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Intermediate school districts seek support through new innovation grant

Intermediate school districts in Minnesota often face a unique set of challenges when it comes to educating students.  

But a law enacted last session may help ease some of that burden.

Sandra Lewandowski, superintendent of Intermediate School District 287, expressed gratitude for the Intermediate School District Mental Health Innovation Grant Program during Wednesday testimony to the House Education Finance Committee. She highlighted the obstacles her staff and students face daily and shared how her district would use the funds if awarded a grant.

“These are students whose needs have exceeded the ability of their local school district,” Lewandowski said. “We become the district that the student comes to after they have assaulted a teacher, made a terroristic threat, exhibited sexualized behavior or brought a weapon to school.”

Faced with limited resources and few places to turn to for help, Lewandowski said the district can struggle with improving both the mental health and educational outcomes for their students.

“We experience with alarming frequency the reality that our students are beyond the reach of calling social services,” she said. “We often find ourselves alone in trying to meet the severe and complex mental health needs, behavior needs, chemical health needs and basic safety needs of the students without the coordinated support of the partners.”

To help lighten the load, the 2017 Legislature appropriated $2.45 million for the grant program in Fiscal Years 2018 and 2019. Funds are to be awarded to mental health providers who design projects in collaboration with the school districts they intend to serve.

In January, the Department of Human Services put out a request for proposals. The application deadline was Feb. 23, and the department is currently reviewing applications.

Lewandowski said her district partnered with the Amherst H. Wilder Foundation in submitting a response.

Their proposal is to use $1.8 million to embed a therapeutic teaching model into its elementary education program for students with emotional and behavior disorders. This model would serve students in kindergarten, first- and second-grade and possibly move to middle school in the second year.

Additionally, Wilder would provide psychiatric support to the staff and supply trauma coaches to help staff understand the impact of trauma on the brain. There would also be an evaluation component and multiple professional development opportunities.

“In short, we have brought intensive mental health services to our tiniest students with the goal of changing a life and the lifelong trajectory of more trauma, and give them a chance of success,” Lewandowski said. “That means that they too will be able to access the kind of life that we all want to live.”

Program performance information is due to the Legislature by Dec. 1, 2019.

Lewandowski said that it’s clear that public schools are becoming the frontline of children’s mental health. The safety needs and the responsibility being a special education provider brings has required intermediate school districts adapt to this new reality and become a hub for intensive mental health services for students and their families.

“I’m very grateful for the support of the Legislature in the past session and I’m thrilled to bring this model to reality,” she said. “However, my reality is that I could put 10 more of these projects in my district in a heartbeat.” 

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