Crystal Lake District 47 to hire more social workers using grant

District has seen student support requests skyrocket

Teacher Kelly Schenk hugs fifth-grader Julissa Carette, as social worker Jenn Sanchez and social-emotional learning coordinator Kristen Ziemba reveal the nice things that Carette’s classmates wrote about her during a lesson about kindness on Tuesday, March 14, 2023, at South Elementary School in Crystal Lake.

Armed with $5.6 million in federal grant funding, Crystal Lake Elementary District 47 will expand services to help a growing number of students in need of mental and social-emotional support.

Over the next five years, the Project LAKE grant issued by the U.S. Department of Education will support the recruitment of 12 additional mental health service providers, as well as the retention of existing school-based mental health providers.

The district currently employs 26 social workers, 11 school psychologists and one counselor for its 13 schools and 7,100 students.

Along with expanded mental health services at its schools, the district will continue to partner with local community mental health providers to bolster those services, school leaders say.

“Crystal Lake District 47 has really been at the forefront for modeling how we can do things differently to support student’s mental health needs,” said Kristin Schmidt, assistant director of special education.

While the pandemic has raised awareness nationally of those needs, efforts to address them within District 47 began years ago, said Schmidt, who led the effort to apply for the grant and will become the new director of social-emotional learning for the district.

Ongoing national research will help determine just how much of an impact the pandemic and other factors, such as social media, have had on the mental health of students in recent years, school leaders say.

A fifth-grader writes a nice thing to a classmate on a pad of paper Tuesday, March 14, 2023,  during a lesson by social worker Jenn Sanchez and social-emotional learning coordinator Kristen Ziemba on kindness at South Elementary School in Crystal Lake.

But at District 47, the numbers speak for themselves.

By the end of October 2022, just a couple months into the school year, the number of student support requests received by District 47 nearly equaled the number of requests received during the entire 2021-22 school year.

“The mental and social-emotional health of our students is critical to their ability to successfully engage in their education,” District 47 Superintendent Kathy Hinz said in a prepared statement. “We’re thrilled to be able to provide additional supports for students and staff through our partnerships with the community and with funding sources above and beyond local tax dollars.”

To help meet the needs of all students, the district has collaborated with mental health providers throughout the area, said Schmidt, who currently serves on the board of directors for NAMI: National Alliance on Mental Illinois, co-leads a county group with the McHenry County Mental Health Board and serves on the county’s Youth Empowerment Alliance.

She credited the unique partnerships formed by the district as perhaps a main reason why the school district was the only one in McHenry County and one of only seven school districts in the state and 102 districts in the country to earn the federal grant.

“We rely on and deeply appreciate the community partners who continually rally around us to help us support the needs of our students,” Schmidt said. “Our partnerships are a unique blueprint in the field of education, and other school districts have reached out to duplicate what we’ve accomplished together so far. I’m excited that this grant will allow us to do even more.”

Social-emotional learning coordinator Kristen Ziemba teaches a lesson about kindness on Tuesday, March 14, 2023, to fifth-grade students at South Elementary School in Crystal Lake.

Among the 12 additional mental health service provides, the grant will fund Schmidt’s new role as director of social-emotional learning, as well as new social workers and school counselors at the district.

“We’re super excited about being able to expand the mental health support for our students,” said Denise Barr, director of communications and public engagement for the district. “What we’re learning about mental health is it takes a village. These partnerships Kristin has helped forge for the district with community agencies have been absolutely critical getting us to this point. ...

“She has been the community connection with all the mental health agencies and leading the charge on this grant.”

The district partnered with Midwest PBIS – short for Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports – Network in writing the grant. The network, a national organization based in Illinois that functions as the hub of the U.S. Department of Education-funded Center on PBIS, will provide consulting services to the district and professional development for staff.

District 47 already has numerous programs in place at the elementary and middle school levels to help students with mental health, emotional and social needs, school leaders said.

Among them, students in third- through eighth-grade are encouraged to “Be Safe, Be Smart and Be Kind” online through a program called Project B3.

Elementary school students are taught social and emotional skills, school leaders say, while programs at the middle school level aim to raise awareness of depression and suicide.

Counselors within the schools, as well as representatives from area community agencies brought into the schools to speak and support programs, are talking about these issues and regularly working to help students, school leaders say.

“I think we do have this unique model of addressing student mental health,” Barr said. “It’s rooted in collaboration and a shared vision with our community mental health partners.

“We think that probably is one of the reason we were chosen to receive the grant. We don’t know for sure, but we do know that’s something unique about us. It didn’t happen overnight. It’s been years in the making.”

The recent federal grant is the fifth and largest received by District 47 this year.

Other grants received this year include a Preschool for All block grant in the amount of $344,376; an Elementary and Secondary Relief Digital Equity Formula grant in the amount of $201,200; a District-Led High Impact Tutoring grant in the amount of $149,040; and a HEROES reading intervention grant in the amount of $18,600.

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