Student Well-Being

School Foundations Shift Their Focus to Students’ Mental Health as Need Grows

By Denisa R. Superville — January 23, 2023 11 min read
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Local education foundations have traditionally helped school districts plug budget holes, pick up the cost of teacher professional development, and raise money for technology upgrades and other high-priority capital projects.

In more recent years, though, some foundations have been helping districts with an emerging area of need: funding critical mental health and well-being efforts. It’s a direct response to the growing rates of depression, anxiety, and other mental health diagnoses among young children and teenagers.

Many districts don’t have their own foundations—or even local philanthropists—to support the work they do. And many schools don’t even have parent-teacher associations to help raise smaller amounts of money for efforts that benefit students.

But for those that do have those resources, like the school district in Littleton, Colo., the support is making a notable difference. Since 2014, the Littleton Public Schools Foundation has raised about $1 million toward programs intended to improve students’ mental health and well-being.

The money raised in Littleton has paid for students to get emergency mental health treatment with vetted therapists and clinicians, as well as for workshops on suicide prevention, cyber safety, grief, resilience, and other emotional and mental well-being supports for students, staff and parents.

The Cherry Creek Schools Foundation, in the Denver suburb of Greenwood Village, is following in Littleton’s footsteps, recently establishing a mental health relief fund to help students get immediate mental healthcare, especially those who may not have insurance or whose insurance may not cover their treatment. It’s also giving out small grants to teachers to address students’ social-emotional well-being and development.

“Children can’t learn if they are unwell,” said Beth Best, the executive director of the Littleton Public Schools Foundation. “You can provide them with all the tools and all the experiences, but if they are unwell, mentally, they can’t learn. We thought, ‘Why wouldn’t we support mental health?’ It’s probably the most important work that we do, that I’m the most proud of.”

While K-12 is paying more attention to students’ mental health amid the pandemic, students were reporting higher levels of isolation before the public health crisis.

A school foundation responds to tragedy

In 2014, a shooting at Littleton’s Arapahoe High School left two students dead—including the shooter who died by suicide. It was because of that tragedy as well as several youth suicides in the state that then-superintendent Scott Murphy decided to make student mental health a top priority.

Before that, the foundation had assisted the district with funding for other key areas, such as expanding technology and helping the school system to become one of the first in the state to set up wireless hubs.

But when Best asked Murphy, who was retiring what he hoped his legacy would be, he replied: mental health.

“I just looked at him, and I said ‘What?’” Best recalled. “It’s super-easy to say every student needs a pencil to write with, or a chair to sit. But when he said to me, ‘Beth, I want my legacy to be mental health because our students are struggling, our students need support, they need help, and we need to do something about it,’ I said ‘OK, we’re in.’”

Best went back to the foundation’s board to announce that’s what they were going to do.

“There was no hesitation, I think, because we’ve all seen it in own lives,” she said. “We’ve seen it with our own children, we’ve seen it with our own community. I don’t want to make it sound like it was easy. But we all knew it was the right thing.”

The Littleton district had recently hired Nate Thompson as the director of social, emotional, and behavior services.

Thompson, a trained clinical social worker who had also worked as a family therapist, quickly figured out that one thing the district needed to address was barriers students faced to accessing mental health treatment.

For many parents, the problem was overcoming hurdles, whether it was finding transportation to take their child to treatment, finding a therapist who spoke their home language or understood their culture, or coming up with the money to pay for treatment.

One of the first things the district did with funds from the foundation was to create the mental health resource program (it was first called the collaborative intervention program), a network of vetted therapists that includes the languages they speak, their specialty areas, and insurance they accept.

Christine Casey Perry, the mental health resource coordinator for the school district, personally meets with and interviews all of the therapists before they’re added to the list.

The district then drew up contracts with the therapists in the network. If a student needs treatment, the district can cover the cost of up to a dozen weeks of treatment, depending on the need or the situation, with money from the foundation, Thompson said. Though the total varies, in some years, Thompson’s team has spent as much as $70,000 connecting students with mental health resources and treatment through the network.

Perry also has agreements with community organizations to provide individual or group therapy on campus when that’s more convenient for students.

“What we needed to do was create a network and connect families—remove the barriers of travel and language,” Thompson said.

The foundation has raised money to give elementary students heart-rate watches to learn self-regulation, and how to control their heart rates and breathing.

It’s also funded a student mental health leadership board, whose members give the district feedback on student mental health and well-being issues. They also review school climate surveys that students respond to and promote social-emotional awareness and kindness. Two recent graduates, who served on mental health student leadership board, will join Thompson’s team as part-time youth mental health advocates.

“We’ve done stuff from normal cognitive behavioral therapy all the way up to helping kids go on specific outings related to overcoming addiction,” Thompson said. “Or when kids have lost a friend to suicide, we’ve paid for kids to do some really creative things, experiential therapies and activities.”

The foundation has picked up the cost for speakers, such as Jessica Lahey, author of “The Gift of Failure,” to speak to parents about resilience and rebounding from failure and sessions on cyber-safety for students whose mental health and wellness are affected bysocial media. A suicide-prevention program at the high schools also helps with leadership and empowerment. Funds have also gone toward remodeling the district’s counseling office and music and art programs infused with SEL lessons.

The foundation gives the funds to the district to allocate to areas where it sees a need. District officials are the experts, Best said.

