On a brisk, overcast morning earlier this month, a steady flow of children began arriving at Ethel I. Baker Elementary School in Sacramento, holding hands with parents and grandparents, or being accompanied by older siblings. The warmly bundled students shared smiles and good mornings as they entered the school, excited to start their day.
The school’s leadership team, in partnership with the Sacramento County Office of Education (SCOE) and the Sacramento County Department of Health Services (DHS), has transformed their school into a Center of Wellness over the past few years, providing more immediate access to mental health support and attempting to destigmatize mental health and wellness services. This partnership, supporting a preventative approach, has addressed student needs when facing things that don’t support healthy development—at home, on the playground, in class, or in general—during and after the pandemic.
The shift contributed to a large change in school culture with the disciplinary use of suspensions ceasing. According to Principal Nathan McGill, Assistant Principal Cristina Kosakowski, Social Worker Karen Hernandez, and SCOE Mental Health and Wellness Clinician Elizabeth Kirby, other improvements in student attendance, academic performance, and behavioral changes have also been observed since the implementation of this new student support system.
With national studies indicating that one in five youth have diagnosable emotional, behavioral, or mental health disorders—and with one in 10 facing severe challenges affecting their daily functioning—the initiation of school-based mental health and wellness has been a game changer for students and families. Alarmingly, as many as 80 percent of young individuals do not receive necessary mental health care. In Sacramento County, an estimated 50,000 students have diagnosable mental health disorders, with upwards of 40,000 not receiving the care they need.
Schools As Centers of Wellness
In 2020, the Sacramento County Office of Education (SCOE), in collaboration with the Sacramento County Department of Health Services, initiated Schools As Centers of Wellness. To date, more than 60 clinicians have been placed in 60 school sites, and recently more than 100 new staff—including mental health support staff and clinicians—have been onboarded to work with school communities. The ultimate goal is to station a mental health practitioner in each of the 300+ schools in Sacramento County.
Despite the positive outcomes observed at sites like Ethel I. Baker Elementary School, the viability of this unique approach has recently been called into question. In response, SCOE held a press tour of Ethel I. Baker, illustrating how the partnership has transformed the school into a Center of Wellness. The goal was to erase any doubts and bring awareness to the efficacy and sustainability of this new approach to mental health care access for youth. Journalists from Sacramento’s local media outlets attended the tour to learn more about how the partnership streamlined resources to build a mental health team. They saw firsthand how the school utilized a multi-tiered approach to integrate a support system of school-based mental health and wellness.
Classroom Tour and Parent Experiences
The tour started in the morning with observations of students in four classrooms. Social-emotional learning is woven into daily instruction and school activities, so the school’s Tier I system of support begins in the classroom. One class was observed learning about Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., including an opportunity for students to pass around a quill and share one of their dreams with the class when handed the long feather. In another class, the teacher initiated a discussion about emotions as part of the day’s instruction by displaying different emoticons on a screen. The students could reference them as they talked about how they felt that day and what they looked forward to doing in class.
Visitors were able to observe the following teachers’ classrooms:
- Souchoy Saechou, 4th grade
- Chris Acton, 5th grade
- Patricia Tran, 6th grade
- Mike Orvedahl, 6th grade
After visiting the classrooms, reporters heard from parents about how the immediate access to campus mental health services has been beneficial. One mom, Latrenna Conner, reflected on a difficult family matter and how access to mental health care wasn’t readily available through the school. She expressed how grateful she was once she and her children had access to the school’s Student Support Center and its Tier II system of support for small groups. In this warm and welcoming space, students can express themselves through art or comfortably sit in large bean bags to chat. In this calm and inviting space, the school’s social worker, SCOE mental health clinician, and family navigator can work to address student mental health care needs in a small group setting.
Enthusiastic to have support available, the mother was also proud she and her children were learning how to better communicate with each other. She spoke about the positive effect on her son who is now in middle school and facing new challenges. “He has better communication skills,” she noted, explaining that they are helping him succeed at home and at school. For her daughter, a sixth grader at Ethel I. Baker, the more individualized Tier III support she receives on campus, is helping her cope with her moments of intense emotions and preventing outbursts on campus.
Following the tour, the media convened to ask questions and learn more. Providing details alongside the school’s leadership team were Sacramento County Superintendent of Schools David W. Gordon, Sacramento County Board of Education President Bina Lefkovitz, a representative from the Mental Health Services Oversight and Accountability Commission (MHSOAC), and SCOE’s Executive Director of School-Based Mental Health and Wellness, Chris Williams, and his program team. They explained the vision for the program: to help bring education and health systems together and enhance access to preventive mental health and wellness services. They also emphasized that placing a clinician at each school campus through the county Federally Qualified Health Center (FQHC) is a sustainable approach, providing immediate mental health care access, enhancing connections with families, and developing a culture of wellness prevention throughout the school community.
School-Based Mental Health and Wellness Coverage
- Can every Sacramento County school offer professional mental health help? Here’s the plan [The Sacramento Bee 1/23/24]
- Sacramento County is seeing success adding mental health clinicians to schools, but progress is slow [Capital Public Radio 2/1/24]