ARLINGTON, Va. — Several obstacles seemed to stand in the way of Medical Lake School District's efforts to bring mental health supports to its students and staff, including a lack of community mental health resources, public transportation and funding.
But the Washington school district also had areas of strength, specifically a strategic plan focused on creating safe and supportive learning environments along with engaging and personalized student instruction, said Tawni Barlow, the district's director of student services.
Barlow shared the district's story about expanding mental health supports during a July 25 session at the Office of Special Education Programs' Leadership and Project Directors' Conference.
To start working through these barriers, the 2,000-student district looked at the existing programs rooted in its strategic plan, such as positive behavioral interventions and supports and other multi-tiered systems of supports.
It also made innovative changes, including converting an existing school into a districtwide wellness center known as the H.U.B (Help, Unite & Build) to provide free services to the entire Medical Lake community.
Those services include workshops on various topics, such as trauma, childhood and teen depression, and teen substance abuse. The H.U.B. also provides resources for coping with divorce and separation and grief and loss, strategies for positive discipline, and abuse prevention, as well as a weekly medical mobile unit. Free child care is offered to parents coming to workshops.
During the 2021-22 school year, 179 students, families and staff received free therapy services.
"We're just moving the needle and getting better," said Barlow, who said this work is dependent on connecting with partners and sharing resources.
The effort is supported by 20 to 25 interns from nearby universities who receive clinical hours toward their degrees through their work in counseling, psychology, and marriage and family therapy.
Nikki Bauman, a parent partner who works within the school district to connect schools, families and staff, called the H.U.B a welcoming and neutral gathering space that can help build trust between schools and families.
For example, families find free coffee and Wi-Fi at the center, where they can ask questions about navigating the education system or talk with school staff during events like “Soup with the Supts.”
At these events, families can "have access to some people they might never feel they could call or reach out to on their own," Bauman said. "It's just all about caring about and loving our families and our community."
The Washington State Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction also supports Medical Lake School District and other districts' mental wellness outreach through an Interconnected Systems Framework. The framework helps schools, districts and regional offices create teams of youth, family and community mental health providers to increase access to needed services.
"We're aligning all of our social-emotional-behavioral initiatives into one system," said Kelcey Schmitz, director of training and technical assistance at the University of Washington."That family and youth participation is a central feature of this framework.”