Moving Mental Health to the Forefront: Westside Community Schools prioritizes social and emotional well-being

Moving Mental Health to the Forefront: Westside Community Schools prioritizes social and emotional well-being

By Tyler Dahlgren

Amber Biegler is beginning her second year as school psychologist at Westside Middle School, and her third overall in Omaha’s third-largest school district.

Each year, her building welcomes students from the district’s 10 elementary schools, and each morning, Amber tries to give the kids in her building a positive start to the day.

She checks in with intensive behavioral students, gets updates from teachers and roams the halls during passing periods. She smiles, because smiles can make more of an impact than you’d think.

“I make sure to seek out kids who I know maybe had a rough day yesterday,” Biegler said. “I have a handful of kids who check in with me throughout the day if they need a break, a place to calm down, or a safe adult to help talk them through a situation.”

She’s a handful of years into her career, and thinking back to her school days, Biegler can’t help but to wonder: “Gosh, were these students with mental and behavioral health issues in my elementary school?”

The answer is obvious, now.

“Of course they were,” she said. “We just didn’t do a good job of finding them and supporting them. If they did have those challenges, they just went to a different place.”

Not at Westside. Not anymore.

Behavioral and mental health prevention, diagnosis, treatment and awareness were all integrated into the district’s five-year plan. Westside, who, since 2016-17, has partnered with Children’s Behavioral Health, takes a proactive approach to a matter schools can’t afford to ignore any longer. Every Westside Community Schools student is eligible to receive two district-funded sessions with a children’s psychologist.

“We are long-passed the time when school was just about teaching academics,” Biegler said. “We are teaching the whole child. We have students who are not taught how to problem solve, aren’t taught these things at home. We meet kids where they are.”

Where students are in terms of their social and emotional growth and development by the time they move to the middle school varies greatly. Westside is building a program equipped to handle every case.

Every student, every day.

“They are all our kids,” Biegler said. “They are all Westside kids. As a building, we will do whatever we can to support them.”

Fifteen years ago, schools weren’t expected to shoulder this responsibility. Things are different now, said Westside Director of Special Services Kami Jessop.

With a changing demographic in the district, the administration must make socioeconomic considerations when evaluating new crops of students.

“We are having to think more about kids in poverty, kids coming in having traumatic experiences in their backgrounds, and kids coming to us with a general greater need,” said Jessop. “If it is not our job, then whose job is it?”

In many cases, the most dramatic transition a student will make in their educational lives is from middle school to high school.

The learning curve is steep. Lois Rasgorshek, Dean of Westside High School, says that curve can sometimes feel like a brick wall. Introduce everything students encounter outside of the classroom, and they can quickly feel like they’re moving 90 miles-per-hour.

A brick wall doesn’t budge.

“There is a lot of academic and emotional support that students require, especially with freshman and sophomore girls,” Rasgorshek said. “They just need a lot of guidance and direction as they are getting started.”

(Above: Rasgorshek)

In a 300,000 square-foot building serving 2,000 students, knowing which students require which methods of support is half of the job Westside’s mental and behavioral health team is tasked with. Identification and detection comes after the most important step; Developing relationships.

“I have kids who check in with me in the morning for safety and I have kids who check in with me because they need emotional help,” Rasgorshek said. “Kids just like to come and visit me because I am a nice, safe face to start their day. One of my roles is attendance, and that ties to academics, because if you are not in class, you are not learning.”

All Westside Community Schools students are screened three times per year. The data is thoroughly reviewed, and students are grouped in the green, yellow (risk factors), or red (more significant risk factors). For students in the yellow and red, watch lists and interventions are developed.

“Our teachers and staff prioritize knowing their learners, not only academically but on a social and emotional level, too,” said Jessop. “What are they excited about? What do they want to learn about? What are their struggles? What challenges do you see?”

The other half? Resources, resources, resources.

Would they like to have a social worker in each building? Sure, but that’s not going to stop them from maximizing the ones they do have, part of the reason Westside is well ahead of the curve, and perhaps at the forefront of addressing mental and behavioral health.

