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Kaiser Permanente offers grants to school districts to address student mental health

Kaiser Permanente Washington has awarded a total of $3.4 million in grants to school districts in Western Washington. The money is aimed at helping districts with a high concentration of poverty address mental health challenges among students.

Washington state's education funding model does not provide schools with many counselors. For example, the national recommendation from the American School Counselor Association is to have a ratio of one counselor for every 250 students. At the middle school level in Washington, the state provides funding for one counselor for every 355 students.

At the same time, districts have to address the impacts of poverty on student mental health. Clint Carlton is with the Mount Vernon School District, which is one of the districts receiving grant funds from Kaiser Permanente Washington.

“We’re at a place historically where we’re seeing more and more kids with substantial mental health and social-emotional needs entering our schools,” Carlton said.

The 2018 Healthy Youth Survey of Washington students showed an increase of depression, anxiety and suicidal thoughts among students in recent years. Forty percent of 10th graders reported feeling sad or hopeless for at least two weeks of the past year in 2018, up from 30 percent in 2010.

Carlton said the Mount Vernon School District will use the funds, in part, for professional development for staff. The district is trying to emphasize positive behavior reinforcement among students. Other districts receiving grant funds include Sedro-Woolley and Highline. The districts are building out what’s called “multi-tiered systems of support” to provide different interventions depending on student needs, including small group work and one-on-one help.

Bellingham, Tenino, North Thurston and Kent school districts received smaller grants.

Another area of focus for the grants is improving the mental well-being of school staff. Teaching is a stressful profession, as educators manage everything from high-stakes testing to the needs of students living in poverty. A 2017 survey of 5,000 teachers by the American Federation of Teachers found that almost two-thirds of them usually feel stressed out, higher than the level of stress among workers in general.

Jill Patnode, who manages the Thriving Schools Program for Kaiser Permanente Washington, said the money will be used to build support systems for educators.

“When a staff person is stressed, they’re not at their optimal place to teach,” Patnode said. So we want to help support and help balance out the needs of staff, so that they are then in a better place to support the needs of young people.”

In July 2017, Ashley Gross became KNKX's youth and education reporter after years of covering the business and labor beat. She joined the station in May 2012 and previously worked five years at WBEZ in Chicago, where she reported on business and the economy. Her work telling the human side of the mortgage crisis garnered awards from the Illinois Associated Press and the Chicago Headline Club. She's also reported for the Alaska Public Radio Network in Anchorage and for Bloomberg News in San Francisco.