Santa Clara County to pump millions into school wellness centers
San Antonio Elementary School, an Alum Rock Union School District campus, is pictured in this file photo.

    Santa Clara County is about to pour millions into school wellness centers to help students struggling with mental health issues brought on by the pandemic.

    The Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors is set to approve a $10 million bump tomorrow for a pilot program in school-based wellness centers. The success of the $100,000 program will explode 100-fold to $10.1 million. Funds will be used to launch between 18 to 24 wellness centers and support the existing six created under the pilot to address behavioral health concerns.

    Alum Rock Union Elementary School District Superintendent Hilaria Bauer, whose district received one of the first pilot program grants, said the funding is essential.

    “These (six) wellness centers (were) sort of like a drop in the bucket because there was so much need,” Bauer told San José Spotlight. “(This) will be huge and I’m hoping that we are able to receive more support for these kinds of services in our schools.”

    About 75% of the $10.1 million will go to new wellness centers, while 10% will go to existing programs, like the one in Alum Rock. The remaining 15% will go toward strengthening the infrastructure in these centers, such as physical repairs and providing equipment.

    Approximately half of the $10 million comes from the American Rescue Plan Act, while the other half comes from a prevention and early intervention allocation from the Mental Health Services Act.

    The funding comes as schools have increasingly become access points for students to connect with mental health services, which saw a spike in demand amid the COVID-19 pandemic. But a shortage of school counselors and mental health professionals to address these ongoing needs has persisted across the state.

    Supervisor Sylvia Arenas said the funding is an effort to support local students struggling mentally and emotionally.

    “Our young people are facing enormous stresses and pressures, which have been made so much worse from the isolation of the pandemic,” Arenas told San José Spotlight. “It is vital that we ensure these funds prioritize expanding services where there is the most unmet need, which will be my focus as the item moves forward.”

    The pandemic and subsequent mental health crisis among youth have sent school administrators scrambling to find mental health care professionals to deal with student disengagement, chronic absenteeism, disciplinary problems and the death of students by suicide. Yet, it’s this same environment where students are 10 to 21 times more likely to seek out emotional support, according to the Santa Clara County Office of Education.

    Supervisor Joe Simitian said the challenge will be the ability to successfully expand the program. He said this is a great way for county agencies to collaborate with schools and provide essential mental health and emotional care services.

    “This is where the kids are, this is where they spend the bulk of their time,” Simitian told San José Spotlight. “If everybody points the finger of responsibility to somebody else, the kids don’t get the help they need.”

    Schools will have to apply for the grants starting in September. The grants are expected to be awarded by the end of October and go into effect in the 2023-24 school year.

    This is not the only funding that schools in the region have received this year to address youth mental health struggles. The county office of education learned in May it would receive nearly $1 million in federal funding via a grant program from the U.S. Department of Education to help train and hire more mental health professionals across high-need schools. This was made possible from President Joe Biden’s bipartisan Safer Communities Act, which allocated $286 million spread among 264 grantees in 48 states and territories.

    Local schools including San Jose Unified School District, East Side Union High School District and Sunrise Middle School also implemented seven key mental health practices in 2021 following the pandemic.This included a mentor network and a multi-tiered support system, integrating social-emotional learning in the curriculum, conducting mental health screening and listening to parents and students for feedback.

    Contact Julia Forrest at [email protected] or follow @juliaforrest35 on Twitter.

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