“It is exciting,” said Jessica Lowe, counselor at Westbrook Elementary. “It is something that has been growing over the years, but now we have more resources, more curriculum and materials to provide more intensive mental health supports in out buildings.”

Prevention is something that is being discussed at an early-childhood and elementary level. If abnormal or disruptive behavior is regulated early on, the door to academic success down the road widens considerably.

“I love that we are having serious conversations about being proactive and moving forward at an appropriate pace because there is no time to wait for these kids,” said Biegler. “There is not another year for children who are struggling with mental health now.”

Biegler puts herself in the shoes of those families being effected by mental health struggles. She doesn’t think they’d necessarily want to hear about a program being developed for five years down the road.

Help needs to come now, and, through all necessary means, Westside is intent on providing it, but when do school officials know when to intervene?

“Teachers are our boots on the ground, our frontline,” said Lowe. “They know their kids. Through the relationships they’ve built, they know when someone is acting out of character. The right time to intervene is the moment you become aware that something is off.”

There’s no handbook detailing the correct steps to properly implementing mental health care programs into large school districts that leadership at Westside has the luxury of drawing from.

This is unchartered territory, but Nebraska’s public schools are venturing into it together.

Nebraska Loves Public Schools is currently in production of The Mind Inside, a docuseries exploring mental health issues in schools across the state. Set to be released this fall, the series takes a deep and intimate look at the impact anxiety, depression, and other mental health problems have in today’s classrooms.

Resources aren’t in abundance. Not in Westside Community Schools, and certainly not in smaller districts across the state.

“It’s a testament to how well schools – school counselors, social workers, psychologists and teachers – use the limited resources available to them to still address the needs of students,” said Nebraska Loves Public Schools Executive Director Sally Nellson in the Fall 2018 issue of NCSA Today Magazine. “However, it is only just the start, and schools need more support.”

In an ideal world, say 10 or 20 years down the road, Rasgorshek hopes to see those types of support at her school and beyond.

“We'd have enough social workers, we'd have on-site mental behavior health counselors, we'd have 10 doctors with once in each elementary school all day long,” she said. “In an ideal world, we’d have those services on site. I think we’d all like to see that.”

For now, Westside more than makes do with what it does have. Social and emotional well-being is a priority and it isn’t going away.

“We are working very hard at it, every single day,” said Biegler. “We are problem solving and we are using resources differently than we ever have. We understand the urgency.”

Every student, every day. At Westside, that's the bottom line.

“You will not find a more passionate group of people than public educators in the state of Nebraska,” Biegler said.

Q: For kids, school can seem like a big and scary, and sometimes lonely, place. How do you make your students feel welcome? How do you build those connections?

Jessica Lowe: I am really lucky. I get to go into every classroom in my building and I get to know every student. It gives me a chance to connect with the students and understand where they are at the beginning of the year and what lessons or programming we might need to begin right away. Each classroom is a little different. Sometimes I may jump ahead to my November plans in a particular classroom because they need it right away.

Amber Biegler: As a school psychologist, my role is a little different. I have an array of students I work with, but I am really intentional about our Tier 3, most intensive students. I build a relationship with them right away, so if I have to intervene in a crisis, they know who I am.

While lunch duty is not always my favorite thing, I meet a lot of cool kids in the lunchroom that I wouldn’t have met otherwise. I have a lot of students who will share things with me because they recognize me from there. I have both intentionally-built relationships and casually and informally-built ones.

Lois Rasgorshek: I’ve seen freshman struggle with that communication piece, so I have their names and I will find them. I will intentionally get to know them. We have a giant and enormous freshman class, one of the biggest classes in school history, I think. I am going to walk into a freshman class and say ‘Hey, how’s it going?’ and teachers know this about me.

You have to be intentional about getting out and getting to know the students. Being at sporting events. Being at choir concerts. Just being around being there to help really makes a difference to students.

Q: The #BeKind Movement has really taken off in schools throughout the metro and throughout the state. The power of kindness is something that, when harnessed, can have a profound impact. What can that message do for your students and your schools?

