How do you fix chronic absences? Pilot program can help students

Published 4:42 pm Sunday, January 21, 2024

As Virginia’s Chronic Absenteeism Task Force worked over the last few months, one thing kept popping up. A student’s mental or behavioral health was linked in some cases to how often they showed up for class. Now a new pilot program can help. 

Now the state has launched a new department to help, with a nearby school district being used as a pilot program. The Virginia Department of Education is increasing its focus on mental and behavioral health challenges students face statewide with the creation of the Office of Behavioral Health and Wellness.

The new office is expected to build on the achievements of a pilot grant program that funded mental health programs for nearby Lunenburg County Public Schools. Those grants were provided through the Virginia Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Services, which will be coordinating efforts with the new office at VDOE.

Email newsletter signup

Superintendent of Public Instruction Lisa Coons announced creation of the behavioral health and wellness office Friday, Jan. 5 with appointment of Joseph Wharff from Henrico County as its director.

“Our students and our schools are facing different issues than they faced before the pandemic,” Coons said. “We have redesigned several positions across the department to create the Office of Behavioral Health and Wellness. This office will bring a multifaceted approach to better equip educators, staff and parents in supporting our students and responding when a crisis occurs.”

The program is part of Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s “Right Help, Right Now” initiative to provide students struggling through a time when the state has seen an unprecedented rise in mental and behavioral health challenges post-pandemic.

In Lunenburg County, Superintendent Sharon H. Stanislas, Ph.D., said officials there and other divisions statewide have just learned of the creation of the new VDOE office.

“Because this is a newly added department, the division is still getting acquainted with the resources available to us,” Stanislas said. “However, it appears that this department will be in consultation with the Virginia Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Services.”

One pilot program out of seven

LCPS was one of seven divisions to receive a DBHDS grant in fall 2022, as part of a pilot program on mental health.

Stanislas said Lunenburg received $349,413.58 in the pilot year and is seeking a second grant to continue on what has been developed there.

“Through the grant the division was able to contract with Fulcrum Counseling, which provided additional behavioral interventionists on the elementary and secondary school levels and a therapist on the elementary level,” she said. “Additionally, the funds allowed the division to provide mentoring support through our contract with No Label.”

Stanislas said they were able to purchase screening tools and a social emotional learning curriculum that could be used across all schools in the division.

“LCPS applied for and is awaiting the official notification of another grant from DBHDS for this school year,” she said. “Funds from this grant, if received, will be utilized to maintain the support through Fulcrum Counseling and No Label.”

VDOE Assistant Superintendent for Strategic Communications Todd Reid said in a Friday interview that the Office of Behavioral Health and Wellness will assist rural school divisions such as Prince Edward, Lunenburg and Charlotte counties in multiple ways. 

“Resources and training modules will strengthen universal strategies in prevention,” Reid said. “A comprehensive behavioral health framework and training will better equip division leaders and staff to assist students and parents through a multi-tiered approach; and technical assistance will be provided to support opportunities to engage community service providers in partnering in the schools to increase the capacity to serve more children.”

‘Help sharpen the focus’ 

In the news release announcing the behavioral health and wellness office’s creation, VDOE officials said it will help sharpen the focus of Right Help Right Now” resources in several areas that include:

• Behavioral health and instructional support by focusing on issues that include school counseling, school discipline, the causes and impact of chronic absenteeism and the effects on children and teens who rely on social media. 

• School health and wellness issues such as reduce opioid and drug use, emphasize the dangers of fentanyl use by children and teens, along with preventing overdoses.

• Student services dedicated to removing barriers to success facing children today, including working with military families and students in foster care, as well as equipping students for post-secondary access and success.

Officials said the new office also will develop the Virginia Behavioral Health Comprehensive Framework, designed to assist in improving student outcomes through increased behavioral supports spanning between schools and communities.

Reid said the Office of Behavioral Health and Wellness is currently partnering with DBHDS to expand the work of school-community mental health service provision through “Right Help, Right Now.”

“Twenty-three school divisions were recently awarded funds to increase their capacity to serve students’ mental health needs through Memorandums of Understanding with local community mental health service providers to partner inside and outside schools,” he said.

At this point, the Office of Behavioral Health and Wellness is not anticipated that the office will have regional or field reps. 

“The office will serve schools and divisions in an advisory capacity, with specific resources and training available for schools/divisions in high need, or by request,” Reid said. 

The office will be working with school divisions statewide to provide resources, technical assistance and training as needed to divisions, he added. 

“The office will also lead any future efforts, whether state or federal opportunities, to help strengthen student behavioral health services in schools,” Reid said.

Pilot program stems from governor’s initiative 

Stanislas said the availability of the grant awarded to Lunenburg and six other divisions grew out of Gov. Youngkin’s Right Help, Right Now initiative where the General Assembly allocated more funding for mental health wellness. 

“The new department at VDOE will provide more support and resources across the state for schools to address issues pertaining to behavioral health and wellness which will have some impact on the chronic absenteeism rate,” she explained.

As LCPS awaits word on its grant, Stanislas said the division is looking to contract with Fulcrum Counseling for an additional behavioral support specialist due to the current caseloads on the secondary level. 

“The plan is to also use any additional funds to cover the cost of training for the division to build a mentoring program, as we have community members who have volunteered to support our schools,” she said.

She added that Crossroads Community Services also provides a therapist who works full time providing support for the secondary schools. 

“This opportunity came out of a grant that Crossroads had secured,” she said.

In its release on the new office, officials said it will work to better equip educators, staff and parents to support students in a crisis.