Only a few years ago, two South Dakota state agencies were faced with a challenge. With the third-highest teen suicide rate in the country, it was clear that too many students experiencing mental illnesses were being missed by the system. To address this, staff from the South Dakota Department of Education (SD DOE) and the Division of Behavioral Health at the South Dakota Department of Social Services (DBH) knew they had to do something. That something was the development and rollout of South Dakota Project AWARE. The program, funded by a Project AWARE (Advancing Wellness and Resiliency in Education) State Education Agency grant from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, provides funding to encourage student mental health monitoring and improve integrated support systems between school providers and community mental health centers. But, more importantly, it’s a program agency staff believe could be an answer to identifying and improving the futures of hundreds of students in need of supports across the state.
The intent of South Dakota Project AWARE is to identify and address students’ mental wellness issues through a tiered mental health support system. That system, as conceived, incorporates four tiers: home and community awareness, universal prevention, targeted interventions, and wraparound services. But to implement this, a partnership was needed between education and mental health agencies statewide to increase awareness and coordination of services for school-age children. Undaunted, the agencies created a statewide advisory group and implementation teams comprising local education agencies and community mental health centers to take part in developing and designing the project and its implementation.
To support South Dakota agencies in these tasks, Project AWARE leaders partnered with Marzano Research. We were asked to facilitate a series of discussions with school teams piloting the program, state-level education administrator association representatives, and state mental health organization leaders. The goals of the discussions included increasing understanding of the grant and current mental health supports available in the state and developing a shared mission and vision for South Dakota Project AWARE. In addition, the discussion was meant to build foundational relationships and shared ownership among stakeholders, who included professionals and institutions such as local school counselors, school administrators, nurses, psychologists, professional associations, community health centers, and universities, as well as families.
To help reach organizer goals, Marzano Research worked with project leaders to design a process for discussion, collaboration, and decision-making that would engage participants, surface their interests and needs, and build greater trust and ownership among them. Using this design, the first two meetings resulted in a shared vision, mission, and goals as well as an understanding of where each district and school sits along a continuum of whole-child services.
According to participants, the meetings have helped stakeholders discover an enthusiasm for an improved mental health system, with many seeing the significant value in a school mental health system based on interconnected and tiered student supports, screening, and multiple levels of partner and family engagement.
In fact, for Jacquie Larson of SD DOE, the collective awareness and drive to support students’ mental health across agencies has been one of the most important aspects of the meetings.
“. . . [The facilitation] has kept the wellness needs of students and their families as the central tenet for the advisory group discussion,” Larson explained, additionally commenting on the value of the meeting structure in putting in place guidelines that led to the development of a mission and vision statement.
While the Project AWARE grant currently funds pilot programs in just five schools, with preliminary meetings concluding, stakeholders are now on track to use information coming from those schools to continue their collective effort to support students in need across the state.
Marzano Research is proud to support the team in bringing about its vision where “South Dakota students and their families are empowered to thrive in a stigma-free and connected community through sustained partnerships at the state and community level.”