Westonka Schools is digging deep into benefitting the mental health of its students, embarking on a project with the help of a University of Minnesota research department to understand what’s sufficient and what’s lacking in existing student resources.

The district early this spring had initiated the review of its current mental health supports as a way to guide administrators in how the district might improve them after a pandemic year that placed an enormous burden on many.

“Were trying to get more specific about what are the needs of our students, not just academic but behavior and social-emotional learning,” Mark Femrite, assistant superintendent of teaching and learning, told school board members Nov. 8.

Analysts at the University of Minnesota’s Center for Applied Research and Educational Improvement, which is headed by Dr. Kim Gibbons, will be conducting the review of Westonka’s Multi-Tiered Systems of Support (MTSS); results are expected to come before the school board in April of next year.

The study will involve group and individual interviews; surveying; and analysis of student academic data, staffing information, district policies and professional learning opportunities before making recommendations on any changes that could be made.

School officials will then “look at these recommendations and figure out, what is it that we want to do? What is it that we want to change or improve?” said Femrite. “There will be a lot of dialogue here at the board level about this.”

The first year of the project is expected to cost $37,000 and will be covered almost entirely through $36,700 in grant money. The district is looking at a cost of $7,500 for the second year of the project and intends to seek an additional grant to cover it.

Because it is student-specific, MTSS allows for a proactive response as opposed to reactive response where instructional and behavioral health is concerned. About 80 percent of Westonka students do just fine with Tier 1, or basic level, support, according to the figure given by the district this spring.

During the previous school year, Westonka had already beefed up its student supports, including those that were already in place before the pandemic like student concerns teams and grade level teams, student-teacher support times and mental health counselors, to meet an increased demand. The district also increased its outreach efforts to those struggling in distance learning.

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