Looking back, Mark Schmidt finds the call serendipitous.
Early this year, a mental health task force of Blue Valley schools educators, administrators and personnel determined that the district needed school social workers to help existing staff address the emotional and social needs of schoolchildren. But budget restraints made making the necessary hires look like a distant dream.
“We were in a quandary,” said Schmidt, the Blue Valley School District’s assistant superintendent of well-being and student services. “It was a great idea, but how do you implement it?”
Around the same time, Children’s Mercy Hospital reached out to the school district with a broad idea. The hospital system was exploring ways to build relationships with school communities — did Blue Valley schools have ideas about ways the district and hospital system could partner?
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Starting this school year, 19 masters-level social workers and one supervisor hired by Children’s Mercy will begin work at Blue Valley schools.
The partnership marks a new venture for a hospital system interested in expanding its school-based services in the community, as well as a beneficial hiring solution for a school district that hosts 22,000 students but has only employed around a half dozen school social workers in the past decade.
When Schmidt started working in the district eight years ago, he said it employed just two social workers, exclusively in their special education programs. Creative budgeting allowed the hiring of a few more in recent years, but not enough to meet student needs.
School social workers are not only vital in assisting school counselors and psychologists with addressing the emotional, social and educational needs of students, Schmidt said. Social workers are often best equipped to connect children and families with community organizations that provide help outside of school.
“Social workers focus on the person and their environment,” said Carey Spain, the director of social work at Children’s Mercy Hospital in charge of hiring the new employees. “And how does that impact the student and the situation that they are involved in and how (they can) solve whatever issues they are facing.”
While Children’s Mercy will pay the salaries of these new employees, the district has been able to budget some funds to support the program, Schmidt said.
In Blue Valley, new social workers will help school counselors and psychologists during large- and small-group instruction. They also can provide individual clinical services and serve as a liaison between school and home.
It’s that piece — helping kids access services and support both in and outside of school so they can focus on learning in the classroom — that school officials say is crucial to supporting a student population that had changed in the Blue Valley School District.
After the Great Recession, the relatively affluent district saw its numbers of homeless children, mobile families, and free and reduced-price lunches increase, Schmidt said.
At the same time, parents, students and educators have called attention to an increase in stress and anxiety caused by rising school pressures.
After Todd White started his new post as the school district’s superintendent last summer, he said he heard the same thing over and over again from students and parents: Student well-being must be prioritized and addressed.
A study on the social and emotional need of Blue Valley students also emphasized the need for professionals who could work with families and parents to help kids struggling in the classroom, dealing with anxiety or depression or navigating difficult home situations.
“We started to see a real rise in the number of students that would benefit,” Schmidt said. “We needed a more complete team to meet the needs of our kids.”
There’s another more chilling reason Blue Valley school officials want more support.
About eight years ago, Schmidt said the district experienced more than 10 student or former student suicides in an 18-month period. The district worked to improve their crisis teams, formed a task force on suicide prevention and strengthened their protocols on how to identify students at risk and prevent suicide.
But the issue remains as important as ever. Schmidt said last year, the district initiated 300 suicide protocols, a series of steps taken by teachers and administrators when a student is flagged as being at a medium or high risk for depressed or suicidal behavior.
It’s an issue that’s not limited to the school environment.
“We’re seeing that in emergency rooms,” Spain said. “We’ve had a record number of patients in the past few months with behavior concerns or suicide attempts. That’s something we want to be proactive about preventing.”
Schmidt said the new social workers will start this fall. Groups of two to five professionals will be assigned to specific feeder programs, so they are working with students who will funnel into the same high school.
It’s not just the beginning of what both school and hospital officials said they hope is a multiyear partnership. The initiative will help inform future programs that the hospital system wants to implement in schools, said Bob Finuf, a Children’s Mercy Hospital vice president in charge of population health management and pediatric care.
“We are always looking at how do we take the care to a child,” Finuf said. “For us, it’s important from a mission perspective. Over time, we’ll look to see what other services might make sense. It’s really exciting.”