With threats to student safety increasingly making headlines across the country, educators are adapting to the reality that students need additional support to feel safe in the classroom.
Districts in San Antonio have made adjustments accordingly – North East Independent School District keeps its schools’ external doors locked throughout the day and implemented a clear backpack policy for all middle and high school students. But these safety procedures are only half of the equation to create a secure space, LEE High School principal Nicole Franco said.
“For a lot of kids, for a long time, school was their safe place if they were having turmoil at home, and we were their solace,” Franco said. “And as we have seen an increase in schools not being safe, we are losing that sense for those kids that we are the safe place to go.”
Students need a secure place to learn, Franco said, especially when they face challenges outside the classroom that can include poverty, traumatic personal incidents, loss of family members, and mental health issues.
For that reason, Communities in Schools, an organization that connects families and students to community resources, created a new staff position that focuses on building awareness of social and emotional wellness.
“Given the school tragedies at Parkland and Santa Fe, we understand teachers and administrators are now dealing with student issues, which they might not be trained to address,” Communities in Schools San Antonio CEO Jessica Weaver said. “We are committed to working with teachers and school faculty so we can provide support, tools, and healing so students can have agency over their lives.”
In the three years CIS has been active at LEE, the organization had several positions that worked with individual students. The new staff member will work with teachers and staff to create a larger group of adults equipped to handle student problems.
Kim Sayers started as the school’s first “wellness coach” just over a week ago. Her primary focus is to work with LEE’s almost 330 staff members to teach them to identify and appropriately respond to students’ problems.
All staff will be included – from food service workers to teachers – because everyone working at LEE should be able to intervene when a problem arises, Franco said.
“Often times the food service worker has a relationship with the kid that maybe nobody else has,” Franco said. “You just never know what the trigger for the connection is going to be.”
Sayers will work with staff on a one-on-one basis, coaching them on situations that may arise, and offer training to LEE employees during professional development periods.
“I think it starts with trauma-informed care and building relationships and going through the basic issues that schools face like suicide and self-harm, those bullying types of topics, and how that relates to working with students,” Sayers said.
To start, however, Sayers needs to build relationships with LEE staff members and establish trust so teachers come to her for advice.
She plans to do this by visiting the teacher lounges during lunch breaks and advertising her services. Once relationships are built, Sayers said she hopes teachers who notice a student who struggles in a particular area will come to Sayers for advice on how to best offer support.
LEE will also pilot an online tool that staff can use to access resources and reach out to Sayers for coaching. The website will contain a number of resources to help a teacher handle a particular situation. It is modeled after the One in Five Minds campaign, which offers similar support to address children’s mental illness for parents and community members.
When additional help is needed, the website will connect the staff member to Sayers, who plans to track how much help she offers to quantify the usefulness of her position.
If all goes well, Sayers said, the mental health coach position has the potential to be scaled elsewhere in San Antonio school districts.
“This is such a large campus, so I’m sure if you can do it here, you can take it anywhere,” Sayers said.
As of Wednesday morning, LEE had enrolled close to 3,250 students, making it one of the city’s largest high schools. In addition to employees from Communities in Schools, NEISD employs one counselor that deals with student crises.
However, when looking at the caseload, Franco said it was “way more than one person could [handle.]”
The addition of a wellness coach adds to the network of adults that support students.
“[LEE] is a small town, and no small town has one counselor,” Franco said.