Multiple districts — Claire Mulder and Jill Schmidt know impacts of the pandemic are weighing heavily on the lives of East Kentwood High School students.
So they reached out to them directly.
“We really value student voice,” Mulder said.
The Kent School Services Network coordinators, both assigned to the high school, conducted the East Kentwood High School KSSN Wellness Survey last year to get an idea of how students were dealing with education opportunities— and life in general— turned upside-down by COVID-19.
They began the survey in October when half the students were learning remotely. By November, the school had switched to 100% remote learning, a time period that extended until after Christmas. Being stuck at home took an emotional toll on many students, and the coordinators saw the need to dig deeper.
“We wanted to get the perspective of what students say they are struggling with,” Schmidt said.
Teachers had students fill out the surveys in class, and 1,536 students in ninth through 12th grade responded. Findings showed that the biggest struggles were academics, anxiety, social skills, depression and family life.
Mulder and Schmidt reached out immediately to students who indicated they needed immediate help for mental health reasons, food, or felt unsafe in their homes. Others were invited to programs based on wellness support and dealing with grief.
Bridges and Connections
The East Kentwood coordinators are among dozens of Kent County community school coordinators who continue to work in pandemic mode 18 months after the March 2020 shutdown by responding to increased mental health needs on top of increased basic needs. The role of the coordinators is to identify and respond to needs of students and their families and to connect them with resources through community partnerships. Coordinators Appreciation Week, a national campaign to recognize community school coordinators like KSSN’s, is Sept. 20-24.
Since it began in 2006, KSSN has grown from serving eight schools in three districts as a three-year pilot program to now serving 46 schools. Forty-seven community school coordinators work in Grand Rapids, Wyoming, Kentwood, Kelloggsville, Godfrey-Lee, Kenowa Hills, Cedar Springs, Godwin Heights, Grandville, Sparta and William C. Abney charter school. They are joined by mental-health site team clinicians and Department of Health and Human Services success coaches, who help families with public assistance programs.
“When we first started, it was just the community school coordinator organizing services and supports for families,” said KSSN Executive Director Carol Paine-McGovern, who has been in her role for 12 years. “What we learned during the pilot was there were a lot of needs (including) mental health even back then … We continue to grow. It’s often really around how we started our conversation: How do you build a community of belonging for all students and families?”
“It takes a lot for them to reach out and express that vulnerability. I love making sure our families feel they can come to us and let us know about whatever is going on with them.”— Anna Rivera, KSSN coordinator at Gladiola Elementary School in Wyoming
There’s perhaps never been a time more pressing than now for families to have a sense of belonging in their schools. Needs are basic: Food. Housing. Transportation. Health care. Paine-McGovern said mental health relates to all those needs and impacts families and those working to help.
“It’s not just the mental health of our students and families, but also the educators in the school; it’s our own staff. … it’s everyone who’s involved. It doesn’t matter where you sit,” she said.
In 2020-2021, KSSN had 39,028 referrals for basic needs and 1,201 mental-health referrals across all of the schools it serves. During the 2018-2019 school year, there were 3,085 referrals for basic-needs support and 1,374 mental-health referrals. (Paine-McGovern said numbers do not tell the whole story concerning mental health because support was provided across multiple platforms, such as the East Kentwood survey.)
A few factors caused the spike in basic-needs referrals. “The exponential increase was mostly due to the increased food insecurity that has come to light since the start of COVID, along with housing, technology. …We also changed our monthly reporting form this past year to better reflect the referrals,” Paine-McGovern said.
KSSN coordinators reach out in different ways, customizing their approaches to the communities they serve. Anna Rivera, KSSN coordinator at Wyoming Public Schools Gladiola Elementary School, realized the need last school year to check in biweekly with parents who had reached out to her for additional support. Parents’ concerns were mostly tied to how their children were doing.
“Their main priority is their kiddo— how they are feeling, how they are doing at school,” Rivera said
She said the pandemic has added an extra layer of importance to checking in with families. “I love that we place that importance on social and emotional well being, and we help fill the needs of our family. … It takes a lot for them to reach out and express that vulnerability. I love making sure our families feel they can come to us and let us know about whatever is going on with them.”
Della Levi, who is in her fifth year as KSSN coordinator at Martin Luther King Jr. Leadership Academy in Grand Rapids Public Schools, said she turned to a community partner to help a student receive counseling. The organization stepped forward anonymously after learning that a middle-school student needed access to services and paid for three months of sessions. The student’s family had a high-deductible plan to cover the expensive service.
“This is a hardworking family with a huge medical deductible that was a barrier for even paying for counseling,” Levi said, noting that the organization’s representatives learned of the situation during their monthly community school leadership team meeting.
It’s those kinds of solutions Levi likes to make for students, staff and families she works directly with. “We want to make sure we are meeting the needs of everyone: community, school and staff members.”