Commentary: Increased services available for at-risk students

Lindsey Garner

For more than 40 years, Communities In Schools affiliates across Texas have answered the call of school principals and district administrators to provide integrated student supports that ensure student social and emotional well-being on campuses, while improving academic outcomes.

Local educators are returning to school better equipped to handle the ever-growing social, emotional and mental health needs of their students, thanks to the recent passage of several key bills by Texas legislators that increased investment for integrated support services, while affirming the importance of “wrap-around” services and the urgency at which students’ needs must be addressed.

Included in House Bill 1 for the 2020-21 biennium was a substantial increase in funding for Communities In Schools affiliates throughout Texas, with the state nearly doubling its investment by providing an increase of $15 million each year of the biennium, bringing total funding for CIS to $35.3 million each year.

This historic increased investment will ensure more students and schools in Tarrant County are able to access the critical support CIS social workers provide for at-risk students, connecting them and their families with local services and resources to overcome a wide range of barriers.

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The increased funding allowed CIS of Greater Tarrant County to add three new partner school districts to its service footprint – including seven new campuses – and deepened its support to include one-on-one mental health counseling for students by licensed clinical staff.

For more than 40 years, Communities In Schools affiliates across Texas have answered the call of school principals and district administrators to provide integrated student supports that ensure student social and emotional well-being on campuses, while improving academic outcomes.

Evidenced-based programming provides intensive case management services to students directly on school campuses, with 28 CIS affiliates serving Texas schools. CIS also provides crisis response, campus-wide prevention initiatives, trauma-informed supports and individual, family and group counseling, as well as trainings for district personnel.

With the passage of House Bill 3 – the comprehensive school finance reform bill – the state will now provide districts with greater concentrations of low-income students more funding to ensure they receive the support they need.

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Lastly, Senate Bill 11 – the priority bill relating to policies and measures for school safety and mental health promotion in public schools – included CIS as a leading mental health resource for school districts throughout Texas.

Nearly one in eight Texas high school students attempted suicide in 2017, according to a study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The leading contributors identified by mental health experts include:

• Traumatic life experiences.

• Lack of motivation and encouragement.

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• Lack of support at home or in the school setting.

• Mental health issues, such as anxiety and depression.

Imagine the people who influenced you in your formative years, those who challenged, encouraged, and inspired you to be your best and pursue your goals. Now imagine if they had never been there.

Unfortunately, this is reality for too many youths in our area.

Communities in Schools of Greater Tarrant County provides more than a licensed social worker for each of the 55 campuses we will serve for the 2019-20 school year.

We provide a trusted adult to express care for students and their families, challenge the student’s growth, provide practical supports to meet basic needs, involve students in goal setting and decisions that affect them and expand their vision for future possibilities.

A recent study by the Aspen Institute examined the link between social emotional supports and its impact on students’ ability to learn. Communities In Schools was highlighted as an exemplary model of a program which provides this level of support for students.

Similarly, the Search Institute recently conducted a study of high-risk youth living in high-stress environments and found that 22% of these youth could not identify at least one adult in their life with whom they have a trusting relationship.

Young people who have one or more trusted adult relationships in their life are:

• Twenty-one times more likely to report the ability to manage their emotions.

• Nine times more likely to report feeling a strong sense of purpose.

• Thirteen times more likely to report they can persevere through difficulty.

The increased investment in CIS by both the legislature and growing number of school district partners suggests that not only are more districts responding to the needs of students by ensuring there is someone on campus dedicated to providing wraparound supports, but that policymakers and funders are committed to ensuring the capacity to make it happen.

Texas schools serve an ever-increasing number of disadvantaged children, many who are dealing with the effects of adverse childhood experiences.

These students are expected to thrive in classrooms with high ratios of students to teachers. A teacher who struggles with classroom management due to overwhelming numbers cannot reasonably be expected to assess and address the underlying social, emotional, mental health and basic service needs of students.

This is the job of a CIS social worker.

Lindsey Garner is president and CEO of Communities In Schools of Greater Tarrant County. The organization will serve at least 55 campuses in 11 different local school districts throughout Tarrant County and surrounding areas in academic year 2019-2020. The mission of Communities In Schools is to surround students with a community of support, empowering them to stay in school and achieve in life.