Amarillo is a city of 200,000 in the middle of the Texas panhandle, an eight-hour drive from Lebanon, Kansas, the geographic center of the contiguous United States.
And as they do in small cities throughout the country, school leaders in Amarillo struggle to help students cope with a number of health and behavior issues, including bullying, gangs, homelessness, poor mental health, and depression.
But four years ago, Amarillo applied for a Safe Schools/Healthy Students (SS/HS) grant, a program supported by the U.S. Departments of Education, Justice, and Health and Human Services. Since then, a committed group of academic, health, and law enforcement leaders in Amarillo have joined forces to help students in the city’s schools. In the grant’s first year, 120 students were referred for services; this past year, the number climbed to 900.
All of this success has Melynn Huntley, the program’s project director, convinced that they are taking the right approach. “I had one school administrator tell me, ‘You have created something that people want to sustain. People will be yelling and screaming if this program doesn’t continue.’” She pauses, then adds, “It’s made a positive change.”
No matter how powerful this success story, however, these kinds of resources are not available to all the schools that could benefit from its collaborative model. This means that opportunities to improve students’ health and well-being are falling by the wayside.
A solution to this problem may be on the way, in the form of a free toolkit for community leaders created by EDC with funding from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA). Drawing on research and expertise gleaned from more than 10 years of working with SS/HS grantees, EDC developed the toolkit to be a starting place for schools and districts that have not benefited from an SS/HS grant but want to implement the program’s community-based strategies.
“The essential question was, ‘How do you have a bigger impact?’” explains Kim Netter, who led EDC’s development of the toolkit. “The idea was to take the lessons of the program and create something that anybody could use. It’s a toolkit for community change based on the lessons learned from SS/HS grantees.”
One of those lessons is that students are best served when academic, law enforcement, and mental health services are all working together to address the needs of the whole child. This type of collaboration is a hallmark of the SS/HS program, and Huntley’s experience in Amarillo leads her to believe that it is the key to success. “We all found out that we wanted to accomplish the same things, but we had different viewpoints,” she says.
Netter agrees. “Social and environmental issues compound what is going on in communities right now,” she says. She adds that increased pressure on schools to meet academic accountability standards has often had the unintended effect of minimizing the attention paid to students’ behavioral and mental health.
The toolkit identifies three bold steps for community change, offering discussion questions, resources, and a series of videos of community leaders, including Huntley, who have used the lessons to address urgent issues in their districts. In one, a school guidance director talks about the moment she realized that law enforcement, child welfare, and her school all shared a common goal; in another, administrators from different states explore issues related to project sustainability.
And wherever it is used, Netter hopes that the toolkit will help community leaders develop partnerships, policies, and initiatives that promote the health and well-being of students. “I hope that people who really want to see change in their community will find this a helpful tool,” she says.
If the experiences of Amarillo are any indication, it will be just that. “What we were able to show the state of Texas,” says Huntley, “is that this approach can work.”
Originally published on May 7, 2012