Michael Chirichello has been a school superintendent, principal, teacher, and international consultant in urban and suburban school districts. He also served in higher education at William Paterson University as professor, chair, and program director in the Department of Educational Leadership, and at Northern Kentucky University as visiting professor in the doctoral program.
As we continue to recover from the COVID pandemic, the long road to mental health healing begins. The mantra to catch up from learning loss is being drowned out by the call for schools to respond to the need for mental health services.
The statistics are overwhelming. Only eight percent of districts in our country meet the recommended ratio of school psychologists to students. Fourteen percent of districts meet the recommended ratios for school counselors. Despite the staffing shortages, the percentage of students seeking school-based mental health services has increased since the fall of 2019 by 87%
At the same time, suicide is on the rise among younger students. As of 2020, suicide has become the second leading cause of death among teens 10 to 14 and the 10th leading cause of death for those ages 5 to 9 according to the most recent data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The percentage of middle-school youth who seriously thought about killing themselves is the highest among 8th-grade students (24.7%) and declines for sixth graders (19.6%).
These facts support the need for increased mental health services for students. At the same time, our teachers feel their jobs have become untenable because of the continuing pandemic. Imagine having to prepare for both in-person instruction and virtual learning. The demand for online resources is immense and just finding the right materials is a brain drain.
It has been a challenge not only for students and teachers but also for principals. They go from day-to-day without knowing when learning will suddenly become remote. Masks that cover the faces of many school staff and students endure the rants from parents on both sides of the issue as they shout and stamp their feet at principals. No wonder more and more teachers, principals, and other support staff are jumping ship for retirement or other career options.
Notwithstanding all of this, the focus now is on bridging the learning gap and not the social and emotional impact caused by the on-again, off-again demands of remote learning during the last two years. What will it take to help students bridge the achievement gap, and for school leaders and staff to decompress? The solution lies not in what we have done but in reimagining what we should do.
The answer will take us back over two decades to 1998 when Joy Dryfoos published “Full-Service Schools: A Revolution in Health and Social Services for Children, Youth, and Families.” More recently, in 2019, Dryfoos and Maguire published “Inside Full-Service Community Schools,” an updated version of the earlier text that is a highly practical, real-world guide with a unique local-national perspective on full-service schools. A full-service school provides physical health, mental health, and other social services for students. Now is the time to make our schools the hub for community and health services in addition to being learning centers for our students. School leaders and staff will also reap the benefits of these services.
The call, however, continues to be unanswered. Repeatedly, we see the solution to the pandemic era as more rigorous academics and increased testing. Instead, we should strive not only to offer a robust curriculum, one that is integrated, authentic, and problem-based. We should also partner with community resources to include the personnel that will support the mental, physical, social, and emotional needs of students and staff.
The new normal is not a return to what was, but we must choose to take the road less traveled, a road that will lead toward implementing full-service schools. Now is the time for school leadership to support reforms that challenge the very structure of our schools, rather than a return to schools designed for the industrial era. This time let’s get it right!