PWCS Student School Board Member Proposes Mental Health Initiative

| February 27, 2018 | 0 Comments | Education

Gainesville school representative Alyson Satterwhite and Student representative Kate Arnold talk with Western Prince William County high school students about issues that affect them.

The need to address mental health in schools is resonating with many this budget season.

Kate Arnold, Prince William County’s School Board non-voting Student Representative, is championing the cause of mental health in PWCS schools, in a way that won’t overwhelm the school budget.

Arnold has been giving town halls in various county schools. During her Feb. 19 town hall at Battlefield High School in Haymarket she spoke with several concerned students from Battlefield and Patriot high schools and shared her initiative for 2018.

She told the group she was making mental health her primary issue on the school board, offering a recommendation for voluntary teacher training in the area.

Arnold shared her own experiences and that of family members. For Arnold, the mental health issue came in the form of overwhelming school stress.

“There were a lot of stresser. I was kind of drowning, and I didn’t have anyone to help me out,” she said, describing an experience she had her freshman and sophomore years.

She noted that many students feel pressure to take so many Advanced Placement or “A.P.” classes, plus participate in sports and extracurricular activities.

“As we are pushing our students harder, have to expect that will need more support,” she said.

She said that other students may have different stressors stemming from home-life, and the schools should also offer more support for those with diagnosed mental illnesses such as depression, bipolar disorder or schizophrenia.

She wants teachers to be able to notice the signs and symptoms of mental health problems in their students because teachers are students first line of defense for students.

She recognizes that teachers are not mental health professionals, and so she does not expect them to assume that role. However she would like them to feel confident enough to refer a student to a counselor or psychologist by following the guidelines recommended by mental health professionals.

“Staff might not feel equipped enough to help,” she said. “It’s a very, very delicate situation.”

She does not want the training to be mandatory but does want to incentivize it as teachers often feel they face an ever-increasing number of professional requirements. “We don’t want teachers to dread this,” she said.

The incentive she recommended was to make a session one of many teachers can take to fulfill their recertification. Educators choose classes and seminars that allow them to earn recertification points, and this could be one of those courses or classes. Because the subject is so important, she would rather educators learn with a teacher or mentor than a quick online tutorial.

The issue of mental health immediately resonated with the students in the room. They shared how their overachieving lifestyles often leave them overwhelmed to the point of verging on depression and anxiety.

Even though they recognize it is environmentally based, and that they could change the situation, they explained there were multiple social factors preventing them from dropping down to less rigorous classes: parental expectations, school expectations, competitiveness and their own high expectations.

Arnold arranged all the chairs in a circle and allowed everyone a voice had the students who attended speak on the issue.

One male student said that his teachers have said that you don’t need to take all these classes, but for some students their parents are making them take them.

“Especially in this area. It’s a very high stress, highly competitive area,” he said.

One girl said that many first generation parents do not understand the stressors teens face or how they can go about getting them help.

Another girl agreed saying so many people have unrealistic notions of what it means to be smart and successful. She suggested schools educated on how realistic expectations for students to receive acceptance into college. And students noted that the pressure to succeed in everything has diminished their love of learning or passion for what they do.

“At some point, it becomes how to get the grade, it’s not about what you learn, or what you are interested in,” she said.

“I would also say it is the students who also put pressure on themselves,” added one young man. “I think unfortunately the expectations aren’t realistic; it’s a nation-wide problem.”

A student recommended that PWCS could limit the number of A.P. classes a student could take. When the college receives the transcript, they will receive the school profile, so students would not be penalized. He noted that colleges prefer specialization to number of advanced classes anyway.

But another student disagreed, said that would put PWCS students at a disadvantage with their peers.

Everyone felt the topic of a stressful academic lifestyle was relevant.

“I could speak for hours on mental health issues in schools” said one girl.

A young woman said administration is sometime the problem, something she learned when she tried to drop an A.P. class but was met with resistance.

Adding School Counselors and Psychologists to the Division 

The superintendent and school board have taken notice of mental health issues. The issue has been trusted further into the spotlight after the tragic school shooting in Parkland, Florida.

According to the superintendent’s proposed budget, the division would like to hire one new school psychologist and two more social services workers as well.

But, some school board members think that is not enough.

At her town hall that night Gainesville School Board Member Alyson Satterwhite said that PWCS should look into hiring more counselors and psychologists. It is something she advocates for year after year.

Several parents agreed with her, saying they would give up middle school sports, free A.P. testing and more coaches to have more counselors and psychologists in the schools.

School Board Chairman Ryan Sawyers advocated that PWCS should increase levels of counselors and psychologists to the levels recommended by professional organizations, 1:250, and called upon Corey Stewart of the Board of County Supervisors to make that a priority of his board. The BOCS can contribute more money beyond the revenue sharing agreement with schools or raise the tax rate to bring in more funds.

PWCS Director of Communications Diana Gulotta said PWCS meets state requirements. PWCS ratios are 1:350* per high school students; 1:400 per middle school students; and 1:500 per elementary school students. The ratio of school psychologist is 1:1,886 across the division. The budget calls for adding one more school psychologist but schools population are also growing.

Meeting professional recommendation would take a significant investment from the school division.

“As of the end of January, the division employed 215.8 counselors. To get to a ratio of 250:1, the division would have to hire an additional 148.4 counselors. The additional cost would be about $15.4 million,” Gulotta said.

Most schools around the nation do not come close to funding at the recommended level and some states have no mandatory requirements for school counselors. The national average is 1:491.

The division is looking into the cost involved with adding new counselors and will adopt the budget that the school board approves.  


*This number has been corrected. We previously published 1:300, which was incorrect. 

© 2018, Bristow Beat. All rights reserved.

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