Midpeninsula Post

PAUSD looks to move mental health services to in-house employees

Paly students at lunch in November. (Emily Yao)

The Palo Alto Unified School District is looking to fulfill more of its mental health services with in-house employees, shifting away from the contracted services that make up the bulk of its existing support.

Associate Superintendent Lana Conaway contended that the move, which starts next year at the elementary level, will give the district more flexible clinicians who can work outside of strictly defined contracts, and give the clinicians the time they need to develop meaningful relationships with the students they serve.

Many outside agencies that the district contracts with are struggling to hire and retain clinicians, which has led to high turnover rates and inconsistent staffing; a school-based model, if done right, could help solve that, largely because the district would be directly paying the clinicians rather than giving a portion of that payment to the agency.

Conaway said the move will start at the elementary level because that’s where there are the most holes in mental health support, and because that’s where the district suspects that social emotional learning — teaching students how to do things like cope with feelings or develop interpersonal relationships — will be most effective.

The district will evaluate its elementary-level program and take continued feedback from high school students in determining how and if to shift mental health services at the secondary level.

Currently, the high school services operate with wellness centers available during school hours at both Gunn and Paly; a mental health specialist and a wellness outreach worker, both of whom are district employees; three full-time therapists contracted through Counseling and Support Services for Youth; a one-day-a-week Mandarin-speaking therapist contracted through Asian Americans for Community Involvement; a Stanford fellow contracted to work four hours a week; and special education supports.

Long term, Conaway said she imagines school-based therapists working in conjunction with outside contractors who are better fit to serve students who need consistent intensive one-on-one therapy — though that’s all pending student feedback.

“So here’s an example: Student needs to be referred out to a community agency for intensive supports, but our staff, who’s internal, is that day-to-day eye on that student who might just check in with that student on a very consistent basis,” Conaway said.

The district’s internal clinicians would triage students who need that support and determine which outside provider to refer them to. 

Conaway said it’d be hard for the district to offer intensive one-to-one support because that would mean taking students out of class for large chunks of time — it’s better for that support to happen outside of school hours, where only the contractors can serve students.

“If we’re taking them out for an hour every day, think about the impact that has on education,” Conaway said. “And not that that’s the primary thing for a child who’s truly in crisis — in all honesty, I would much prefer us to focus on the well being of our students than be so concerned that a child is missing class — but I will say there is a way to balance that. And to balance that is we pair those outside resources with our internal resources.”

A handful of PAUSD high school students, who asked that their names not be included in this story for privacy reasons, said they feel there are gaps in accessibility in the current counseling model which should be remedied as quickly as possible. 

One Gunn freshman said while she understands that there may be staffing and support issues unique to PAUSD’s elementary schools, the district should focus on making mental health support more robust throughout all levels given the academic and emotional pressures it places on its secondary students.

“With that said, if there is indeed a significant issue in equitable access to mental health care for elementary school students — compared to middle or high school students — I think the decision is a good starting point,” the freshman said. “There remains much to be done in PAUSD.”

“I think if it’s going to help kids reach mental health resources in a more accessible way, I’m all for it,” added another Gunn freshman. “The more kids who can get the help they deserve, the better.”

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