Student Well-Being

4 Ways to Leverage Education Foundations to Support School-Based Mental Health

By Denisa R. Superville — January 31, 2023 4 min read
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Education foundations can play a pivotal role in helping school districts deal with the rising mental health challenges they’re facing, by directing no-strings-attached dollars to support students’ social-emotional and mental well-being.

But not every school district has a foundation. And ones that do often don’t have hefty bank balances.

Still, even modestly-funded foundations can find ways to help their districts support students’ mental health.

Here are four ways districts and foundations can work together to do so:

Find out what districts actually need

Check with the superintendent or the health coordinator to find out the best way to use the foundation’s resources, platform, and network to help the district. District officials are the experts. Districts may need staff, cash, or even professional development to support teachers.

“We don’t hold the answers at the foundation,” said Beth Best, the executive director of the Littleton Public Schools Foundation in Littleton, Colo. “The school district [officials] are the experts.”

Officials in the Littleton district, for example, realized that one of the biggest challenges it had was getting students access to treatment as soon as possible.

Transportation, ability to pay, and health insurance—inadequate or nonexistent—were often barriers.

So one of the first things the foundation did was finance the creation of a network of therapists that students and families could turn to when they needed mental health treatment.

The therapists were vetted by a district employee, and the district compiled the languages they spoke, their specialty, and the insurance they accepted. The foundation also pays for students to receive treatment for as many as 12 therapy sessions and emergency hospitalization, if needed.

Jill Henden, the executive director of the Cherry Creek Schools Foundation, in Greenwood Village, Colo., advises foundations to take time to learn about their district’s needs.

Before the Cherry Creek foundation started prioritizing mental health supports, it had raised money to set up a COVID-19 emergency relief fund. But as the public health emergency wound down, the foundation asked district officials about their most pressing needs and found that creating a separate fund for mental health and wellness was the way to go, she said.

Think small

Small sums of money can have huge impacts.

Over the last few years, teachers have been asking for help to learn how to better support students’ emotional and mental well-being as well as create classrooms that are more comforting and welcoming. Students, too, have sought help from their principals and districts to create welcoming environments.

Small grants to cover the cost of teacher professional development related to supporting students’ mental health and well-being as well as improving learning environments can go a long way.

The Cherry Creek foundation, for example, normally disburses grants—up to $1,200 annually—to teachers through its Educator Initiative Grants. In the past few years, the foundation has received more requests from teachers seeking money for efforts related to supporting student emotional and mental health and well-being, Henden said.

This year, for example, the foundation funded a nine-basket outdoor Frisbee golf course built and designed by students and aimed at promoting physical and mental wellness. It also paid for heart-rate monitors that teachers at one elementary school requested—tools that allow students to track their heart rates and learn about self-regulation and stress management.

“It’s inspiring to see what our teachers can come up with,” Henden said. “And we love the fact that they are not spending their own money to go out and purchase these materials.”

Small grants from the Littleton Schools Foundation have also helped with the creation of a “Zen Den” for students to seek quiet during stressful periods, professional development for teachers, and calming corners in classrooms.

Get the community on board

Community members can be incredible allies—it’s their children, relatives, and neighbors who are in the school system, and they’ve likely seen the same signs of distress.

They can be good sources for donations to buttress their district’s efforts. Hospitals and other non-profits can help with staff, therapy sessions, and workshops, depending on the district’s challenges.

The Littleton and Cherry Creek foundations were able to pivot so quickly to mental health because their communities recognized mental health as a critical area of need.

“I have incredible board members who are very open about the struggles that their families have experienced,” Henden said.

Both the Littleton and Cherry Creek foundations either host or participate in fundraising efforts specifically for mental health.

Make the commitment in writing

It’s often said that in education, if it’s not measured, it’s not done. Similarly, in the non-profit world, if it’s not a stated goal, it probably won’t get funded.

Education foundations can signal their commitment to mental health by including it among their top priorities in their strategic plans and mission statements.

Doing so ensures the foundation will follow up with support—both financial and otherwise. It also ensures that the commitment outlasts the current board members and becomes an integral part of the foundation’s work.

In Cherry Creek, for example, the foundation has taken up mental health support as a key part of what it will support in the future.

The foundation is updating its strategic plan, “and we know that mental health will continue to be at the forefront of what we fund,” whether it’s through relief funds, classroom grants, or support groups for staff and students, Henden said.

“Our board has decided that supporting the mental health of our students and our staff is at the core of what we want to do as an organization going forward,” Henden said.

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