LENOX — Amid widespread reports of students facing COVID-related mental health and emotional adjustment issues, the five-year strategic plan adopted by the elected School Committee members last month includes immediate, priority attention to reentry challenges.
A recent national survey by the Education Week Research Center found that at least 25 percent of high school students reported fatigue, difficulty concentrating, feeling isolated from classmates and not finishing schoolwork. Distractions caused by pandemic-related anxieties, worries and fears plagued 21 percent of the students, the survey found.
During a recent remote presentation to the community, a section of the plan presented by Strategic Planning Committee member Erika Baluk-Shepardson, one of four district parents on the 15-member group, emphasized that “it will be critical to continue identifying and addressing mental health challenges triggered or intensified by the pandemic.”
“A culturally responsive, safe and supportive learning environment is essential to positive student outcomes,” she stated. It’s crucial to “de-stigmatize” mental health concerns, going beyond social/emotional curriculum by using licensed mental health professionals as staff and partners, she added.
“It involves open dialogues and partnerships with families on how to best support students in the school learning environment,” Baluk-Shepardson pointed out, as well as in their homes and the community.
The action steps of the strategic plan call for improved access to mental health support, “moving it from a place of stigma to a core component of student well-being,” she explained. “The educational outcomes and learning environment of all Lenox public school students will be enhanced both in the larger school climate and in the individual outcomes of behavior and emotional well-being.”
Stepped-up student resiliency directly will impact academic progress, the plan states. Action steps recommended in the plan would be up to administration leadership, with feedback from school adjustment counselors and the director of student services.
“Addressing mental health at Lenox Public Schools involves a continued willingness to ask questions, listen for answers and collaborate on solutions,” Baluk-Shepardson concluded.
Student advocates from Lenox Memorial Middle and High School attended one of the strategic planning meetings to offer their insights for the mental health section of the report. Current practices in the school district, a community survey, and the state Education Department’s guidance and standards also were included in the plan.
Baluk-Shepardson is a state-licensed mental health counselor and is certified by the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education as a school adjustment counselor.
According to Robert Vaughan, chairman of the School Committee and the Strategic Study Committee, her presentation on mental health is among the top four crucial priorities for the 2021-22 school year and beyond, along with curriculum instruction, inclusivity and improvements of facilities.
“Those will rise to the highest level of priority moving forward,” he said.
Presenting the academic curriculum section of the study, Peter Starenko, social studies faculty member at the middle and high school, stressed that “in the next five years and beyond, fostering and enhancing a rigorous, adaptable, inclusive and innovative curriculum in all subject areas, supported by the highest level of instruction, is at the heart of providing for the most important goal of our district, to educate each student academically, intellectually, socially and emotionally.”
Achieving that goal, Starenko noted, depends upon “safe and comfortable surroundings, response to individual student needs at each grade level, being grounded in the district’s core values, beliefs and learning expectations, and flourishing in a collaborative atmosphere at all levels of the district.”
Also necessary: “Directed and relevant professional development programs that address, deepen and inform the needs of students and teachers alike, and exceptional classroom spaces, materials and technologies, all within classrooms of limited numbers of students,” he said.
The district’s strategic plan “responds to the needs of all students and prepares them equally in their choices after high school to pursue careers, postsecondary education, the military or service,” Starenko said, “and ensures that the arts in all their forms, from woodworking to fine arts to CAD [computer-aided design], music and the drama program remain central to the identity of our schools.”
Strategic Study Subcommittee member Kim Davis, a district parent, cited the importance of reviewing homework policies, adequacy of rest, play and outside time for students, engagement of advanced students at the elementary level, and school start times “to maximize student engagement and contentment.”
Vaughan acknowledged that COVID-19 was responsible for a delay in completing the strategic study, originally planned for release before the 2020-21 school year. He pointed to summer opportunities for students to close learning gaps, as well as potential enrichment opportunities, with details to be announced soon.
Vaughan commented that the district’s incoming superintendent, Marc J. Gosselin Jr., has a strong background in diversity, equity and inclusion after serving as an administrator in a 13,000-student suburban Philadelphia district.
“We’re confident we’ll have some leadership that will help support many of the goals we have,” Vaughan said.