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Nonprofit Creates Tool Addressing K-12 Mental Health Crisis

Chiefs for Change released a comprehensive tool to help education leaders at the state and local levels to tackle mental health. The resource fills in gaps where K-12 students who need support might be overlooked.

Mental health in children has reached the point of national emergency according to leading physicians, and in response, an organization has come together to develop a tool to help educators throughout the nation get a handle on data to help students in need.

The System-Level Student Wellbeing Data Review Tool comes from Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit Chiefs for Change, an organization run by a group of school superintendents and state education commissioners. Produced via collaboration between the organization's members with psychologists, educators and public health professionals, the tool compiles open source data that enables states to conduct key data reviews to obtain intel on positive well-being outcomes, adverse mental health and substance misuse outcomes, school-based indicators, and support systems that exist locally, according to the Chiefs for Change site.

State-specific versions of the tool are available on the organization's website.

Additionally, the review tool breaks things down in three steps, beginning with an initial review for states to get a system-level document that shows well-being data against regional peers, followed by a deep dive into the data, which uses a Tableau tool, and finally an action plan which takes the data and gives potential action — be it a statewide strategy, an outreach plan or opportunities for additional analysis, the nonprofit noted.

It follows a similar resource the organization provided in January specifically for school districts. The most recent tool is meant to support state education departments, state health departments and other state agencies.

The tool, according to Chiefs for Change CEO Mike Magee, can take out the guesswork for decision-makers to select the kinds of services necessary for students. It can also help a school learn its capacity and which facilities they can partner with to bridge gaps in their system.

“Mental health challenges for students exist across a spectrum and some of them can be positively impacted by creating a safe and welcoming school environment for all students, increasing the sense of belonging that students feel within a school community, teaching them basic strategies for stress reduction — and then, of course, some students are experiencing mental health crises that require a completely different level of support,” Magee explained to Government Technology. “But there are clear benefits to creating healthy school climates and cultures when it comes to mental health.”

The tool, Magee said, allows education leaders to assess all of those factors. Additionally, it provides a full review of digital environments students have access to and whether they are safe. It also opens the door for collaboration with families who play a critical role supporting students with mental health challenges.

Within the tool are 51 state-specific documents for analyzing student well-being metrics, help with strategies to improve well-being services, guidance for finding potential relief aid or other federal funding and localized well-being metrics. According to the organization, the rollout of the tool is part of a series of resources it intends to release throughout the year to better help system leaders in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The driving factor to launching the tool was the emerging trend of students dealing with mental health issues as they returned back to the classroom and that they didn’t have systems in place to deal with the issue, Magee said.

Paolo DeMaria, a former state superintendent of public instruction in Ohio and current president and CEO of the National Association of State Boards of Education, is a Chiefs for Change member who played a part in establishing the tool. DeMaria noted in an interview with Government Technology that leaders of Chiefs for Change recognized some work he had done while in his role for the state of Ohio within the student well-being space, and leaned on him to help as they built out the tool.

“We’re all in this together,” DeMaria said of the local, state and national inputs to making the tool available. “We all have a shared interest in understanding the condition of student well-being. And we all have an obligation to try to do the things within our sphere of influence to help address some of those challenges.”

One school district that's used the service is Edmonds School District in Washington state, just north of Seattle. Gustavo Balderas, the superintendent of the school district, said his staff is going through the data to find out how they can be more consistent with their mental health efforts throughout K-12.

“What’s beneficial is ensuring that every kid has a baseline of support that we can ensure that we’re offering our kids,” Balderas said of what he expects will come from using the tool. “I truly view this as a good step in forming a K-12 system so that we’re a school system, and not a system of schools.”

Long term, DeMaria said he believes school districts and their leaders accessing the data and educating themselves will give them a better handle on mental health and well-being issues with their students, which in turn will improve overall academic performance.

“This whole notion about addressing the needs of the whole child, I think, is increasingly relevant,” DeMaria said. “By addressing those needs, then you create the conditions where they are going to maximize the benefit of the academic experience. Understanding this connection between well-being and success in the academic pursuit, people are going to see that is important and that will drive greater attention to those factors.”

The tool is built on the basis of a framework designed by the Coalition to Advance Future Student Success, a 12-organization group of which Chiefs for Change is a part, that aims to reopen, recover and rebuild schools in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Giovanni Albanese Jr. is a staff writer for the Center for Digital Education. He has covered business, politics, breaking news and professional soccer over his more than 15-year reporting career. He has a bachelor’s degree in journalism from Salem State University in Massachusetts.