Judi Rivera

Estrella Elementary School teacher Judi Rivera gets her classroom ready in anticipation of Kyrene School District’s opening day of the 2019-20 school year tomorrow, Aug. 1.

As elementary and high schools in Ahwatukee reopen their doors and say goodbye to summer, a new priority is joining the three Rs and STEM.

In an almost unprecedented fashion, Tempe Union and Kyrene officials this school year are addressing what the National Education Association calls the “mental health tsunami of a generation.”

Kyrene children return to school tomorrow, Aug. 1, while Mountain Pointe and Desert Vista high schools open Monday, Aug. 5, for the new year. Horizon Honors reopened Monday.

With a recent study by the Journal of Pediatrics reporting that “millions of children across the U.S. are experiencing depression, anxiety and/or behavioral disorders,” both Tempe Union and Kyrene have ramped up social-emotional learning in a variety of ways inside and outside the classroom.

The reasons for the new emphasis are as much about academic success and safety as they are about a concern for addressing the total well-being of each student.

“Today’s students are struggling,” Jen Liewer, Tempe Union’s executive director of community relations, told the school board earlier this month.

“They have faced more stress and challenges than in previous generations. It’s for a multitude of reasons. I think if you ask 10 different people, what do you think is the cause of this, you’ll get 10 different answers,” Liewer continued, noting that Harvard University’s Center on the Developing Child “offers scientific proof that stressed brains cannot learn.”

Student safety also is a concern.

Students earlier this year and last December told Tempe Union and other East Valley school boards how some of their classmates’ behavior had them concerned for their lives.

Ultimately, though, as Tempe Union Superintendent Kevin Mendivil told his governing board in a study session July 10, “We’re looking at the whole student, the whole child.”

The reason, Liewer explained, is simple: “While our students do come to us with the primary focus of receiving a high quality education, we know that they need to be healthy in their brains and in their hearts in order to retain that information and to also be contributing members of our community.”

She told the board, “Our kids are suffering” and cautioned that it is “not that normal angst and awkwardness that we felt as teenagers.

“It is at an all-new level,” she said. “And so, as an education institution, it’s our responsibility to help our students both identify those feelings and then figure out ways to help them cope.”

 To address the issue, Tempe Union has created a “multi-tier system of support” that includes trained staff in intervention at an academic, behavioral and social-emotional level.

Even before the State Legislature earlier this year approved mandatory suicide-prevention training for all school personnel to start in the 2020-21 school year, Tempe Union already had trained all its teachers and other staffers in how to recognize suicidal signs in students and how to effectively respond.

Teen Lifeline, which runs a teen suicide hotline, is making presentations in classes and its hotline number is on all students ID badges.

Schools also will be emphasizing health and wellness with special events and monthly themes while the district also has been conducting workshops for parents on issues contributing to student mental and emotional health.

More counselors trained in addressing emotional and mental problems rather than academic matters also are being put on campuses and the district is reducing the counselor-student ratio.

“Rather than just looking at the behavior itself, our focus with these teams is to figure out what is it that’s distracting that kid from their studies and that’s what we have to get better at in trying to accomplish,” Mendivil said.

Rather than facing long-term suspension, students caught for the first time with drugs on campus can take drug counseling.

Desert Visa High School physical education teacher Amanda Goe has not only taught students simple yoga exercises to relieve stress, but also has made some videos of these techniques for distribution to other schools.

Because some of the problems teachers and staff encounter in kids require more sophisticated professional help, the district also works closely with various agencies and professionals, including Tempe’s CARE 7.

“What I think we have seen in the last couple of years is that our communities and our mental health organizations are identifying the fact that we have a pretty serious mental health crisis with young people,” Liewer told the school board. “I definitely think social services are shifting to help meet that need.”

Noting “there are things that as educators we may not be fully equipped to address,” she said, “it is about creating those partnerships, making sure that our counselors, our teachers understand what the resources are in the community. Because as a parent, when your child is in crisis, the hardest thing sometimes to do is go figure out, OK, where do I get professional help for this young person?”

CARE 7 comprises Tempe police, fire, mental health professionals and volunteers who are on call 24/7 to respond primarily to crises, though it also has a youth specialist in each of Tempe Union’s seven campuses.

The specialists offer non-clinical individual and group support and also connect families to outside services and resources that can address immediate and ongoing needs.

 Between August and December of 2018,  those specialists saw 702 of the district’s approximate 3,000 students — 60 percent of them freshmen and sophomores — who had issues troubling them, ranging from grief and anxiety to bullying and problems at home.

Of those 702 students, more than 400 talked of anxiety and depression.

The reaction of those students to that help was overwhelmingly positive.

Tempe Union also is in the third year of a grant from the Governor’s Office of Youth, Faith and Families that provides $450,000 annually for drug and alcohol prevention programs. 

That grant has enabled the district to hire three health and wellness coaches. One is assigned to Desert Vista, Compadre and McClintock high schools; another is assigned to Mountain Pointe, Marcos de Niza and Tempe High; and the third is assigned to Corona del Sol, where three students in three years took their lives.

The district also is opening “mindfulness rooms” in each high school.

Those rooms, which other districts in the East Valley have put in some of their high schools, offer a place for students to decompress when they feel anxious.

Efforts to address students’ emotional and mental well-being are not just focused on high school students.

Kyrene also is expanding to elementary schools this year the social-emotional learning efforts it started in middle schools two years ago.

The district is putting more counselors on elementary campuses and implementing a social-emotional curriculum that helps kids learn to relate well with others while shoring up their self-discipline and coping skills.

The district also is kicking off another year of its popular Positive Parenting series with a return visit from Collin Kartchner, a nationally renown speaker who advises kids how to avoid the destructive side of social media.

Kartchner on Aug. 13, will address student assemblies at each of Kyrene’s three middle schools in Ahwatukee.

At 6 p.m. Aug. 14, he will give a public address at Corona del Sol High School.

“This will be for our Ahwatukee families as well,” Kyrene spokeswoman Erin Helm said, stressing the public is invited to the free event. “The topic is social media and how damaging it can be, not only for children and teens, but adults as well.”

 Kartchner’s visit is one of many Kyrene initiatives to address social-emotional learning among youngsters in the hopes that they are better equipped in high school, college and adult life to deal with the challenges that life throws at them.

Said Kyrene Superintendent Jan Vesely:

“We know that providing support beyond academic interventions to all students is critical to their ability to perform at their full potential.”

At Horizon Honors Schools, programming on mental health and social/emotional learning extends to all grade levels.

“At all grade levels, we have always employed student advisors and/or school counselors that are trained to advise students on their academic needs as well as emotional needs and challenges,” said spokeswoman Melissa Hartley. “We have also employed a school psychologist for several years.”

Several age-appropriate special programs also are conducted throughout the year.

Indeed, on Monday, the first day of school at Horizon Honors, secondary school students discussed physical and mental health as part of “Soarin’ Eagle Day.”

The school also offers Parent University programming to families on topics ranging from dealing with adolescence to social media to vaping, Hartley said.

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