NYS Student Mental Health/Social Emotional Needs: One New York District’s JourneyBy Tony Cardamone
Districts around the state of New York and the country have been facing the challenges of an ever-changing student body. More than ever, students are coming from diverse backgrounds that are often different from the leaders and teachers who are responsible for their learning and development. Our district is no different, we are facing the same challenges. However, when looking at how to meet the social-emotional/mental health needs of a diverse population, we chose The Positivity Project as our solution and it has become the cornerstone in our district.
I have been fortunate to be a teacher and administrator in Baldwinsville Central School District for more than 25 years. Bville (our local shorthand for our district’s name) is a suburban district located just outside of Syracuse in Central New York (CNY) and we are the third largest suburban public school system in Onondaga County, covering approximately 75 square miles. We have approximately 5,500 students from K-12 in eight buildings and about 900 instructional and support staff who work for the district.
From the outside our district looks like many other suburban school districts in CNY. Yet, just like any other district we are facing the needs of a changing, diverse student population. Our students with disabilities rate in 2007 was 11%, as of 2018 it was 15%. Our economically disadvantaged students rate in 2007 was 13%, in 2018 it was up to 29%. The 2018-19 breakdown of our students was:
- 88.2% white
- 4.2% Hispanic/Latino
- 4.4% Multi-racial
- 1.9% Black or African American
- 1.1% Asian/Native Hawaiian & Other Pacific Islander.
Many educators and leaders around the state will probably look at these figures and fare better, while others would have much higher numbers. However, those figures only reflect one aspect of our community. We all know the diversity of our student population is represented by more than these statistics. Students are coming from diverse families, many with social and emotional learning (SEL) needs and dealing with the impact of technology in their daily lives.
This has led our district to look at diversity from many angles. Some of our research has led to the following:
- Embracing Inclusion of all Students: Our special education department has worked to provide solid inclusive education throughout our district. This has required the support of our Board of Education and community so we could provide the necessary special education staff in K-12 co-teaching settings. It has also led us to foster a partnership with Syracuse University to support our professional learning in this area.
- Identifying and Supporting Students’ Social Emotional Learning (SEL): Our district has instituted the use of BIMAS (Behavior Intervention Monitoring & Assessment System) as part of our academic screening process, annually. This information helps building-based teams to identify each school year the SEL needs of students. The district has also increased school-based SEL support via school social workers, school psychologists, school counselors and school-based community mental health agencies. Most recently we have added Deans of Students in two of our elementary buildings with a focus on restorative practices. This summer all eight buildings sent administrators and teacher teams to Restorative Practices professional learning. And in the fall of 2020, a team of administrators is attending Brian Mendler’s workshop “Motivating and Managing the Hard to Reach Students.” These tools and techniques help to equip our staff with the skills needed to support our students’ SEL development and challenges.
- Creating a Culture that Embraces Diversity: Our district has been a leader with The Positivity Project (P2) in our schools. This is based on the belief that relationships are the cornerstone of health, happiness, and resilience. P2 equips schools with the training, strategy, and resources to inspire students to build positive relationships. Teams at each school have been trained in Restorative Practices and use morning meetings to develop cultures that proactively manage conflict while building positive relationships. Restorative Practices is an approach to repairing damaged relationships, while P2 provides a common vocabulary and character strength knowledge that builds positive relationships schoolwide. Clearly the two work well in tandem.
- Culturally Responsive Teaching: This year a group of secondary teachers participated in a book study with our secondary curriculum director around the book Not Light, But Fire: How to lead meaningful race conversations in the classroom, by Matthew R. Kay. The goal of their work was to raise their own awareness of the biases we all bring into the classroom and how to facilitate discussions with students around the topic of race.
- Mental Health: We utilized the work done by Superintendent Joann Chambers aligning the NYSED Framework for Mental Health Education for K-5. Our mental health educators and classroom teachers at K-5 used this as we created our own curriculum. We have taken her format and looked at The Positivity Project slides for grades 6-12 and aligned the NYSED Framework for Mental Health Education to P2.
While Baldwinsville Central School District is just one of over 950 districts in New York State, like all of you, we are on the journey of understanding and embracing the diverse social emotional and mental health needs of our students and community.
Wondering what The Positivity Project could look like in your classroom?
We’d like to invite you, and any of your colleagues, to see what #PositivityInAction looks like with a free 7-day trial. You can sign up here so that you can get a true sense of The Positivity Project’s benefits: easy and adaptable for teachers, engaging and impactful for students, and a schoolwide common vocabulary, and positive culture.