As the nation undergoes what the U.S. surgeon general has called a youth mental health crisis, school districts face an uphill climb finding enough qualified staff to help students.
The Boston district was one of a small number of school systems that has met the nationally recommended ratio of school psychologists to students, with 453 students to every psychologist.
That’s largely because of Andria Amador, 51, the district’s senior director of behavioral-health services, and the work she started more than a decade ago to create a pipeline of mental health workers for the state’s largest school system by partnering with the University of Massachusetts-Boston and Boston Children’s Hospital.
Through the partnership, the university’s graduate students complete their internships in Boston public schools, while providing mental health care to students, and the hospital’s clinicians deliver critical staffing to schools.
Amador, a 2023 EdWeek Leaders To Learn From honoree, spoke to Education Week about how she and her team built a robust mental health corps of school and community partners to support students’ mental health needs. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
How did the work of transforming Boston’s behavioral-health systems begin?
We recognized that we needed to change what we were doing to better meet the needs of kids. It started with our own internal review of our skill sets, what we needed to improve. We needed high-quality professional development that was culturally responsive and with a focus on meeting the needs of specific kids in our community, who were racially diverse and bilingual.
We were lucky that around that time we were starting this development and growth process for ourselves, the National Association of School Psychologists released the NASP Practice Model. It really calls on all school psychologists to be trained across a wide domain of skills. We used this new practice model to do a self-evaluation and say, “What are areas where we have more experience in special assessment? How can those get better by being more culturally relevant and responsive? What are all the skills we haven’t been asked to use and how do we build on them?”
You’ve worked to bring in more on-site mental health professionals through community partnerships. How did you go about cultivating those partnerships?
I joke sometimes that really my job is to be a mental health saleslady. I’m constantly talking about our work and trying to get others on board and tell them why it matters and how they can help. One thing I’ve learned through doing this is, whoever is in your community, go talk to them. You’ll always be surprised to find out who’s interested in supporting you and about resources you didn’t know about.
The first time we wanted to start to build our Comprehensive Behavioral Health Model, I knew that we didn’t have all of the internal skills and resources we needed for this huge undertaking. I just went to a preexisting meeting of mental health partners and I said, “Look, we have this big vision. Who wants to join us?” Shella [Dennery, the director of Boston Children’s Hospital’s Neighborhood Partnerships Program,] was the very first mental health partner to say, “We’re on board.” The reason the hospital was on board is they didn’t want to wait until a child ended up in the ER in a mental health crisis. They wanted to impact that process.
Boston is a large school district and, naturally, has a lot of leadership turnover. How do you maintain buy-in for the mental health programs as new leaders come in?
It’s not easy and it’s about constantly having a sales pitch.
We’ve created communication tools. For example, we have a PowerPoint deck, we do an annual report, we have fact sheets, we have a website, we have a logo and some marketing materials. All of this is so that when someone new comes on board, it’s not just a narrative. The story is really important, but we can share with a new administrator, a new superintendent, a new community member this is who we are and here are some materials to explain it. You can look at our annual report from our collaborative partners or our annual report about our internal work and start to get a sense of what we’ve done and our student-level outcomes.
Whoever is in your community, go talk to them. You’ll always be surprised to find out who’s interested in supporting you and about resources you didn’t know about.
The second thing that we’ve been very lucky and successful at is maintaining long-term relationships with a variety of community partners to ensure there’s some level of continuity in the model between changes. It means we have internal champions for the work in the district, like myself, but it also means we have champions for the work outside the district.
Our third really sincere strength is our belief in distributed leadership. When we began this evolution, it wasn’t me as an administrator telling my people or telling my partners what to do. We built this together, and school psychologists have taken the lead on much of this work.
Your district has a high population of bilingual students and students of color. How do you go about ensuring the behavioral-health model is equitable?
The field of school psychology is not diverse.
One thing we’ve done is to be very intentional in our hiring. When we start recruiting and interviewing, we start with bilingual and racially diverse candidates to make sure we’re recruiting them and interviewing them. But we really are starting at the preservice stage. One of our most effective strategies has been to build our university-training program, where we train 50 students in a year. We’ve been very intentional about that, because if we can find diverse students when they’re in preservice and we can train them, not only are we training them in the best-practice way, but when they’re ready to find a job, we know about them before anybody else even knows they’re about to graduate.
We have a committee that looks at [diversity practices], we have an action plan, we do professional development.
When you think back on this work you’ve done, what are some of the biggest mistakes you made, and how can other district leaders avoid those mistakes?
Be very cautious in what new things you are adopting. Teachers have initiative fatigue, and if you’re going to take a teacher’s time to make them learn something and do something new, make sure it’s something that has value, that you’ve thought about, and that you’re going to continue doing.
The second thing is don’t overpromise and underdeliver. Try to be really clear about what you have the capacity to do and what you can do now, or maybe never, or maybe in the future so that people have really realistic expectations.
The biggest thing is making sure that you have a broad group of stakeholders from the beginning, designing the program, implementing it, evaluating it. The more stakeholders you can have across roles, the more likely it is to be adopted and maintained.
The fourth thing is learn about implementation science. We didn’t learn about that in the very beginning, and once we did, things got better. We started to understand what we were seeing, we started to plan for quality implementation. We tried to make sure we were shouting out early wins, which gets continual buy-in.
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