Deep breaths and ‘brain breaks’: How extra funds for mental health are transforming one Aurora school

Last year, Elkhart Elementary’s full-time psychologist kept busy working with students with special needs who she was required to help.

If a need cropped up among the rest of the student body, Ariel Bowlby sometimes couldn’t respond — unless the issue turned into a crisis. Assistant Principal Angie Paz often had to step in to help.

Paz said she intervened “sometimes even between doing disciplinary actions — but at the same time providing that social emotional piece that they need.”

This year, with new funds voters approved in 2018, Aurora Public Schools has placed another person, a social worker, at the elementary school to be more proactive. Only six weeks into the school year, school leaders said it’s already making a difference by reducing discipline referrals, improving school culture, and increasing student attendance.

“In 25 years as an educator, this is the first time I’ve been fully supported,” Elkhart Principal Ron Schumacher said. “I feel like I’m able to do 30% to 40% more work on any given day because we’re not being asked to do things we can’t handle.”

Districtwide, Aurora has used the new local tax money to hire more than 70 mental health staff members, including social workers, psychologists, and counselors. Every school received at least one new staff member. And the district is still looking to fill a few more positions.

District officials provided an overview of what each type of mental health worker might be able to do, and then principals could request what they needed at their school. Every school has increased access to mental health services.

At Elkhart, the idea was for Jordan Glaude, the school’s new social worker, to help the school be proactive, instead of just reacting to students in crisis.

With about 550 students, Elkhart is the largest elementary in Aurora and is one of the district’s higher performing schools. About 94% of the students qualify for subsidized lunch, a measure of poverty. And almost three-quarters of the students in the school are not yet fluent in English.

As school started in August, school leaders identified approximately 30 students who need extra help this year — some who have experienced a death in the family due to violence, some who have parents going through immigration issues. A couple times a week, Glaude pulls them out of class as a group to work on coping skills.

The idea is to rotate the kids she works with approximately every six weeks.

“It’s really a positive,” Glaude said. “They’re not in trouble when they come see me.”

Besides the group sessions, Glaude also floats into classrooms to watch how students are applying the skills during their school day, and she meets one-on-one with any student who asks for her help, or who a teacher flags as needing a check-in.

Mental health supports for students have become more popular nationally as educators say they see more children, and at younger ages, highly impacted by trauma. Youth suicide is also on the rise, and Colorado is one of the states with the highest rates.

To address it, more and more schools are working to bring mental health resources into the classroom. Last year, several school districts, including Aurora Public Schools, asked voters for increased local taxes, citing mental health supports as one need.

In Jeffco Public Schools, new local revenue has helped the district add 49 social and emotional learning specialists who are now available at almost twice as many schools as before. The district also added nurses to every high school and five district-level staffers including two suicide prevention specialists.

The Douglas County school district used its local voter-approved tax revenue to add 85 counselors including at least one for every elementary school, as well as at several secondary schools where the ratio of counselors will drop from one per 350 students to one per 250 students.

And in Adams 12, a new local tax has helped pay for more than 46 new positions for schools, plus two new district-level positions that include a suicide prevention and crisis response coordinator.

At the state level, the legislature this year approved a measure to create a three-year pilot program for 10 elementary schools to place social workers, counselors, or psychologists in each grade starting next fall. The pilot schools are to be identified by January.

The National Association of Social Workers suggests one social worker per 250 students, or a lower ratio if students have “intensive needs.” With a full-time psychologist plus a social worker for 550 students, Elkhart still has a ratio higher than recommended, but despite that, officials say the school is improving.

Average daily attendance had been around 95.5% in past years, and has risen to 97.5%, Schumacher said. So far this year, there have only been two disciplinary referrals, a positive start given that two years ago, the school reached 300 referrals by the end of the school year. Last year was better, but still saw 48 such referrals.

And staff say they feel supported.

In addition to the new position, Elkhart began training all teachers last year on how to incorporate social and emotional skills and coping strategies into their day. The training for teachers includes lessons on how the brain works, and what conditions are most appropriate for being able to learn.

Students in every classroom at Elkhart now practice social and emotional skills every morning, and throughout the day take “brain breaks.” It looks like teachers guiding students through stretches or yoga poses, doing physical exercises, or sitting with students in a circle talking about what to do if they are having trouble focusing.

One first grade boy shared that he would just pause and “take three deep breaths.”

Part of the work is about helping students identify their feelings, and learn to de-escalate themselves if needed. And teachers remind students that they can apply the skills outside of class, too.

In one fifth grade classroom, teacher Bobbie Kuminka walked students through an exercise where they squeezed certain points on their hand to relieve tension. She told students that as they go into middle school next year, this was an easy exercise to continue.

“You can do it under your desk and no one has to know,” Kuminka said.

“Adults need this too.”

This story has been updated to correct a job description for Jeffco hires.