Jessica Lowe: It gives us an additional focus on something that is so important that we probably have always been teaching kids, but this has brought it into this light of ‘We are going to make sure that each of our students know how important it is to be a good classmate and a good friend.’”

Amber Biegler: It is unifying. That’s the thing that makes it different in terms of initiatives. It may seem hard to do, but, really, it is so easy to do. We can operationalize it for our kids, and help them understand. It is one of the most important things we can teach our kids. Bringing a unity of purpose around that is pretty powerful.

Lois Rasgorshek: This is the tag on the bottom of my email, and it has been this for 17 years. “Be more than kind. Everyone is fighting a daily battle about which you may never know.” This is how we raise good human beings. You tell your kids to be nice, but now we are really doing it with intent and purpose, and modeling and talking about what it looks like. It is taking the time to acknowledge you are doing good things.

Amber Biegler: It is one of those things that everyone can get behind. Everyone wants to be kind.

Jessica Lowe: It has changed the way our building looks. Every teacher adopted the motto and it’s up on the windows of their classrooms. I can walk down the hall and see those messages everywhere I look. Our kids are surrounded by it all day long, which is exciting.

Q: How crucial an element is adequate communication in the implementation of a mental/behavioral health plan?

Lois Rasgorshek: It is absolutely critical to helping our kids be successful, and that is the bottom line goal.

Jessica Lowe: I just got a phone call from a middle school counselor and she said ‘Do you remember this student?’ and I got to thinking and some of the needs the student required at our building were lined up with some of the needs they required in the middle school. We able to have that conversation and I wouldn’t hesitate to pick up the phone to call anyone in our district to do a similar thing. We are all here to support students.

Amber Biegler: We can call Kami and say ‘Here are the things we are looking at purchasing. We are struggling this this, and it is not because we are weak but because we need additional support.’ We had great district-level conversations about the needs of the kids. When we wrote our plan, every building was represented and it was a safe space to write our dialogue. Without that, I don’t think we would be here. We would have lost transparency.

Lois Rasgorshek: We have followed through on it. We are doing this and it works.

Q: How do you safely navigate your way around, or even knock down the barriers that exist around the stigma that has always been attached to mental health?

Amber Biegler: It’s really all how you label it. It’s in the approach you take with families. Instead of saying “Your child has mental health needs”, you can say “I see that your child needs some help with a certain skill, now how can we assist?” It’s language, and it’s exposure and education about what mental health is. There is a huge spectrum of things that can be going on with people, and it is totally normal. People can function and still have needs. They can have a successful life.

We are doing that now with helping kids understand their emotions and their feelings and what is going on with their bodies and how to manage that when they are in school experiencing this pressure and stress. We are starting that at an early age and I hope we see them managing themselves better independently by the time they get to Lois and get to have her support as well.

Q: The link from social and emotional well-being to academic success has been proven time and time again. Have you seen those correlations?

Lois Rasgorshek: If a student is struggling with anything outside of the classroom, they will struggle with their academics. Sometimes, on the flip side, they are really high achievers because that’s one of the only things they can control in their lives. There is a direct correlation.

Amber Biegler: If a kid is not available for learning, if they are not in the correct head space or behavior space, you can be the best educator in the entire world and you aren’t going to get anywhere. We can’t even begin to teach academics until we can get them regulated. The two are linked and are both immensely important.

Q: Why do you love working in Nebraska’s public schools?

Amber Biegler: Being from out of state and going through a public education system somewhere else, I feel the quality is very high here. I feel I can send my child to a public school here to get a high quality education. I do not need to seek out another institution because I know we are doing things on the cutting edge. We are aligned with best practices and moving forward through professional development. We don’t always have the resources, but we are creative people.

Jessica Lowe: I graduated from a Nebraska high school and feel like I was very well prepared for the world. We are adding so many different things and preparing kids to be wholly educated when they leave in an effort to prepare them for the real world. As a social worker in the state, I saw families move here from all over just to be in Nebraska because of the specialized services we provide for students. That is really special about our state.

Lois Rasgorshek: We intentionally moved back to Nebraska for public education because of those reasons. It is the best and most innovative education children are going to receive. You cannot get a better education than Nebraska public school education.