A few years ago Randolph Township Schools in Randolph, New Jersey, decided to make mental health a focus.
This was long before the COVID pandemic and the current nationwide emphasis on mental health and social-emotional learning, but even then school leaders noticed the beginnings of the ongoing mental health crises (opens in new tab) in adolescents. They also realized that traditional public school supports that tended to focus on interventions after a mental health crisis occurred were not robust enough to meet the need.
“We were experiencing a lot of hospitalizations, students were being placed in partial hospitalization programs or intensive outpatient programs, and the expectation was that they were going to be able to return to a classroom of 20 with just access to a school counselor, and we found that that wasn't enough to meet the needs of our students,” says Walter Curioni, Director of Special Services at Randolph Township Schools. “It worked when you're dealing with a student or small segment of the population, but when you're looking at 40 percent of students who are experiencing severe anxiety, severe depression, you have to have more comprehensive supports in place.”
The district was able to help those students and their teachers by launching a comprehensive program to support mental health for everyone as well as providing training. Even though there were initial startup expenses, the program has ultimately saved the district significant money because they are no longer paying for as many students to attend schools or programs out of the district, Curioni says.
A More Proactive Approach
Many of the students the Randolph Township Schools saw struggling were high-achieving students. “These are students that were in AP classes, they were in honors classes, and they really pushed themselves to the brink,” Curioni says. “Then you add to that increased anxiety or increased depression, and they were missing considerable time. We were seeing school avoidance.”
Randolph Township Schools partnered with Thrive Alliance Group (opens in new tab), an organization dedicated to providing effective mental health programs at schools, and hired several Thrive counselors full-time. “We work closely with Thrive Alliance group to really train our teachers, work with families, and help students then transition back to a traditional public school setting,” Curioni says. “Years ago most of these students would be forced into a private school for students with disabilities or forced into classification to try to have their needs met. So we took a different approach, we took a more proactive approach to meet their needs in a traditional public school.”
Students who need additional support attend a general education class overseen by a counselor but taught by a general education instructor trained to meet these students’ needs.
Data on Mental Health
As part of these efforts, the district has hired three full-time Thrive clinicians, who help guide the district's mental health program in addition to running trainings for teachers and educating parents and students about mental health.
District leaders also ensured student well-being was one of the metrics evaluated when looking at school data. “We started a school Connections team at each building level,” Curioni says. “We're looking at trends. Every month, we're looking at attendance, we're looking at discipline, and we're looking at any sort of outlier that gives us a glimpse of if a child is in crisis or not. We put all of that data on our dashboard so that our mental health providers are looking at it in real time, which is helped us tremendously.”
This data could help educators and counselors monitor students who were at risk. “We're tracking them every single day, and we're meeting with them every single day,” Curioni says. “So we've really taken a very aggressive approach in terms of recognizing some of these disorders at an earlier time so that we're treating students before it reaches that acute stage.”
Cost Savings and a Cultural Shift
Despite initial startup costs, working with Thrive Alliance Group and devoting more resources to mental health has saved the district in a major way, Curioni says. “Our out-of-district numbers have gone down tremendously. We were at 70 students, we're at 18 students currently. So you're looking at roughly $100,000 a year per student that goes out of district, plus transportation costs. So we're saving millions of dollars.”
In the past, parents would frequently argue their student needed more support than the district could provide but such an occurrence is rare now. “Word gets in the community that you really value mental health, so parents are then less inclined to ask for out-of-district placements when they know their child can be supported in a public school,” Curioni says.
These savings have been fueled by the individual programs the district has implemented as well as the overall mindset change that has occurred.
“Everyone in the building can tell you about the supports, everyone in the building could tell you where you could get those supports, and I would say everyone in the building feels more comfortable because they know now through the work of their colleagues, what is expected and what role they play,” Curioni says. “If you surveyed our counselors, if you surveyed our families, they would tell you a lot about different mental health disorders because of education that they're getting from workshops and trainings. So it's definitely changed the culture of our community.”