School mental health program expanding

In its second year of existence, the school Mental Health Intervention Program is winning rave reviews from education leaders.

The program started during the last year after the Legislature in 2018 approved $10 million for a one-year pilot program that went toward a limited number of school districts help treat the behavioral health needs of students.

Nine districts benefited from the program in the first year. They were Wichita, Kansas City, Topeka, Garden City, Parsons, Abilene, Chapman, Herington and Solomon. Those districts partnered with their local Community Mental Health Centers to identify students in need and help families connect with services. A key component of the partnerships are the liaisons employed by the districts who serve as the conduit with the CMHCs.

“The school districts in the pilot did a super job of getting the ball rolling,’’ said Veryl Peter, program consultant with the Kansas State Department of Education.

According to a report for the year, 1,708 students were served by CMHCs under the program. More than 800 students showed improved behavior, 674 showed improved attendance and 586 improved their academic performance, according to a reports from school districts.

In 2019, the Legislature extended the program another year. Now, 32 school districts are participating and the number of school buildings being served has increased from 82 to 180.

The program does face several challenges. More districts probably haven’t signed up because the program has been funded on a year-to-year appropriation approved by legislators late in the school year.

And Diane Gjerstad, a former lobbyist for Wichita USD 259 who has been helping with implementation of the program, said, “there is a shortage in Kansas of clinically trained social workers, a key workforce employed by community mental health centers, who work with students and families.”

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