LAUSD to focus on student mental health with “WellSpace” Centers

Students spend time at McAuliffe Middle School’s new WellSpace known as “The Corner” on campus. It’s part of the LAUSD’s increased focus on students’ mental health. (Photo Courtesy of McAuliffe Middle School)

It’s called “The Corner” at McAuliffe Middle School. At Oak Middle School, it’s “The Den.”

These are the names of new campus WellSpace centers established to help Los Alamitos Unified School District middle school students learn skills to improve their social, emotional and mental well-being.

The WellSpaces look more like lounges at a day spa than a public-school classroom and that’s the point. They are intended to offer students a peaceful place to focus on wellness while at school. The repurposed classrooms are furnished with relaxing furniture, filled with serene décor, and packed with activities that are meant to calm and help kids manage stress.

The district’s mental health professionals staff the WellSpaces.

With a teacher’s referral or by request, students can stop by during the school day for a ten to fifteen-minute break and connect with a counselor or psychologist.

Built last school year, the WellSpaces are the first of their kind in Orange County. They were developed through a pilot program with the Orange County Department of Education and Children’s Hospital Orange County.

“This is a way for us to teach students at an early age stress management strategies,” Mayu Iwatani, OCDE’s manager of Mental Health and Wellness Care Coordination said in a June story from OCDE.

The district’s non-profit partner Los Alamitos Education Foundation has also committed $60,000 to the WellSpaces and plans to continue supporting the mental health efforts.

“There is so much work to do for our students’ mental health,” LAEF Executive Director Carrie Logue said in a press release. “Our next step is to partner with the district to build and furnish a Well Space at Los Alamitos High School. We welcome donations from the community to make this space a reality.”

“‘The Corner’ has been a welcome addition to the McAuliffe campus! This space has given our students an opportunity to decompress and address issues around their own mental health,” McAuliffe Principal Dr. Ryan Weiss-Wright wrote in an email message this week. “We are very thankful for the partnership with CHOC, OCDE, and LAEF to make this possible!”

“I really do believe that wellness spaces are going to become a thing that is on every campus for every student,” Oak Principal Erin Kominsky told OCDE.

‘Mental health needs have grown’

Giving kids a space to take a mental rest is just one example of how educators in Los Al Unified and statewide are focusing on students’ mental health. The effort has taken on new importance as kids return to full-time in-person instruction after a year of remote and hybrid learning caused by the pandemic.

“There’s a clear connection between mental health … and academic performance,” Grace Delk, LAUSD’s Director of Special Education and Mental Health, said during a Board of Education workshop in April. Students in psychological distress have difficulty concentrating on schoolwork; children with anxiety or depression have lower grade point averages, she explained.

“Mental health needs have grown,” Delk said in an interview earlier this month noting student referrals for mental health services have been on the rise since before COVID-19. “We have to respond to that.”

The OCDE cites the 2019-20 California Healthy Kids Survey that showed “25 percent of Orange County’s seventh-graders and about 35 percent of 11th-graders said they felt chronically sad or experienced feelings of hopelessness over the previous year, and more than 10 percent reported having suicidal thoughts.”

Things got worse after COVID-19 appeared in early 2020. “It’s almost like the pandemic threw gasoline on embers that were already glowing,” Heather C. Huszti, chief psychologist at CHOC, told The New York Times in a story about the rise of mental health emergencies among kids. “We’ve never seen it this bad.”

In district surveys, LAUSD staff from all campuses rated children’s well-being as a top priority. Among high school staff, 76% of those surveyed indicated their primary concern for parents for the 2021-22 school year was supporting their child’s mental health and well-being.

For LAUSD Board of Education President Marlys Davidson, along with her fellow trustees, improving mental health services ranks high on their list of District Priority Goals.

In an interview last month, Davidson reflected on her many years teaching middle school in the district. Many of her students were thriving but she also noticed a competitive environment where students seemed defined by their outward success.

“It was all about labels and numbers and positions,” Davidson said. She shared the story of one former student who is now training to become an emergency physician. He told her he never had one moment of fun in high school. A few of Davidson’s students had more tragic stories, losing their lives to drug abuse and mental illness.

“We’re not allowing kids to be vulnerable,” Davidson said. “It’s taking away their ability to develop as a human being.”

Davidson said the district is working to focus on the “whole child” in its future efforts.

LAUSD’s Focus on Mental Health

When it comes to mental health, that effort includes hiring more mental health professionals, implementing new curriculum and being more proactive about addressing students’ well-being issues earlier.

This year, LAUSD approved $320,000 in funding to increase its mental health staff to five full-time positions, including licensed clinical social workers. That’s in addition to the district’s nine school counselors and nine school psychologists.

The hope is the increased staffing can help in a more targeted effort to support students at the prevention level.

Delk said that LAUSD is also taking proactive measures to infuse wellness into classrooms giving teachers tools to talk about mindfulness, growth mindset and wellness. That includes using new specialized social emotional curriculum such as Second Step in elementary schools and Base Education at the middle schools.

Another layer in the mental health effort is Securely, a program that monitors LAUSD students’ web browsing. A student searching for something unsafe or potentially harmful triggers an alert that is immediately sent to LAUSD officials. Examples include a search for running away or something more severe like suicidal thoughts. In some instances, local law enforcement has been called in, according to LAUSD Supt. Dr. Andrew Pulver.

Los Al Unified also partners with CareSolace, a live 24/7 online concierge service that helps families connect to local mental health programs and counseling services.

While the government released COVID-19 relief money for schools to pay for expanding mental health services, Dr. Pulver said the one-time funding would not be used to pay for the new mental health staffers.

“This can’t be a Band-Aid,” he said in an interview last month. He said the district is fully committed to dedicating money to the expansion of mental health services for the long-term. “The needs aren’t going away.”

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