“We look at ourselves as kind of the seed money,” Best said. “If they have an idea for a program or a resource they want to roll out to schools, but they don’t have the funding to pay for it, we partner with them.”

Waving a ‘magic wand’

Most recently, the Littleton Public Schools Foundation got a $100,000 flexible donation, separate from the fund that supports mental health services for students, and gave it to the district to distribute.

“We said, ‘If you can wave a magic wand and do whatever you wanted in your school to help [address] mental health and wellness, what would you do?’ ” Best said.

One high school converted an old conference room into a “Zen den” for students to seek solace if they’re feeling anxious, lonely, or having a bad day. They can see a counselor or take time for themselves, she said. Some elementary schools spent it on calming baskets, which are filled with comforting items like pillows, fidget spinners, and balls that students can use when they are overwhelmed. Some decorated calming corners. And some teachers asked for money to pay for professional development on how to identify students who are experiencing mental health challenges and how to support them.

In addition to the one-time “magic wand” fund, the foundation annually disburses small grants, between $1,000 and $5,000, to teachers. In recent years, the number of teachers applying to use the money for mental health-focused projects has increased, Best said.

“So educators—teachers—are asking for more resources, more support, more programs to support them in mental health within their classrooms,” Best said.

‘No strings’ financial support

“Hundreds and hundreds” of students have benefited from the programs and initiatives the foundation has underwritten, Thompson said.

“Every one of our schools has been touched by this partnership,” he said. “It’s really hard to count.”

Not all districts are lucky enough to have a foundation to provide that extra financial boost. And foundations with deep pockets—and large donor bases—are often working in wealthier communities—a dynamic that can making inequities worse between districts and schools.

But those monies can make a big difference and have some advantages for school systems, Thompson said.

Unlike many state and federal grants targeting mental health, drug addiction, and suicide prevention, the money from the foundation has no strings attached and no cumbersome reporting requirements that can eat into school staff’s time, Thompson said.

“That’s really the big differentiator around having foundation money—it’s not tied to a specific thing like [when] you apply for a grant,” Thompson said. “This allows you to be creative and flexible and meet kids’ needs and families’ needs in some different ways.”

And districts do not have to worry about how to keep the programs running when the money runs out, he said.

“When you create [financial support] as short-term grant programs, it always puts the burden on the local community to figure out how to sustain those programs,” he said.

Thompson recognizes that many districts, particularly small and rural ones, aren’t likely to have foundations to help out.

“You just have to get people together and start thinking creatively,” he said. “My experience is that there are people out there: There are organizations out there, there are state and federal grants out there to support this work and to support mental health. But it does take a small group of people working together and thinking creatively.”

“If you are a small district and you don’t have your own foundation, can you talk to a local community non-profit? Can you apply for a county-level, state-level, or federal grant? Can you contract with someone who is from a metro area nearby who can come and spend a couple of days a week [in the district]?” he continued. “I think it’s really about getting that group of people together and thinking creatively outside of the box.”

Making mental health a priority

The Cherry Creek Schools Foundation is following Littleton’s example and has also started to focus on mental health as a core priority.

It’s set up a mental health relief fund that it’s using to get students into emergency treatment without their families having to worry about how to pay for it.

The 55,000-student district is also building a mental health day-treatment center for students, which is scheduled to open this summer. The fund will help students whose insurance does not cover the cost of therapy, said Jill Henden, the foundation’s executive director.

The foundation’s mental health funds will also help cover the cost of continuing therapy sessions for students who use the district-covered Hazel Health, an online wellness company that’s providing students therapy free of charge.

The foundation raised about $75,000 last year during Colorado Gives Day to steer toward mental health programs.

“We are in this conversation for the long haul, but we really try to listen and understand how best we can leverage the dollars we raise to support the district,” Henden said.

The foundation’s board has decided that supporting the mental well-being of the district’s students and staff to be “at the core of what we want to do as a foundation going forward,” she said.

“I would encourage other foundations to lean into that conversation,” Henden said, “and to really understand how their district is helping students and staff through this crisis, and work in tandem to identify where the gaps in funding exist, and then encourage the foundations to try to fill those gaps.”

While districts receive state and federal funding to support mental health programs, “innovative programs need seed funding from a different source,” Henden said, and engaging with the experts in the district “is a great way for foundations to step in and support the innovative ideas.”

The next frontier for these foundations is expanding a similar level of support to teachers.

“I had a front row seat of how hard teachers worked during the pandemic,” Best, the Littleton foundation’s executive director, said. “I just think they are amazing people.”

The Littleton Public Schools Foundation has run short-term campaigns to boost teachers’ morale, including an effort by parent-volunteers who wrote appreciation notes for teachers, while it considers longer-term strategies focusing on educators’ well-being. Teachers can also seek help through the district-provided employee assistance program. But the foundation and the district are thinking about strategic support in the longer term.

Thompson said that even as foundations are stepping up, it’s incumbent on state and federal governments to recognize that school districts are dealing with an unprecedented challenge that calls for permanent funding to help meet student and staff needs.

“Part of the challenge in the community and in the nation right now is that there is such a patchwork and disconnected system of mental healthcare that it’s really requiring schools to be on the front lines of this,” Thompson said. “At some point our state and national systems of education are going to have to reckon with the fact that schools are taking on a huge role in mental health and make [mental health care funding] a standard part of school funding.”

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