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Superintendents’ Forum: Advocating for Berks Education Needs

This article was originally published in the Reading Eagle: https://www.readingeagle.com/2023/03/30/superintendents-forum-advocating-for-berks-education-needs/

By: Dr. Greg Miller, Fleetwood School District Superintendent

Thursday, March 30, 2023

Periodically throughout the year, a group of Berks County superintendents, career and technology center directors, school business officials, and school board directors meet to discuss recent or upcoming legislative action in order to devise advocacy efforts.

The group known as the Committee on Legislative Action, or COLA, coordinated by the Berks County Intermediate Unit, provides schools with a forum to review, analyze, and comment on state and federal legislation affecting education in Berks County and across the commonwealth.

Each year, the COLA group establishes priorities that the members agree are the top areas of need for our schools, and as such, the areas of focus for the group assist in legislative advocacy efforts. This year, one of the advocacy areas identified as a priority is the need for cross-systems mental health funding.

Over the past few years, we have seen an enormous increase in the mental health needs of our students. This is evident in some of the recent data available from the Pennsylvania Youth Survey. This survey is given to students statewide in grades 6, 8, 10 and 12.

The most recent results from this survey show that 40% of Berks County students reported feeling depressed and sad. This is even more alarming with the additional data point that nearly one in five students (18%) have seriously considered suicide. Additionally, more than 10% of the students surveyed reported having attempted suicide.

The Pennsylvania Student Assistance Program, or SAP, is a systematic team process used to mobilize school resources to remove barriers to learning. It is designed to assist in identifying student issues including alcohol, tobacco, other drugs and mental health issues that pose a barrier to a student’s success. The primary goal of the program is to help students overcome these barriers so that they may achieve, advance, and remain in school. During the 2021-2022 school year, over 8,400 students were referred to the Pennsylvania SAP for support.

These numbers are certainly concerning. Some of the roadblocks we are seeing in providing students the help they need include extensive wait lists and/or insurance-related issues. We have also seen that the number of service providers in our area is not adequate to address the spike in needs that we are seeing. We know that service providers who provide on-site counseling services are experiencing shortages in therapeutic counselor roles. Therefore, we are seeing extensive wait lists for students to receive services.

The mental health needs of our students are significant and will require additional resources to overcome the issues that our schools and communities are experiencing. Unfortunately, the available funding for these needs has not increased at rates consistent with the increase in needs.

Funding sources such as Act 80 of 2012 allowed for the creation of the Human Services Block Grant, which provides for spending on mental health, developmental disabilities, drug and alcohol and other social service allocations. This grant has not increased since its inception more than a decade ago. Instead, it has been reduced by 10%.

We did have a new funding source this year as part of Act 55, which awarded about $3 million to Berks schools for mental health services to be spent over the course of two years. The challenge is that these dollars are onetime funds and are not guaranteed over time. This prohibits schools from investing in long-term support.

The mental health needs of students have skyrocketed in Berks and across the state. Through the Berks County COLA, we are working with our local legislators to advocate for more spending on the needed mental health resources and services to better support our students. We are very appreciative of the supportive relationship we have with our local lawmakers and need to continue to advocate for increased funding and support for mental health.

It is only through treatment and services that we will be able to continue to prioritize the safety and well-being of our students moving forward.

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