Sep 16, 2019
Grant Wood AEA Announces Mental Health Pilot Initiatives to Support More than 70,000 Eastern Iowa Students
GWAEA Chief Administrator John Speer
During a press conference Monday morning, Grant Wood Area Education Agency Chief Administrator John Speer shared three pilot initiatives designed to help provide mental health infrastructure and support services for students in Eastern Iowa public schools.
“These plans have been researched and evaluated for about a year as our agency looks at increasing the emotional and mental health and well-being supports for students in our districts,” shared Chief Administrator John Speer. Speer commented, “In almost every district in our service area, across both urban and rural districts, we have seen an increased need for assistance in these areas,” said Speer.
Grant Wood AEA, which supports school districts in Benton, Cedar, Iowa, Johnson, Jones, Linn and Washington counties, announced that it will be piloting three initiatives beginning this fall.
Interconnected System Framework (ISF) Sites
One pilot is called the Interconnected System Framework (ISF). Speer shared that the goal of the ISF pilot sites is to provide a structure and process to integrate school district’s Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports (PBIS) with school mental health programs within the school system. The pilot is designed to help professionals from all parts of the educational system blend resources, training, systems, data, and practices to improve outcomes for all children and youth. This alignment effort is designed to help ensure mental health service providers are not working in isolation when working with students in a school environment.
Last year Grant Wood AEA had four pilot sites for ISF including Strawberry Hill Elementary in Anamosa, Starry Elementary in Marion, and College Community's Crest and View buildings. This year the AEA will be continuing the work at those buildings and will add Midland's secondary building, Anamosa Middle School, Marion's Longfellow Elementary, Vinton-Shellsburg Middle School, and will begin working with the Linn-Mar leadership team.
Site-Based Mental Health Counseling
Another is ensuring additional counseling resources is available in buildings. The AEA has facilitated agreements between local mental health providers to help some districts in its service area provide school-based counseling. “This initiative focuses on supporting the needs of our area districts, and helping mental health providers share caseloads in a manner that’s cost-effective for both the private providers and for participating districts,” said Speer.
Crisis Intervention Mental Health Counseling - J-FAST
The AEA also has plans to expand a service utilized by many of the Cedar Rapids metro area schools for many years. The Juvenile and Family Assistance and Stabilization (J-FAST) program, a program of Foundation 2 Crisis Services, works with youth and families who are at risk of hospitalization, committal, or residential placement to provide community-based support. When a district staff member calls J-FAST for assistance, counselors are dispatched to quickly intervene and help schools in situations where youth are struggling with depression, anxiety, agitation, substance abuse, self-harm and/or thoughts of suicide. Speer explained that the team’s focus is to stabilize school-based crisis situations and connect students with immediate services.
This year, Grant Wood AEA will replicate that successful J-FAST partnership by forming a consortium of rural districts that otherwise wouldn’t have access to a comparable program. Schools participating in the expanded J-FAST partnership can contact the J-FAST response team to assist district staff who are unable to de-escalate a student situation. Following a request to Foundation 2, a crisis counselor will be dispatched to support the on-site team’s ongoing response. The costs for the J-FAST services will be shared across the consortium and subsidized by the AEA.
This year, in addition to those that already were using the J-FAST resource, the AEA will be coordinating the service for Belle Plaine, Iowa Valley, English Valleys, Mid-Prairie, Center Point-Urbana, Central City, Springville, Lisbon, Mount Vernon, Solon, and West Branch. Additionally, the AEA continues actively working with HLV, Washington, North Linn, Highland and Lone Tree to establish a similar program based on resources available in those communities.
“We are excited to partner with GWAEA to expand services focused on mental health interventions for youth in our schools,” said Foundation 2’s Chief Operating Officer Sarah Nelson-Miller. “This is a huge step in the right direction towards meeting the needs of our most vulnerable kids. The expansion of our JFAST program to rural districts will allow us to connect families with the right services at the right time.”
Iowa State Senator Liz Mathis attended Monday’s press conference as these initiatives were announced and commented, “As a legislator and member of the Children’s System State Board, this is the kind of innovation and cooperation we were hoping for as we created the framework for a children’s mental and behavioral health system in Iowa. I look forward to seeing these expanded programs and pilots work in more of our local and rural districts and provide a pathway for replication across the state.”
Her sentiments were echoed by a partner in these initiatives, Jacob Christenson, Ph.D., LMFT and Chief Executive Officer for Covenant Family Solutions. “Educators and parents are under increasing pressure to support their children’s mental health needs. I applaud Grant Wood AEA for taking the lead to ensure children have access to school-based counseling, and we are proud to partner in this effort. Not only does it help children become the best versions of themselves through mental wellness, it also provides a critical opportunity to prevent mental health crises in our schools,” he shared.
Tonya Hotchkin, Associate Vice President of Programming at Tanager Place, added, “As a nonprofit organization centered around providing children and families with services that inspire, empower and heal it is an honor to work in collaboration with the AEA. It is mission critical for us to increase awareness and decrease stigma related to mental health while providing access to the care that is vital for students and families to experience wellness and resilience. It is commendable that the AEA is prioritizing and innovating around this critical need found in all of our schools and communities.”
Speer noted that Grant Wood AEA is uniquely positioned to pilot these initiatives that later could be piloted across the state. “We have steady student enrollment in this area of the state, and we have the benefit of being in the corridor - a growing geographic population that includes both urban and rural districts. Now is a great time to pilot new ways to help our schools support the mental wellness of our students.”