Carol Rothera, an intervention counselor for 17 years and current supervisor for student services in the West Chester Area School District (WCASD) in West Chester, Pa., set the stage for successful universal screenings seven years ago. The District supports close to 12,000 students in 10 elementary schools (kindergarten through grade 5), three middle schools (grades 6 through 8), and three high schools (grades 9 through 12). It also provides services to nearly 4,000 non-public school students. They have 950 teachers, 60 administrators and 400 support staff.
“We were seeing so many more mental health issues; high anxiety, crying, and suicidal ideation,” Carol explained. “As the staff was reporting on this, we needed the data to back it up and set a plan in motion to address it.”
The Pennsylvania Youth Survey (PAYS) began in 1989 and is given every other year starting in the 6th grade to gather information about youth knowledge, attitudes, and behaviors towards alcohol, tobacco, and other drug use. West Chester confirmed what the District was facing.
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Putting their House in Order
“Students were feeling hopeless; feeling worthless most every day. The number of occurrences was huge. Our kids were not coping well,” Carol disclosed. “Yet, even though we got that data, it’s anonymous. We didn’t know who they were, and before we began to identify and treat them, we had to first start putting our house in order. We needed to get services and resources ready.”
They evaluated all of their teams – MTSS (multi-tiered system of supports), SAP (student assistance program), pupil services – and their administrative resources. They needed additional staff, more training, and better technology to pull it all together.
Carol heard about bhworks, a comprehensive, validated software platform powered by mdlogix, at a conference five years ago. The web-based platform can be used for obtaining consents, universal or indicated screening, social emotional learning (SEL) assessment, referrals, care coordination, storing and sharing case notes, real-time site and population data analytics, telehealth/virtual care, and integration with existing systems. It is HIPAA and FERPA compliant.
In spring 2017, she applied for and received an annual Garrett Lee Smith (GLS) federal grant from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) that enabled the District to start using bhworks and to add three mental health specialists to each of their middle schools. She trained all the counselors, case workers, mental health specialists and in the first year, offered a universal screen for 7th and 8th graders in three schools; two days in each school.
Before, when the SAP teams got referrals, they were very general – sleeping in class, missing homework deadlines and sometimes they weren’t really sure what was going on with that student. The team would guess at what the primary concern was and that process was inefficient. With screening, the team got a good idea of a direction and closely identified what was going on, and then they were able to provide targeted and effective interventions and resources immediately to students and parents. The chances are greater in getting the students the support that is needed in order to be academically successful.
“The fear with universal screening is…OMG we are going to identify so many kids we won’t be able to handle all of them,” Carol noted. “There aren’t as many as you think there will be, and there are degrees of concerns. You need to make sure you handle the more serious cases that day.”
Identifying Kids with Mental Health Issues
“Pick one super-organized person to prepare and organize the screenings,” Carol disclosed. “You also need someone to navigate the technology. If you do that work, the screening days go well.”
They had their team run through scenarios in advance of the screening days to identify and fix any kinks in the process. It takes approximately 15 minutes for each screen, so West Chester can handle 20 to 25 kids in one class period.
Carol explained, “You need to be on your game. Once you have it though, you run through it, and it’s very effective. This screening helps the team determine what’s going on with the students and give them the best possible intervention.”
Each year she re-applied for the grant and at the end of the three-year grant cycle, she put money in the school budget to expand their use of bhworks. Also by then, the school district grew to having nine mental health specialists. During the COVID pandemic last year, the platform’s telehealth feature enabled the mental health specialists to meet virtually with students in need.
Carol described another critical piece of bhworks, progress monitoring. “We do that easily for math and for reading but always found it hard to monitor mental health.”
Bhworks helps manage the risks for multiple domains including self harm, anxiety, suicidal thoughts, substance use and depression. Carol elaborated, “Now you have something to compare to: Are they less anxious? Are they more resilient? The true beauty of this screening is that we identified those kids that internalize; that blend into the classroom and you would never know what they were going through. They had suicidal thoughts and we never knew it until we did universal screening. It’s a great tool to identify kids in need.”
Now every student who goes through MTSS and the team believes there is a mental health concern the bhworks screen is given to offer a good base line.
Carol is grateful she works in a district with a superintendent, Dr. James Scanlon and a director of pupil services, Dr. Leigh Ann Ranieri, who are supportive, and in a county rich with resources. By fall, they will have 12 mental health specialists. She will be retiring this summer and knows she is handing off to her successor an invaluable program.
“With all the varied difficulties we all have experienced in the past 16 months, the WCASD plans to use the universal screening as a way to identify the concerns of our students and implement MTSS Tier 1, 2, and 3 to meet their needs,” Carol concluded. “This hopefully will get our students back to a more ‘normal’ school year.”
Editor’s Note: If you are interested in contacting West Chester Area School District to discuss these efforts, please email Steve Werner, assistant director of pupil services, at firstname.lastname@example.org