Ceres schools put mental health services into kid-friendly mix

Any parent knows adolescence can be a tricky time, with tears and mini-explosions bursting forth over things that do not seem worth the fuss. Imagine, then, that hormonal cauldron coping with a real crisis – death of a friend, cancer in a parent, abuse, alcoholism and worse.

At Ceres Unified School District campuses, however, help is just a wave away, and that ready availability has earned the district a 2016 California School Boards Association Golden Bell Award.

Student support specialists, with training but not counselor credentials, are the front line of Ceres’ many-pronged, every-campus approach to helping kids through the mental cuts and bruises of life. The 19 specialists serve one campus each, providing a watchful eye and a willing ear, and referrals to more intensive counseling services or substance-abuse help if needed.

“What I love about my job is that I’m here all day, Monday through Friday. That allows me to really build relationships,” said Denise Sarabia, a student support specialist at Mae Hensley Junior High in Ceres. “They’re going to have problems many, many, many more years to come. So it’s important to give them tools for their toolbox, so they can reach in and solve their problems.”

Sarabia can be seen almost any weekday strolling the campus through lunch and class breaks, saying hello and chatting – seeing and being seen. “That’s where the whole prevention piece is,” she said.

There are 19 such adults available for troubled students, or their families, friends and teachers, to turn to in getting help. Six of what Ceres calls social skills facilitators step in to work on behavior issues and conflicts. Eight staff psychologists and an as-needed number of outside therapists manage clinical mental health needs.

But for 13-year-old Alexa Diaz, the number that really matters is one.

Having Sarabia to talk to, someone Mae Hensley Junior High kids know and trust, helps with anxiety and depression, said the eighth-grader. “My past haunts me sometimes,” Diaz said, looking down at the well-squeezed rubber ball in her hand.

“It’s amazing how one person out of 7 billion on this Earth can help ease the pain away,” she said.

“Some students have a hard time admitting the fact they can’t go through all their emotions alone,” said another eighth-grader, who asked that her name not be used.

For seventh-grader Ivan Flores, the most important thing is that he knows she repeats what kids tell her only if they might harm themselves or others. “She’s there to talk you through it. Lots of times people say bad things about you,” he said, speaking to his fidgeting fingers. “You can trust her,” he summed up.

The raft of new hires for the program, now in its third year, represents a sizable investment for the 14,000-student district. What convinced longtime Ceres school board member Betty Davis to spend the money, she said, was how often the need for mental health services came up in public input meetings on budgeting.

“They wanted someone to listen to (their kids), someone to talk to – not a month out, but today,” Davis said. The decision to go with staff members instead of a contract with a social services agency came down to this, she said, “Needs do not erupt on a schedule.”

They also do not disappear on a schedule. Specialists at junior highs stop by each spring to be introduced to sixth-graders heading their way. Eighth-graders facing high school get the same early welcome.

That continuity and easy, always-around presence is critical to making mental health just part of the school culture, said Ceres Unified psychologist Felisia Coleman.

“The consistency of having the same person is important, and it’s fantastic for staff, too. They know who to go to,” Coleman said.

“Having the student support specialists has been a blessing. It’s the presence. She’s always visible. Kids know who she is. They know what she does,” said Mae Hensley learning director Rita Strange. Strange does academic advising, the same as a school counselor, but without the teaching credential.

Her job is another Ceres twist favoring in-house training over titles, getting more adults on campus for less. Ceres Unified doubled the number of learning directors at campuses, dropping caseloads to about 350 kids, as well as adding the mental health supports over the past three years.

“Providing mental health services and supports to all students and their families in a primarily low socioeconomic area is essential given that our students often live with adverse childhood experiences such as child abuse, neglect, substance abuse, parent incarceration, mental illness, spousal abuse, and/or single-parent households,” notes a district report on the program.

The adverse effects on behavior can be seen in discipline statistics. Ceres suspended nearly 1 in 10 students in 2013-14, one of Stanislaus County’s highest suspension rates, before the program started. The first year of extra supports, on several fronts, the suspension rate dropped to 1 in 12, and for 2015-16 it dropped to roughly 1 in 17.

The extra services came with the state’s switch to funding that targets extra dollars for the neediest kids. Ceres has a lot of those. More than 4 in 5 of its students qualify for free lunches, and nearly a third are still learning English.

That compendium of needs is expected to bring an extra $28.7 million to the district through the 2016-17 school year, according to its Local Control Accountability Plan budget summary. Mental health supports will take $2.6 million, among a long list of extra supports meant to involve parents, inspire kids to aim higher and give them a hand up to get there.

“It’s taking away the roadblocks,” said Brian Murphy, coordinator of student services and student wellness for Ceres Unified.

Mental health issues, the same as a cut or ear infection, can keep kids from paying attention to lessons. But unlike cuts and earaches, treating mental health problems is not always welcome.

“A big part of mental health is stigma reduction. That’s truly the power of these student support specialists. Kids know, if I need help, I’m going to get help. I don’t need to hide it,” Murphy said.

The first year of the program, 2014-15, some 1,100 students took advantage of some aspect of the campus mental health services – 9 percent of the district’s students. In 2015-16, that expanded to 2,500 students, or nearly 18 percent of Ceres students.

“The need has always been there, and now we can address it,” Murphy said.

“Thinking back over the years, as a teacher, we could see it,” said Davis, a retired teacher. “All those students who would have benefited from this.”

Nan Austin: 209-578-2339, @NanAustin

Golden Bell Awards

Ceres Unified’s Healthy Students, Healthy Outcomes program was cited as a model to watch by the California School Boards Association, which bestowed its Golden Bell Awards on Saturday. Also taking a bow were:

Enochs High, in Modesto City Schools, for its Enochs Care Center, a combined nurse’s office and counseling center.

Julien Elementary School, in Turlock Unified, for its school garden project, with tables for eating and group work, and a large number of class plots used for science, math and art projects.

Merced City School District in Merced, for its STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts and math) program. See the story in the Dec. 10 Eye on Education special section.