A Conversation with Mary Phillips, Director of Student Services at ESU 6

A Conversation with Mary Phillips, Director of Student Services at ESU 6

By Tyler Dahlgren

Prior to beginning her current role with ESU 6 as Director of Student Services, Mary Phillips spent 25 years at Lincoln Public Schools as a special education teacher, building coordinator, and, most recently, district supervisor.

Phillips and the team at ESU 6 provide a wide array of mental health services to their 16 school districts, which span a five county-wide area, and they do so by taking an innovative approach to matching districts with specific needs.

Phillips is the mother of a 30-year-old daughter with cerebral palsy, and a long-time advocate for inclusive practices, which, she says, LPS offered.

“I bring that piece, that experience, with me and I know how important it is,” Phillips said.

Recently, we sat down with Phillips for a conversation which will end up serving as the precursor to a series of two stories featuring, in no set order, a unique partnership between the Fillmore County Hospital and Fillmore Central Public Schools (and several districts nearby), and the work being done by Scott Walls, a licensed mental health counselor with over 20 years’ experience working with students with behavior and conduct issues as well as teens experiencing trauma and loss.  Scott’s time is shared between ESU 6 and ESU 4 districts through a referral process, and school psychotherapist Paul Kraus, who has been helping students in Nebraska for over 20 years and provides on-site support to three districts in the ESU6 area.

Look for those features on the NPSA website, and enjoy the following Q&A with ESU 6 Director of Student Services Mary Phillips.

Q: The services ESU provides, across the board, are just so widely varied. Now, there is an emphasis being placed on mental and behavioral health. Have you prioritized that, and how have you seen that evolve throughout your career?

A: Four years ago, the year I started as Director of Student Services, our 16 superintendents said mental health was their number one concern.  I asked ‘Do you want me to hire you LMHPs (Licensed Mental Health Providers) or social workers? How can I best support your folks out there?’ Part of the ESU role, of course, is to provide those supports that smaller districts can’t afford full time or obtain part time because most people don’t want a one or two-day-a-week job.   If we hire someone full time though, we can send them wherever they’re needed.   At that time, we hired Paul, an LMHP, and after 3 years he’s still providing direct services to Norris, Wilber-Clatonia and Crete.

Q: To get to that point, to get Scott into those schools or Paul to the schools or to get your services divvied out, how crucial have fluid lines of communication with the school districts become and how do you urge them to reach out in instances where they see a need for assistance?

A: Some void of mental health services has always been there. I think awareness of that void has increased because of the legislation that was proposed and ended up vetoed, because of the emphasis on acceptance of mental health services in schools, because of teacher burnout and teacher shortages, it's all interconnected.   I think the need was always there. The only thing that I've really seen increase is awareness of the need.

The other thing I've seen increase is the de-stigmatization of mental health services in schools. It's okay to talk to a mental health provider, give them a high five in the hallway. It's okay if they sit down beside you at lunch and say, "Hey, how's it going? Who are your buddies?”  More students now accept them as, "Oh, yeah, they’re a counselor here," and it's not a shame or blame situation.

Q: With that said, I bet in your role as the director of student services, no two days are ever exactly like each other.

A: That's how it is. I say every day is a jigsaw puzzle, and if I get three of the four pieces to fit, I’ve had a good day.  I’ve accomplished something.

Q: We’ve touched on it a little bit, but why is it so important to you to think outside the box and for your team at ESU 6 to continue to explore outside of that construct for, ultimately, the benefit of students?

A: Many of the small rural districts would not have access to on-site mental health services if we did not think outside the box.   Well intentioned staff are limited to the resources in their own communities.  Many parents do not have the resources to travel, in some cases, 40 miles so their children can receive the necessary services.

The relationships we have with school districts in the ESU6 area are tremendous. I respect every one of them -  they all have big jobs to do.  I think they know that they can come to our ESU and say, "Hey, can you get me this? Can you find me someone? Can you train on this?"  We've been fortunate to hire people they need - whether it's a psychologist, mental health provider, speech pathologist, ECSE.  We always do our best to meet their need.

We provide a lot of psychology time, which is another way to meet mental health needs. We support our psychologists to receive training on the best practices in supporting children with emotional disabilities, on the best practices for supporting districts to educate students in their least-restrictive or general education environment for the maximum amount of time possible.  They help with supporting students to be successful in school. ESU6 psychologists are well-trained, and districts appreciate that, too.

Tyler: Ultimately, it’s about student wellness and student success. Putting them in position to achieve. I get the sense that's a sentiment you take to heart. And, obviously, you are stronger together.

Mary: Absolutely. “Stronger Together” is the Special Education hashtag this year.

Q: For small, rural districts seeking assistance, maybe not even in your area but somewhere else in our state, what kind of advice would you give them?

A: Ideally, we want to make mental health part of a whole wellness program and part of their overall wellness strategy by discussing and addressing mental health needs openly.   We know there are not enough mental health providers in rural areas.  And we know we can't grow a program by just plugging in a mental health provider - the whole school has to take on a wellness approach, which includes mental health services.

There's just so many positives about bringing in mental health providers and making them part of the school culture.

Q: Final question here, what’s the most rewarding part of what you get to do every day?

A:  I feel like I am able to support the staff and families in the ESU6 districts, which are all rural.   I have enough knowledge and know enough people that for any question they ask, I either know the answer or where to get the answer.   Our schools appreciate special education guidance to not only meet state and federal compliance, but also to provide research based practices in supporting all children, including those with disabilities.   We believe all children with disabilities are general education students first.  All of our districts use a multi-tiered system of support with emphasis on Tier 1 instruction.  In the area of mental health that's using positive behavior interventions (PBIS).   In academics, that is a strong core in reading, writing and math. When there is that strong academic core and positive behavior supports in place, it’s very rewarding to see student outcomes.

Tyler: You’re in it every day.

Mary: I’m in it every day.

*Remember, The Mind Inside: Episode Two, from the filmmakers at I Love Public Schools, is available online on Friday, October 11th.