As elementary wellness bills are considered, model program sees results
Two bills before the state House of Representatives would increase elementary school students’ access to mental health services across the state.
The state’s first elementary school wellness center is already delivering those services.
The school-based wellness center at Eisenberg Elementary School in New Castle has been operating for four years. School officials say it allows more students to be screened for mental health risk factors and to work with counselors. They report noticeable changes in student behavioral patterns.
“There’s been an overall dramatic reduction in the number of students that teachers are sending out of class,” said Jon Cooper, director of student services at Colonial School District.
One bill being considered would require all high-needs elementary schools in Delaware to have health centers. Another would help fund lower student-to-counselor and student-to-psychologist ratios at elementary schools.
Annie Slease, director of advocacy and education at NAMI Delaware, says half of lifetime mental illnesses begin by age 14 — and that early treatment is important.
“We’re talking about self harm, homelessness, young people could end up in the criminal justice system,” said Slease. “Or they’re considering suicide. These are the long term consequences that we’re trying to avoid.”
Forrest Watson of Life Health Center, the service provider at Eisenberg’s wellness center, says early intervention also makes financial sense. “The more we intervene earlier, the less we have to on the other tail end,” he said. “And it’s actually ... more friendly financially to do it in the beginning than when it’s these obscene different outcomes.”
The wellness center at Eisenberg Elementary is no longer the only elementary school-based health center in the state.
The facility at Eisenberg, provided by Nemours, officially opened last spring. Colonial School District then expanded its elementary wellness center program with satellite centers at Wilmington Manor, Pleasantville, New Castle, and Carrie Downie Elementary Schools last October.
Only counselling services are available at the satellite centers so far, but students at those schools can access medical services— like immunizations, routine physical exams, or lab work— at Eisenberg after school hours.
Red Clay Consolidated School District also opened its first elementary wellness center at Warner Elementary in partnership with Christiana Care last September.
All high schools in the state are required to have wellness centers.
At Colonial, Cooper says the elementary school-based wellness center has allowed more students to be screened and work with counsellors than with school district staff alone.
Watson says nearly 30 percent of students in Colonial’s five elementary schools with access to the wellness center are enrolled for its service— and have received risk factor screenings.
Cooper says that’s an increase in access to mental health services. He notes that in the absence of wellness center services, roughly 5 to 15 percent of elementary students interact with school counsellors, because they have exhibited behavioral issues.
Cooper says the wellness center model at Eisenberg was designed to be transferable to other schools.
But he says the biggest challenge remains keeping it financially sustainable long term. “The next frontier right now is working to ensure that all the major insurance providers reimburse wellness center services at a rate that allows this project to thrive,” said Cooper.
One of the bills being considered in the General Assembly would establish a mental health services unit of state funding for Delaware elementary schools.This would allow schools to hire one full-time school counselor, school social worker or licensed clinical social worker for every 250 students grades k-5 and one school psychologist for every 700 students.
The other bill would require high-needs public and charter elementary schools have school-based health centers. Under this bill, the state would bear start-up costs for two of these health centers per year and reimburse costs of existing health centers in high-needs elementary schools. The legislation identifies “high-needs” schools based on a school’s percentage of low-income students, minority students, English learners or students with disabilities. The legislation identifies 25 “high-needs” elementary schools in the state.
Both bills are headed to the House floor for a vote.