This month, Garden City Public Schools was one of six school districts in the state, and the only one in western Kansas, chosen to participate in a mental health pilot program that aims to expand students’ access to care.

The $10 million program was approved along with the state’s school finance bill earlier this month and has since led to a series of decisions from USD 457 and its partner in the program, Compass Behavioral Health, regarding what the program will look like in Garden City.

“When I was at the meeting and Garden City was the last site that was listed … I really just wanted to jump out of my seat and shout because I was so excited…” said Lisa Southern, executive director of Compass Behavioral Health. “We’re just so thrilled.”

The program will allocate percentages of the fund to the six districts, three urban and three rural, based on their size for fiscal year 2019, Southern said. She said Wichita’s USD 259, Topeka’s USD 501, Kansas City’s USD 500, Parsons’ USD 503 and nine schools served by the Central Kansas Cooperative also will receive funding. Southern said the program is funded for the 2018-19 school year, from which point the state will decide whether to continue it in the six districts, on a wider scale or at all.

“We all know we’ve got to do a lot of hard work to show that this can be beneficial to kids and families and, of course, beneficial to the school,” Southern said.

Southern said the funding will pay for therapists and case managers from the health institutions and a district liaison to connect them with students.

Garden City Public Schools will be authorized $112,500 for the liaison position and $95,460 for the Compass staff’s services at four of the district’s schools: Alta Brown Elementary School, Florence Wilson Elementary School, Georgia Matthews Elementary School and Horace Good Middle School, said Glenda LaBarbera, who will become director of special education for USD 457 this summer. She said district officials had discussed sharing resources between Horace Good and Kenneth Henderson middle school if necessary, but have not made a final decision.

USD 457 Superintendent Steve Karlin said there was a demand for support among the district’s younger students, which contributed to the decision to direct the program toward elementary and middle schools. To him, the pilot program represents the state giving funding back to local communities after years of reducing the level of social services available to families and children.

"Foster care is on the rise. Mental health issues are on the rise, and the juvenile justice system has also changed how they serve children. So we have to try and step up to meet those needs," LaBarbera said.

The program is meant to help improve grades, decrease suspensions and expulsions and increase attendance and early access to care for all students, but also focuses on students who move often, particularly foster children, and those in need of behavioral treatment, Southern said.

Starting in the fall, the faculty and staff at the four schools will contact a district liaison, who will gather information and communicate with the staff at Compass. With the allocated three case manager positions and one and a half therapy positions, Southern said, Compass would be able to devote 60 hours of therapy to potentially dozens of students each week at the schools.

“If we can go in and help kids with their mental health issues, they’re going to be able to pay attention more in class. They’re going to want to come to school more than stay home because (they’re) too anxious to get out of bed (that) morning. Their grades are going to increase because they’re going to be able to focus and do what they need to do to be successful in school,” she said.

The pilot program will join two other mental health programs already in use at the district. For years, the district has offered a therapeutic education program, or TEP, which weaves therapy sessions into an academic school day for all ages. In January 2017, Compass was awarded the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration's four-year, federal System of Care Grant, which has allowed it to teach students at Garden City High School, Horace Good and Kenneth Henderson middle schools and one of the district’s intermediate centers, Southern said.

LaBarbera said the grant has allowed Compass staff to visit schools and teach groups of students about bullying, anxiety and several other topics.

Southern said it also has created a youth advisory council, where legislators and professionals can listen to students about what they struggle with. The fact that the recently-implemented programs are directed at older students contributed to the district’s decision to aim the new pilot program at younger students, LaBarbera said.

Karlin said there is still a lot of work to do between now and when the pilot program begins. The district is gathering details and defining the referral processes and job descriptions that will be necessary to connect students with care, he said.

That said, district officials are making progress. Karlin said the district hopes to present a memorandum of understanding that will outline the details of the program to the board of education by its May 7 or May 21 meeting.

"I think it's really fair to say that we have more students coming to school today with significant needs than we've ever had in the past," he said. "So, the fact that we have an opportunity to access some additional resources in an effort to try and meet those needs, that's very encouraging for us, and we're happy to be a part of this."

Contact Amber Friend at afriend@gctelegram.com.