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District invests in web of support for students’ health, well-being

Social-emotional needs met means stronger academics

Kentwood — Allie Corfixsen explained to second graders at Challenger Elementary that everyone has an “upstairs brain” and a “downstairs brain.”

The upstairs brain, said the social-emotional learning coach, is responsible for logic and reasoning, the downstairs brain for emotions and safety. The 30-minute lesson she presented included a video and illustrations of the brain.

Students discussed what happens when they “feel big emotions” — the part of the brain that reacts when they are afraid, get really angry, or need to solve a math problem or have a conversation. 

“Your downstairs brain tells you if there’s danger,” said second-grader Deng Roda.

A second-grader indicates which part of the brain is responsible for a big emotion

The next week’s SEL session would cover how to make those two parts of the brain communicate with each other so students can learn to better regulate emotions when they are about to “flip their lid,” Corfixsen said.

Since the beginning of the school year, Corfixsen and five other SEL coaches — new positions for KPS — have been providing weekly lessons at all 10 K-5 Kentwood elementary schools. 

SEL is part of a network of efforts to meet students’ needs district-wide in the areas of health and wellness. Also, nurses and health aides are addressing physical needs, and behavioral health aides and counselors are meeting mental health needs. Community partners are helping connect the dots.  

“How do we support these kids in a well-rounded way?” Corfixsen said. “I think we’ve really moved toward a space of recognizing how hand-in-hand academics, behavior and social emotional (heath) go. We can’t have really strong academics without being able to support our kids’ social and emotional needs.” 

Challenger Principal Dwight Quinn said the more tools students have access to, the better they can do overall.

“This gives us a way to fill our tool bag,” he said. “The coaches go in and help train the teachers. This gives our students more tools that they can use because often families come in with different traumas, so we want to be sure to equip the kids with what they need to be successful throughout the school day.”

‘I call it that web that keeps kids from falling. We are trying to remove barriers to learning.’

— Veronica Lake, executive director of student services

A Web of Support

Veronica Lake, executive director of student services, said increased investment in all areas of health is creating an intricate network. Picture a student being held up by a web: The threads are intertwined into a fabric so tight that there’s no spot where the student can fall through. 

The student has enough food, is safe and warm in their home, has trusted adults in their life, and is physically and mentally healthy. Because there are no holes in the web to worry about, they can focus on school and play happily with friends.

“I call it that web that keeps kids from falling. We are trying to remove barriers to learning,” Lake said.

It’s the idea of flipping into a prevention model, said Andy Tevlin, the district’s Multi-tiered Systems of Support coordinator. “You’ve seen it in the health care world. That’s what we are finding is best practice in education as well.”

More Nurses & Health Aides

In the area of physical health, the district is ensuring all schools have more on-site nurses and aides. Funded by a variety of grants including federal Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund and 31a At-risk money, the district increased its school nursing staff from two to four, plus added a new nurse coordinator, Alex Corbett. It also added a new staff of health aides: six in general education and 10 in special education. 

A fifth nurse will also soon be hired to serve Crestwood Middle School, thanks to a grant from Catherine’s Health Center.

“That is pretty significant growth,” Lake said. “They are actually able to really do some targeted work in each of our buildings by not being spread so thin. We can be more proactive instead of reactive to everything.”

A nurse health aide now serves each of the district’s 17 schools for a minimum of two days and up to four days per week, depending on school size and level of need, Lake said. A nurse is also stationed at East Kentwood High School school full time.

“We have a variety of students with needs, including diabetes,” she said. There’s a lot of stuff happening on a day-to-day basis that we don’t think about.”

In previous years, the district had to rely heavily on office staff to help students manage diabetes care and other health conditions like seizure disorders, allergies and asthma. The increased staff allows for more efficient communication among nurses, physicians and families concerning care plans, and better on-site training and supervision. 

Social-emotional learning coach Allie Corfixsen talks about big emotions with second-graders

More training is also possible, with nurses offering more opportunities in CPR and other forms of emergency response training for staff.

With Corbett working as nurse coordinator, there’s better coordination of services across the board, allowing for more efficiency and technology use. When everything is efficient, students’ needs are better met, she said. 

The nurses are looking at attendance too, working to determine if chronic health issues are keeping students home.

“With the nurses meeting basic needs mentally and physically, students can be well and healthy and have the resources to stay that way and be productive learners,” Corbett said. 

Over the past couple decades, districts cut school nurses due to funding challenges, said Lake, who was a principal in a different district many years ago.

“I learned from a previous experience the value of having school nurses. It’s not even always just about physical health; it’s the teaching and training component — the connection between physical health and wellness, mental health and well-being — that they bring to the table.”

‘It’s not health care for health care’s sake; it’s to help kids be successful in school.’

— Megan Erskine, Catherine’s Health Center CEO

Meeting More Needs, Developing Partnerships

Catherine’s Health Center started partnering with the district last year by providing a grant-funded behavioral health therapist to work at Townline Elementary. Now, thanks to other grants, the center will provide a nurse and therapist at Crestwood Middle School and another behavioral health therapist at Crossroads, said CEO Megan Erskine.

“It’s not health care for health care’s sake; it’s to help kids be successful in school,” Erskine said of building their partnership with KPS.

Catherine’s mission is to provide affordable, quality care. Last year it opened a clinic at Streams, a non-profit organization at 280 60th St. SE that also is home to a community center and food pantry. It is close to Townline, Crestwood and Crossroads schools.

“We envision a world without any health inequities,” Erskine said. “To me, a community health center is providing health services to people where they live, work and play.”

Students at the high school can also receive tele-therapy right on campus through Corewell Health, and other organizations offer group sessions on relationship skills. D.A. Blodgett clinicians also serve KPS with behavioral health services.

Another increased partnership is with Kent School Services Network, stationing community coordinators at all schools including the Early Childhood Center. KSSN is a community-school coalition that brings social and medical services to students’ schools and homes.

Read more from Kentwood: 
New elementary, early childhood center to address growing enrollment
Students connect their dreams to careers, college

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Erin Albanese
Erin Albanese
Erin Albanese is managing editor and reporter, covering Kentwood, Lowell and Wyoming. She was one of the original SNN staff writers, helping launch the site in 2013, and enjoys fulfilling the mission of sharing the stories of public education. She has worked as a journalist in the Grand Rapids area since 2000. A graduate of Central Michigan University, she has written for The Grand Rapids Press, Advance Newspapers, On-the-Town Magazine and Group Tour Media. Read Erin's full bio

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