending about $1 million annually on HEROES.
“What allowed us to do the big piece was that we started building the small piece. If you start carving out little pieces, you’ll see the benefits and the need, and you can start growing it,” said Dr. Wallace. “We’re just reaching the tip of the iceberg on providing services and support to schools. Look at the Maslow model. If you’re not meeting basic needs first, the rest won’t happen.”
For parent Anne Godfrey, JCS’s blend of high academic expectations and strong student support adds up to a district that has served her family well.
“They aren’t afraid to expect excellence from the students and have put the tools in place to make that happen. They’ve also created such a warm, supportive environment,” Ms. Godfrey said. “Students feel comfortable stepping out of their comfort zones and trying something new. That’s where the growth occurs.”
Learn more about Johnson City Schools in this video: