School leaders say the measures are desperately needed. "Every qualitative and quantitative indicator that we have in schools point to the need for additional services for students and families", says Collingswood Superintendent Dr. Scott Oswald. "I've seen more mental health issues in the last five years than in my previous 20+ years combined."
Voters in Collingswood agree to raise their taxes by an average of $48 per family per year, generating $225,000 in funding for the Camden County district.
With that money, the school district says they'll be able to offer students universal social-emotional learning opportunities that teach self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, responsible decision making, and relationship skills. For staff, it'll provide professional learning opportunities to teach those skills, and to implement social-emotional learning strategies in their classrooms. The district will also be able to add a counseling coordinator as a point person for students who need counseling both in and out of school.
The focus is not just on what happens inside the classroom, but also on students lives once they leave school grounds. The counseling coordinator will help facilitate community workshops aimed at strengthening families, and providing caregivers the information they need to handle the mental health system outside of school. They'll also provide individual, group, and family counseling opportunities.
"We called the initiative #CollingswoodStrong because we believe deeply that stronger families result in a stronger community", says Dr. Oswald. "Our ultimate hope is to provide our students the tools needed to become happy, healthy, and more confident contributing members of the community."
District leaders say they felt they needed to act now, after meeting for more than a year to talk about priorities within the school district. They say in the past year 20 of their students were placed in residential facilities with diagnoses related to high anxiety, and they've watched chronic absenteeism become an issue across the district, with many absences coming as a result of anxiety and traumatic situations.
It's a pattern leaders in other districts say they've seen as well. 70 miles away, voters in the Metuchen school district agreed to raise their taxes by an average of $133 a year, providing their schools with $700,000 to fund mental health and emotional support services.
Metuchen's superintendent, Dr. Vincent Caputo, says he's pleased voters chose to pass the initiative. "The Metuchen community has always valued well-rounded children. Arts, athletics, and mental well-being are equally as important as academic achievement. In fact, we believe they are precursors to true lifelong achievement."
District leaders say with the new funding, they'll be able to increase counseling and behavioral support services for students who need it. They'll also offer help in reading, math, and study skills, focusing on the children struggling in school because of issues with self-esteem and emotional well-being.
Dr. Caputo says "through the support of our community in passing this question, we will now be able to bring in a therapeutic program for our most struggling students in the middle school and elementary school, hire additional psychologists and behavior analysts to help even more students, teachers, and parents, and provide additional academic, emotional, and behavioral supports and interventions to all our students."
The superintendent says they now have a lot of work to do to prepare for the new programs, and they'll be looking for staff and community input throughout the planning process. Supporters of the initiative say they hope the programs will lead to a stronger community, stronger schools, and ultimately, make a difference in the fight for mental health.
Kim Lucey is a freelance journalist with more than a decade of experience in the field. Her career has included coverage of big breaking news events like the Sandy Hook school shooting, lockdown in Watertown, MA following the Boston marathon bombings, and Superstorm Sandy. Her in-depth reports have garnered awards, including a focus on treating mental health issues in children. Currently, she is a reporter at a television station covering the news across the Greater Boston Area with an appreciation for fact-finding and storytelling. Follow Kim on Facebook and Twitter.