John Baker

John Baker

As the lingering pandemic amplifies the value of mental health services for those feeling the pressure of uniquely challenging times, South San Francisco Unified School District officials are examining counseling support offered to students.

The district Board of Trustees during a community forum Thursday, Oct. 8, discussed the variety of mental support services available and brainstormed ways to improve those programs.

Trustee John Baker said the importance of services addressing student social and emotional health is especially apparent amid the pandemic, when existing challenges become pronounced.

“One thing we are seeing is that shelter in place is exacerbating issues that already exist,” Baker said during the discussion that featured elected officials, district administrators, teachers, parents and community partners.

The district offers counseling services at all its campuses, through a collaborative approach featuring school personnel and outside agencies. The district has placed counselors at its middle and high school campuses for many years, but started working with the local YMCA to extend those programs to elementary campuses.

The partnership with the Youth Services Bureau of the YMCA was established roughly five years ago, through financing offered by individual school sites, the juvenile probation department and the South San Francisco Police Department. But in the 2018-19 school year, district officials approved expanding the program to assure that all elementary sites have Youth Services Bureau clinicians, according to a district report.

The ramped-up service matched increased demand, according to a district report which shows the amount of students who received mental health support ticked up from 384 in 2016-17, to 455 in 2017-18 and 554 in 2018-19.

The services are concentrated in the communities they support as well, according to the report which showed in the 2018-19 school year 141 students receiving counseling identified as Mexican and 112 identified as Latin American. Third most common group was 72 Filipino students, followed by 45 students identifying as Hispanic.

Noting the specialized support needed, officials recognized that services should be tailored to respect the district’s cultural diversity.

To that end, trustee Daina Lujan highlighted the importance of assuring that Spanish counseling services are offered, especially in the district’s elementary schools. She also hoped the district could offer guidance helping families navigate the counseling system.

Resident Phuong Nguyen shared a similar perspective, suggesting the district work to assure that there are counselors available who share similar backgrounds and cultural experiences with South San Francisco students.

Lujan also recommended the district work to reduce the stigma associated with seeking out mental or emotional support, to enhance the accessibility of programs that can teach students useful skills to persevere challenging times.

Lujan further advocated for offering teachers professional development opportunities that would better position educators to assist students.

Baker also noted the need for more teacher training, while encouraging officials to remain with an open mind about the types of programs which could help students cope with stress. Yoga, meditation and creative exercises such as drum circles were among the programs identified beyond traditional counseling sessions that could be helpful.

For her part, Superintendent Shawnterra Moore shared an appreciation for the variety of insights provided by those who participated in the forum.

“This is just the beginning for us,” she said, claiming the district will continue examining the issue.

Board President Pat Murray too appreciated the dialogue, expressing optimism the analysis will ultimately yield improved services to the school community.

“This is how change happens,” she said.

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