Improving Conditions for Learning in Idaho

By Jacqueline Raphael | September 27, 2021

A diverse group of stakeholders from across Idaho have made recommendations for improving the behavioral health and wellness services (BHWS) available to students in the state’s schools.

Starting with Data

One year ago, the Idaho state legislature asked the State Department of Education (SDE) to use BHWS data to help formulate specific recommendations for system improvement. Under SDE’s direction, Education Northwest conducted a statewide survey to gather information on BHWS offered in Idaho schools. The results revealed that although Idaho schools and districts offer a variety of services, resources, and professional development, lack of time and limited funding prevented many from implementing a full, high-quality program. Only 60 percent have an explicit strategy for responding to students’ needs, and fewer than a third have a more structured program in place.

With these data in hand, Eric Studebaker, SDE’s director of student engagement & safety coordination, asked the Region 17 Comprehensive Center (CC) at Education Northwest to help the agency bring together stakeholders from across the state to develop targeted, research-based recommendations to improve Idaho schools’ support for students’ behavioral needs.

Working Together

From the start, the team leading this work sought to develop all aspects of the project in collaboration with a wide range of stakeholders from the education, business, healthcare, and criminal justice sectors. “During the recruitment stage, we reached out to anyone across the state who cared about students’ behavioral health,” explains Region 17 CC staff member Celeste Janssen. The team’s efforts resulted in the formation of a committee of more than 80 interested stakeholders—far more than originally anticipated, but a welcome development.

Next, the team had to devise methods to actively engage the large group in virtual work sessions that would result in concrete recommendations. In all four of the 90-minute virtual work sessions, professional listening and learning were key to achieving this goal. “We had people from all over the state sharing their experiences and knowledge,” says Janssen. In the first session on February 19, for example, participants discussed the results of the baseline survey and used an online poll to share views on the role of the K–12 system in offering BHWS to students. Next, participants used information from a presentation on social and emotional learning research to reflect on the skills and qualities they hope to see Idaho students develop in this area. The session ended with participant suggestions on how to work together.

Breakout rooms, shared collaborative documents, online survey and poll tools, video chat, and other technologies were critical to session activities. In the April 16 session, for example, participants chose different breakout sessions on research-based frameworks, tools, and practices used across the state. Key Idaho BHWS leaders shared their knowledge and experience, and participants were given time to ask questions to help them begin formulating recommendations. In the April 30 session, participants reviewed online tools for collaboratively developing and sharing draft recommendations with the full group.

On May 28, committee participants finalized their recommendations and submitted them to State Superintendent Sherri Ybarra, who approved them in July. The recommendations included increasing statewide resources available to districts to address mental health, adopting a common framework to talk about mental health and social and emotional learning, and finding ways to increase and support mental health professionals in schools. With approval, the committee’s recommendations guided an SDE interdepartmental team’s efforts to draft a workplan to support the proposed initiatives. The workplan is expected to be made public in September and will focus on a period of 18–24 months.

Sustaining Momentum

Connor Sheldon, a native Idahoan, was invited to participate in the project because of her previous work with the Blue Cross of Idaho Foundation for Health, which collaborated with the SDE in the initial scan of BHWS in Idaho schools. She is excited that the Legislature’s request has led to increased dialogue at the state and local levels about how schools support students’ behavioral and mental health. “We have a tremendous amount of momentum,” she says. “The governor, various legislators, and the school board are keenly aware of the need to leverage our talent and funding.”

Janssen agrees. “Superintendent Ybarra is deeply invested in this work. It’s been Idaho-grounded and Idaho-informed throughout every stage of the process,” she says, adding that not every recommendation will be prioritized initially, but she is confident they will all be carefully considered.

Sheldon is particularly excited about finding a more consistent process for building all Idaho’s schools’ capacity to create a positive climate for students. “Our rural school resources aren’t as plentiful as in other schools, though the role of the school in meeting student and family needs is significant,” she explains. “Especially in a local-control state like Idaho, there needs to be a system in place that can ensure critical statewide priorities are met while addressing local needs.”

Sheldon acknowledges this work can’t happen overnight but is eager to see the right investments made. “Preparing future educators to build a safe, consistent, and engaging culture—and consequently better equip Idaho students for success—supports many of the state’s priorities for the future,” she says.

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