Independence School District: Delivering Mental Health Support to Students & Families

For two decades the Family Services Department at the Independence School District has provided in-school and home-based intervention to students and their families. With help from the Children’s Services Fund, they’re able to put one Family Service Liaison (FSL) in every building. These FSLs serve over 14,000 students across 31 schools, including an alternative school for students struggling with identifiable behavioral challenges who need additional social and emotional supports.

What makes their district unique is that 50% of their enrollment is from minority families, and 52% of their students are economically disadvantaged. Serving the Hispanic community, students at risk for homelessness, and those struggling with long-term suspensions is a large part of their focus. With relationship development as their top priority, their success rate for graduating at risk seniors on time has reached 95%! If you’re part of a school looking to develop a mental health program for your students, ISD is a fantastic model to help lead the way!

Bringing HOPE to Hispanic Students and Families

ISD developed the Hispanic Outreach, Partnership, and Engagement (HOPE) Program to provide bilingual services to parents and their kids. Tony Caudillo is the Spanish-speaking case manager who leads the HOPE program. His position is funded by the CSF, and his work has been instrumental in increasing services to Spanish-speaking families, identifying resources for more support, and increasing outreach. Their work primarily targets schools with the highest Spanish-speaking population currently — Fairmount, Tree Trails, Truman and Pioneer Ridge — but with more funding, they can do so much more!

Tony and his team focus on two key activities that lay the foundation for supporting student’s mental health and social-emotional wellbeing: 

  1. Developing relationships with disengaged students
  2. Engaging parents in their student’s education

For some students, it’s hard to understand why education is important or how it can align with their interests. They find it tough to engage, especially when bullying is involved and their parents and teachers are unaware. They also don’t know how to advocate for themselves. That’s why they developed an at-risk mentor program within HOPE where FSLs teach high school students how to request retakes for tests, for example.

For parents, they struggle to log into the ISD system to track grades or attendance or don’t have the resources to do so. Understanding communications from the district is difficult when they don’t speak English, and they can’t always rely on their children for the details.

Tony recalls one single mom’s experience. “She was having trouble keeping track of her son’s attendance. He wasn’t engaged at school. Once we connected with the student, we understood other kids were picking on him. He was afraid to tell anyone, but we were able to reassure him, deal with the situation, empower him in the process, and help his mom learn how to use the ISD system. Now, he has the motivation to do his work. He’s gone from failing grades to almost all As and Bs. And that’s what we’re here to do — to provide connection and accountability so students can have success.”

Engaging Parents in Education

The Spanish culture is beautifully flavored with family. That’s why Tony launched Spanish Family Engagement Nights as a way to celebrate the culture through food, music and fun activities, start new relationships with parents, and engage them in what they need to know about their student’s education. At their first event, 130 Hispanic families from Fairmount, Sugar Creek and Mallinson schools attended. One noted, “I’ve been to other schools and no one has done this for us. You reached out to us through our culture and it shows you care.”

Tony also initiated the Hispanic Advisory Council. It gives parents the opportunity to take ownership of the Family Engagement Nights and plan the events. 

Family Services Initiative

Jessica Hernandez is the FSL at Van Horn High School. As part of the Expanded Family Services Program, she works with students who’ve been identified as having additional risk factors. Many of these  students are returning from an out of school suspension, experiencing homelessness, or contending with other factors such as substance use that put them at greater risk of being disengaged from school. Through Why Try social emotional learning curriculum and the Juntos Prevention Program, Jessica and other FSLs provide much needed education about mental health and coping and communication skills for home and school.

Developing relationships with them is the first step to helping them. Jessica loves that aspect of her work. Recently, a student wrestling with substance use visited her before school, relaying, “I really wanted to use this morning, but I didn’t want you to be disappointed, and I knew I wouldn’t get to see you anymore. So I didn’t.”

She also remembers another student using a serious drug. Substance use was accepted and common in their family with this particular substance. And, they were resistant to out-patient services. When their child overdosed, the mother reached out for help. “We were able to connect them to a 6-week in-patient treatment.”

Juntos Prevention Program

For Hispanic families hindered by poverty, the Juntos Program equips students in 8th–12th grades and their families with knowledge, skills and resources to prevent youth from dropping out, and to work together to gain access to college. Parents learn more about the importance of GPAs and how they can use the ISD system to monitor attendance and grades. Liz Diaz, directs this program as a Spanish-speaking Case Manager, which is another position fully funded by the CSF.

Superintendents See Success

As Director of the Family Services Department, Nicole Sequeira regularly invites school leaders to graduation events that celebrate students completing a 10-12 week social-emotional learning group. At one graduation, an Assistant Superintendent at Truman was amazed by the relationships the Family Services Department staff had built with students and their parents and the impact those relationships were making. Students were articulate about the skills they had learned. “Our folks in leadership needed to hear that,” Nicole said. “They needed to see the difference our work is making — not just in the students, but also in the data. For schools wanting to create a program like this, we highly recommend starting to collect data now that will show the need and the potential difference mental health services can make.”

These professionals in the Independence School District are  grateful for the other CSF-funded partners such as Preferred Family Healthcare, Comprehensive Mental Health Services, and Drumm Farm Center for Children who come alongside them to do the work they can’t do. They also see potential for more services provided on the 5th day of the week now that ISD will start a 4-day school week in the fall of 2023.
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