Pajaro Valley Unified Introduces Family Engagement Wellness Center

As thousands of Santa Cruz County students prepared to return to class for the start of the new school year over the past three weeks, educators and administrators not only tweaked their lesson plans, but also prepared on how to handle the complications of the covid19 Pandemic.

Because the past two years have seen young people around the world transition to distance learning regimes, in-person classes are still far from normal for many children. This has in many cases deepened the trauma of students already facing issues such as poverty, hunger and violence.

Educators have had to look for ways to adapt to this changing landscape. For the Pajaro Valley Unified School District, this includes establishing its first Family Engagement and Wellness Center, which opened at EA Hall Middle School near downtown Watsonville in December. It’s here that the county’s largest school district’s more than 18,000 students and their families can access services from several nonprofit organizations, in addition to receiving food from the Second Harvest Food Bank.

While offering such services in schools isn’t a new idea, the wellness center represents a shift toward bringing students’ families up to speed, says Ben Slyder, PVUSD’s Student Services Coordinator.

Among other things, families can attend classes on topics such as positive discipline, dealing with depression, and bullying.

“We recognize that we need to focus on and serve the whole child, and we have done that for many years,” says Slyder. “But we have now shifted that focus to the whole parent and the whole community.”

holistic approach

Slyder says the trauma resulting from the pandemic is having a far-reaching impact that can hamper students’ long-term academic plans.

“Having a place like [the wellness center] enables these connections between adults and students, to help individuals reflect on these goals and have the hope of knowing that “Yes, this is where I am now”, but recognizing that it doesn’t have to be so,” he says. “We can move forward in a different way. And having adults here on campus to help support that transformation is central to what we do here at the wellness center.

For Nancy Broxton, PVUSD Mental Health Clinician, Certified Marriage and Family Therapist, this philosophy is paramount.

“I know that helping support the whole family is one of the most important things I can do to change a child’s life,” she says.

Santa Cruz City Schools spokesman Sam Rolens said the district is in the process of launching similar wellness centers at its high schools. That effort, Rolens says, is funded in part by Measures T and U, $110 and $208 respectively in parcel taxes, which were approved in 2020.

Additionally, social-emotional counselors train teachers to spot signs of distress or anxiety in their students, Rolens says.

The district’s efforts to focus on student mental health go beyond these additions. For example, all SCCS students starting in third grade have annual check-ins with counselors to see if anyone needs support, Rolens says. With Covid-19 relief funding, SCCS recently added mental and emotional health counselors to all of its middle and high schools.

Likewise, the Santa Cruz County Office of Education (COE) is creating two new wellness centers in the remaining school districts by the time classes begin in fall 2023.

And the need for such services is more vital than ever. According data collected by the COE, rates of suicidal thoughts and depression among LGBTQ+ students rose from 64% before the 2019 pandemic to 71% last year. This compares to a 28% to 39% increase among non-LGBTQ+ students over the same period.

It is this growing need for mental health services that has prompted the Scotts Valley Unified School District to make its top two priorities for this school year (1) diversity, inclusion, equity and belonging and (2) mental health, according to Superintendent Tanya Krause.

Krause says district officials expected learning loss issues to arise when students returned to class. But it was the emotional challenges that caught them off guard.

“Our biggest surprise when returning to in-person teaching was the mental health issues that replaced some of the academic challenges we were better prepared for,” she says.

To meet this challenge, SVUSD has increased its list of advisors. Krause says when she took over as superintendent in 2016, the district had just 2.2 high school-equivalent counselors. There are now 5.3 equivalent counselors between middle school and high school.

SVUSD is also placing more emphasis on social-emotional learning, and the district food service now offers free breakfast and lunch daily.

These changes follow a difficult year for SVUSD in which a freshman named Mateo Deihl died by suicide. His mother, Regina, said he was bullied at school largely because he was Latino. A recent report by an education consultant hired by SVUSD found that many parents in the district feel that the environment is not the friendliest for students of color or who are part of other minority groups.

A key lesson from the report is that many parents lack confidence in the district’s commitment to addressing their concerns. But Krause says SVUSD is taking addressing bullying issues seriously, including introducing a new discipline policy.

“We will put more emphasis on responses to hate speech for students,” she says. “We spent a lot of time with our leadership team discussing the need to make sure students are really clear at the start of the year about expectations.”

According to Krause, these situations tend to happen before or after class and can fly under the staff’s radar. So the district began training yard workers, campus security, and support staff on how to identify and handle these scenarios.

The District knows that the world of social media is another arena where this abuse has surfaced, and Krause points out that they also work to reduce bullying there, where possible.

“Although this often happens outside of school hours, the school is expected to react to these kinds of situations,” she says. “So part of what we’re going to do is partner with an outside trainer to provide parent training.”

Because, after all, these issues are much more important than the neighborhood, she adds.

“This is not just a school district goal, but a change in our community; and in our state and in our nation,” she said. “And we hope our community of parents will support and partner with us as we focus more in that direction.”

changing tide

The PVUSD Wellness Center brings together Pajaro Valley, Salud Para la Gente, and Community Action Board student prevention and assistance services under one roof, in addition to nutrition services.

It is not the only place in PVUSD to receive such services. Watsonville and Pajaro Valley High Schools have their own resource centers, as do Pajaro, Rolling Hills, and Cesar Chavez Middle Schools, where students can access services that include Dientes Community Dental.

But the Family Engagement and Wellness Center is the first created as a “one-stop shop,” offering a full range of services.

One room is designated as the “co-op”, which is full of shelves, all stocked with food from Second Harvest, where families can select food twice a week. This includes peanut butter, rice, milk, pasta and more.

The center also coordinates with Martha’s Kitchen, a 40-year-old San Jose-based organization that prepares meals for the homeless, to provide hot meals once a week to families.

Another of the rooms has been converted into a counseling centre, where Broxton offers her counseling services, which she says is not limited to mental health help.

“I can feed them,” she said. “I can take them right next to the food bank. I can resolve this immediate issue and then figure out how we can help you. How do you change the house and how do you change everything? And then deal with the trauma. Because if I don’t do the basics first, I can’t get to the therapeutic part.

Last year, Broxton says she served about 70 students throughout the school district and estimates she will see between 30 and 40 families at any given time.

While she says the importance of counseling services in a post-pandemic world cannot be overstated, Broxton adds that she has seen one bright spot: unprecedented growth in the acceptance of these services.

Rolens agrees, saying his district has seen an increase in the number of students seeking and receiving mental health counseling.

“This generation of students has become more comfortable with the idea,” he says. “We are seeing a greater need in terms of mental health support. We are so happy to have the infrastructure to meet this need right now. We want people to use these services as much as they need.

Many families, Broxton says, are now excited when they see the “advice” sign.

“I think we’ve all come to the conclusion that we need help and we need to rely on each other,” she says. “And so I see a lot more openness to therapy.”

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