Supporting Student Mental Wellness in Charlottesville (VA)

Charlottesville City Schools integrated SEL to address and promote student mental wellness initiatives.

Charlottesville City Schools believes in every learner, every day. That focus guides the district on exposing students to global perspectives through engaging in new experiences, listening to different viewpoints, and participating in opportunities for change. The district hopes that by taking these steps, their 4,300+ students will be more confident in their future endeavors and make an impact in the community.

The Challenge

Intervention and Support Supervisor, Patrick Farrell, faced similar challenges to many student support service staff members across the nation when it came to wider acknowledgement and acceptance of student mental wellness initiatives. The need for these services were exacerbated by the 2017 Unite the Right rally that took place in Charlottesville, which was traumatic for many students. Pandemic-related factors in 2020 only added to the pre-existing need for social and emotional learning (SEL) resources.

The Solution

After a period of listening to better understand the diverse perspectives of the community the school system is a part of, Charlottesville City Schools released its Equity Plan with four key focus areas:

  • Supported/supportive staff
  • Diverse, inclusive, and rigorous learning experiences
  • Growing relationships/community
  • Equity foundations.

Each goal prioritized diversifying approaches to help all students succeed.

At the elementary level, the focus was on being whole-school centered with strategy implementation. At the secondary level, Patrick saw a need for greater instructional support and buy-in for available resources.

The district was also interested in tools that could identify student needs and track progress made on developing their strengths and weaknesses.

“We wanted to work to establish that all students needed social and emotional competencies. We wanted all of our schools to implement those strategies intentionally and explicitly so that it didn’t matter what classroom a child was in, they’d have access to these tools.”

Keep reading to learn how Patrick Farrell of Charlottesville City Schools:

  • Reshaped thinking on SEL as a proactive, system-wide approach to supporting students.
  • Engaged administration, teachers, and staff on the importance of assessment data.
  • Utilized data from the assessments to inform educator best practices.
  • Is preparing for the upcoming school year using social and emotional learning tools.

Positioning SEL to Address Student Mental Wellness

During the COVID-19 pandemic, all levels of administration heard outcries from parents on students’ mental health. Patrick explained that the conversations the district had on SEL looked completely different than conversations years prior. “The events our community have gone through exposed how many people were hurting and the impact of families and kids struggling. We saw what a difference putting a little bit more time, energy, and resources in to getting supports in place had on our students. It really showed how SEL is a foundational piece, it isn’t just an add-on if you have time to do it.”

Patrick expanded on the switch in the minds of administration and educators regarding the place for mental health discussions in schools.

“For a long time, mental wellness supports were viewed as something schools outsourced. Classroom teachers would outsource to counselors, additional concerns would get directed to an outside resource in the community. Historically, the approach had been more reactive. We’ve been trying over the last three or four years to identify what all students need to get in regard to social and emotional competencies and doing those things intentionally and explicitly.”
“During hybrid and virtual learning our school counselors focused on making sure kids felt connected: connected to their school, their classroom, each other, and a trusted adult. With all the unpredictability, a lot of our kids experienced trauma, whether it was a parent affected by job loss or from losing a loved one. We needed them to see school as a safe place – both in person school and virtual school,” shared Patrick.

Getting Buy-In

Patrick believed in how much value the data from the DESSA could bring to educators. Others in the school system saw it for themselves after analyzing the data from their first round of ratings.

“Being able to look through all of the data and identify what resources we needed to mobilize for schools to meet their students’ needs was really helpful,” said Patrick. “Mental health support had been talked about anecdotally, now we had data to back it up. Once we showed it to administration and educators, they saw the immediate value.”

Tailored Approach

Charlottesville City Schools began a pilot of the Aperture system with pre-kindergarten and kindergarten students. After piloting the assessment and reporting technology and seeing widespread interest they expanded into the rest of their elementary school grade levels, and most recently introduced it at the high school level.

Kristin Ullrich, school counselor at Jackson-Via Elementary School in the Charlottesville City Schools, said her school was able to do the DESSA a semester before the pandemic and then during the pandemic, with classroom teachers completing ratings based off what they saw on the screen in virtual learning.

“Sharing the data with my principal on the results from the DESSA encouraged him to modify our schedule so that students in need of instruction could get more counseling. Previously with our virtual schedule I was primarily teaching Tier I instruction. I credit the DESSA with administration seeing that the best use of my time would be through additional Tier II and Tier III interventions.”

The high school is still in its early stage of implementation, but with their plan to remove the school resource officer program and transition to a more restorative, proactive approach to student behavior SEL will play a key role.

Future Steps

The district will further integrate mental wellness activities for students and SEL into their classrooms district-wide in the upcoming school year.

“What’s great about the DESSA is it is a tool to measure SEL with, but it has woven into other conversations, too. We are looking forward to hopefully being in person next school year and building upon what we have in place to be more mindful, efficient, and make the biggest impact on our students’ progress,” shared Kristin.

The high school will continue the rollout of the DESSA-HSE with a focus on how students can impact their community and work toward greater social justice in areas they are interested in.

These initiatives not only work on strengthening social and emotional competencies but also the whole-student experience.

“Through the district’s larger acceptance of mental wellness, we have been able to increase access to resources and focus on the integration of tools and services,” said Patrick. “Since starting the DESSA we have seen the more SEL instruction, the more effective academic instruction is going to be.”

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