ORANGE PARK — Clay County school district middle school students with behavioral, mental health or emotional issues — that if left unaddressed can put their lives and education at risk — can get help through a new school-based program beginning this month.
Superintendent Addison Davis said the district is partnering with Motivational Coaches of America in a program to give students access to behavioral and emotional health services at school at no cost to the students, families or school system. The Clay County School Board approved the program last year.
“The intent of this initiative is to take proactive measures and steps in order to address at-risk students who exhibit undesired behaviors in the seventh and eighth grade,” Davis said Wednesday. “The focus of this initiative will be to inspire, to motivate, to engage our youth for positive action. And to move them in a direction where at-risk students will no longer have an outlier or an avenue to drop out.”
The behavioral health-services company will provide trained, licensed mental health therapists — known as motivational coaches — who will be on campus all day. They will work with students identified as having behavioral, attendance and academic concerns. The coaches will work with the students individually and in groups, said Julio Avael, company founder and chief executive officer.
Davis said the program initially will be implemented at three district junior high schools: Orange Park, Wilkinson and Green Cove Springs — half of the county’s junior highs. The district plans to expand it to all junior highs in the 2018-19 school year, he said.
He said Orange Park, Wilkinson and Green Cove Springs junior high schools were selected for the initial pilot program based on student needs.
He said school officials are working to identify about 75 students in each school. Ultimately, 450 will be involved in the program. The main focus on junior high students is to address at-risk students at an earlier stage, he said.
“These are students who exhibited undesired behaviors academically, attendance wise, and behaviorally,” Davis said. “Students will learn how to overcome academic anxieties, behavior issues, anger management, bullying, chemical dependence while learning how to foster positive relationships with peers, teachers, parents, and the entire community.”
“In this school district alone, we will be adding seven motivational coaches …” Avael said. The student and his/her family are consulted, and must consent to participate in the program, he said.
Avael said most children referred to the program meet early warning indicators in behavior or academics. Depending on a child’s specific needs, the youngster is provided individual or group counseling, or both.
Davis said the program uses effective strategies “to connect students to the resources they need.
“However, this is the first initial push to focus on students mental and behavior health. This strategy will lead to greater attendance, social interaction, and academic focus,” Davis said.
Clay County has one of the highest rate increases — 38 percent — in the region for children who were Baker-Acted within a five-year span, according to a Florida Department of Children and Families report last year. The Baker Act is a law allowing the involuntary or emergency commitment of a person for psychiatric evaluation by the state.
One in four people committed in Clay County was a child, making it one of the state’s highest ratios, Davis said.
The goal is to identify and address the early warning signs of mental or emotional distress including issues such as pregnancy, violence, substance abuse, depression and suicide. Doing that will greatly mitigate those problems. The program is a critical strategy Davis is using to improve school climate and safety for teachers, students and parents, which will result in a positive learning experience for students.
The coaching program is considered Florida’s largest network focused on excellence in behavioral health, wellness and life skills education services for children and youth. It currently operates in 13 Florida school districts. In Northeast Florida, Duval County Public Schools, Miami-Dade County Public Schools, and the St. Johns County School District use it.
Avael said the initial focus is on middle school students because data show “eighth grade to ninth grade is the most important transition period academically and socially as well as the fifth grade to sixth grade transition period.”
“A lot of folks don’t realize that if we cannot get a child into ninth grade and ensure that they successfully graduate there is a much more likely probability that they will not graduate at all. And there will be some form of homelessness, mental health issues or physical wellness issues in the child’s development,” he said.
Florida ranks 41st nationwide for youth mental, behavioral and emotional health. But the state is 38th in access to appropriate care, according to a report by Mental Health America, a community-based national nonprofit dedicated to addressing the needs of those living with mental illness, and to promoting the overall mental health of Americans.
Nationwide, six out of 10 youth aren’t getting the support they need regarding mental, behavioral and emotional health issues. In Florida, many of those youth are held under the Baker Act, data show.
“Not one child in the last five years in our services had ever been Baker-Acted,” said Avael, who also touted other successes in the program including the following.
He also cited the success of students in the company’s program. Among them:
•98 percent improvement in submitting homework assignments.
•93 percent improvement in parent/child relationships.
•88 percent decrease in self-harming behavior
•97 percent decrease in rates of alcohol and substance abuse.
•87 percent increase in school engagement.
Teresa Stepzinski: (904) 359-4075