Corvallis hires therapists to weave mental health with education
The Corvallis School District has decided it’s not enough to provide access to mental health therapists — the therapists need to be part of the schools, starting this year.
Student survey data told school leaders that mental health was a barrier to graduation and that an increasing number of students had mental health issues, according to Superintendent Ryan Noss.
Districts across Oregon are grappling with the same issue. Often, they partner with service providers or local governments to offer therapy or to open school-based health centers.
Corvallis is developing a different model, putting the licensed therapists on the district payroll. The district is building a foundation to have mental health inform all its educational practices, according to Sabrina Alexander, district special education coordinator, and Joe Leykam, district mental health program manager.
Corvallis’ plan could offer an example as other districts consider spending Student Success Act funds, but some education leaders worry that schools aren’t designed to be mental health providers.
Corvallis has partnered four licensed mental health therapists with four skills trainers to serve its eight elementary schools this year, with hopes of expanding to all district schools.
The licensed clinicians are providing drop-in services and individual, group and family therapy as well as student and staff training. Parents can get advice, and teachers can stop by when they need a new way to reach a child or are just having a rough day.
Therapists can get to know students and their families and be integrated into school teams. They are also subject to district standards.
“They are part of us,” said Mountain View Elementary Principal Byron Bethards. “They wear our T-shirts.”
Mountain View tested the program last school year. Bethards said having the clinician on staff added someone who understood the school’s goals and could really partner with him.
Jaclyn Branske, a licensed professional counselor at Mountain View, said that when she was a contract therapist for Yamhill County, she only saw students when they needed counseling. Now she says she has more freedom to build up proactive supports and relationships as well as help the staff. Her work can range from a quick chat in the hallway to scheduled talk therapy sessions.
Many districts rely on outside agencies, such as county health departments or Trillium Family Services. Trillium serves more than 100 schools, including in the Corvallis School District.
Lana Shotwell, vice president of community operations, said Trillium works closely with schools to provide the level of care they want, but there are hurdles. Clinicians must answer to Trillium supervisors even as they negotiate working with school administrations. Because Trillium is an outside entity, there are also rules about meeting with students that schools don’t have to navigate.
Gladstone Superintendent Bob Stewart, an Oregon leader on behavioral health in schools, said students are in crisis and districts everywhere are trying to figure out the best approach. Despite the need, he said he worries that adding therapists could lead to school districts becoming responsible for students’ mental health care. Schools are already stretched thin providing education needs and they don’t have the mental health world expertise, he said.
Gresham-Barlow School District Executive Director of K-12 Education John Koch echoed those concerns.
“Schools are not necessarily set up to be mental health providers,” he said.
Leykam and Alexander say that’s why it’s crucial to have leadership from both the academic field and the mental health field working together.
Alexander added that the reality is that schools have already been providing mental health support for years. Schools participate in formalized processes, such as suicide prevention protocols, and informal processes with teacher and staff interactions.
Corvallis just wants to provide schools with the correct training, tools and support to do it well, she said.
Hiring therapists costs more, but the Corvallis School Board has made mental health a top priority.
“Whatever it takes to get that done, we will be willing to go there – if we can pay for it,” said school board member Vincent Adams. He was school board chair when the plan was approved.
An ending fund balance paid for the program this year. The district is still working out ongoing support, including reimbursements from Medicaid, the Oregon Health Plan and insurance. The district also hopes to tap into Student Success Act funds.
The act is expected to generate about $500 million a year in grants for districts. Addressing social and emotional health is one of the spending criteria.
Corvallis started its planning two years ago, before the Student Success Act effort began, but leaders believe their work can offer other districts a model.
School Board Chair Sami Al-AbdRabbuh said he thinks the investment will not only support academic success but also create healthier and safer school environments.
With the help of the OSBA Promise Scholarship Program, the board is developing the metrics it will use to evaluate the program’s effectiveness.
District leaders also see it as an equity issue. Historically underserved populations often don’t have the resources or easy access for mental health services.
Alexander and Leykam say the district’s goals include keeping students and families in their community schools where they can be supported. School systems sometimes exclude students who are having behavior issues through tutoring, self-contained systems or alternative programs.
Hiring therapists is only one part of Corvallis’ mental health approach. Like many districts, it has instituted strategies and trainings to help students and teachers.
At its heart, Corvallis’ strategy aims to redefine mental health around building connections, checking in with each other and regulating behaviors, Alexander said. Teachers and staff already do these things, but by calling that work “mental health” it helps take away some of the stigma of behavioral health care.
“Mental health means you are regulated,” Alexander said. “Being regulated means you can think.”
Leykam and Alexander stress that districts would be wasting money if they only hired clinicians.
“The only thing that makes that meaningful is as a part of a larger system around inclusion and this understanding of mental health in the school setting,” Alexander said.
Miles Smith, a senior last year at Corvallis’ Crescent Valley High School, praised the district’s moves. Last school year, he spoke at one of the district’s regular mental health convenings with community partners.
Personal trauma plunged Smith into depression and anxiety, threatening to derail his senior year. Now a freshman at Occidental College, he said he was fortunate because he had a uniquely strong support system, including a longtime bond with a guidance counselor.
Smith was frustrated with the district’s contract care. He didn’t feel as if he could spend enough time with the therapist and the therapist didn’t know him.
His high school counselor, Annika Bay, was able to advocate for him with teachers to get the time and flexibility Smith needed to work through his anxiety and depression while maintaining his studies.
He said schools need to help students when problems are still small and have the resources available before students hit break points.
“Having somebody in school who knew me and cared about me was amazingly important,” he said.
- Jake Arnold, OSBA