Student support gets spotlight in education report

By Brad McElhinny in News | May 11, 2019 at 11:58AM

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — A new report not only makes recommendations to change West Virginia’s education system, it also tells a story of how the daily complications of students’ lives affects how they perform in school.

“It is apparent more needs to be done to address the consequences of poverty and the opioid crisis on West Virginia’s children,” the report says.

Kelli Caseman

“Public schools carry much of the burden created by abuse, neglect and household dysfunction.”

The report, “West Virginia’s Voice,” resulted from a series of forums around the state. The report was put out Tuesday by the state Department of Education in anticipation of a focus on education during an upcoming special legislative session.

A subsection focusing on student responses uses numbers to describe the challenges of school systems. Many students observe behavior and mental health issues on a daily basis.

More than 5,000 students from all 55 counties responded. That’s a 3.8 percent response rate. Response rates were higher for middle school grades than high school grades.

The responses show deep daily challenges.

Fifty-nine percent of students described daily classroom disruptions.

Fifty-two percent observed daily lack of respect for teachers.

Thirty-nine percent described student depression or other mental health problems.

Twenty-nine percent described harassment or bullying.

Twenty-four percent observed daily student alcohol or drug use.

A separate set of responses by family and community members listed top concerns for parents.

The top three were harassment and bullying, classroom disruptions and mental health problems.

“I wasn’t surprised,” said Kelli Caseman, director of Child Health for West Virginians for Affordable Healthcare.

She added, “Kids do what kids do when they have no control of their circumstances. They act out and hope that someone will listen.

“None of this is really surprising. What is probably surprising to most people is that it happens more often than they think.”

She has described concerns over mental health support in schools and communities for years. Caseman said the problem has grown more acute as West Virginia has lost population and fewer dollars become available for support staff.

Caseman said she hopes the report will underscore the need for more support personnel in school systems.

“I’m hoping once it’s in writing and distributed it captures the eye of both parties,” she said.

A broad-ranging education bill that was considered during the regular legislative session included funding of about $24 million for support services in school systems.

Caseman said that demonstrated some desire by elected leaders to provide more support.

“I had a sense they realize something has to be done,” she said. “My concern is there is only kind of a cursory understanding of the need.”

The West Virginia’s Voice report noted that those who attended forums recognized a need for greater emotional support for students.

Participants were concerned that there will not be enough qualified professionals to fill additional positions — or that hiring such professionals may deprive other agencies or organizations of the staff they need.

Nearly all, 97 percent, of those who filled out comment cards agreed with giving counties more flexibility around the type of student support personnel to employ.

Those concerns reflect a more general lack of resources in communities, Caseman said.

“We know if we don’t have it in communities for kids, we don’t have it in the schools for kids either,” she said.

Senate Minority Leader Roman Prezioso, D-Marion, a longtime educator, described the many challenges facing school systems.

“Social issues that are brought from home to the classroom, those things are getting more prevalent right now, and our teachers need more help,” Prezioso said Friday on MetroNews’ “Talkline.”

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This past week, members of the state Board of Education traveled to Morgan County for a meeting. While they were there, they heard a presentation by school support workers in the county.

They described a lack of resources: four school nurses, zero school psychologists.

They described 23 special education teachers across six schools. The school system had to contract out to meet its needs, officials said.

Meanwhile, the school system is facing ever-increasing challenges. Morgan County Special Education Director Nicole Hiles said the school system has aimed to help students build resilience to the many complications in their lives.

“Our students’ needs are getting greater and greater, and they’re getting more diverse,” Hiles said.

But until students feel like their basic needs are met, she said, it’s hard to learn.

“You’re not going to be able to learn in a classroom until your basic needs are met,” Hiles said.