Providing mental health tools and support for Atlantic City’s high school students

By Kathryn Coulibaly

Carla Davis-Smith was concerned about her students. As the secretary to an assistant principal at Atlantic City High School, she was aware of the challenges students faced with remote learning, even as it helped keep them, their families and their communities safe. Attendance and participation issues also signaled that students needed additional support and care. So Davis-Smith, with the support of administration and the Atlantic City Education Association (ACEA), reached out to Family Empowerment Associates, a local mental health service provider.

“I felt that our students needed additional support,” Davis-Smith said. “We’d gotten through the spring, but as school started back in September, I could tell that students were struggling. They had family members who were struggling; in some cases, there were financial challenges. But we didn’t know the full extent of their concerns and we didn’t want to make any assumptions. In order to be sure that we were really meeting our students’ needs, we sent out a very brief survey to gauge their priorities.”

Davis-Smith sent out a Google survey to students with these questions:

         Are you stressed out over COVID-19? Yes ( ) No ( )

         Is there anything on your mind that you would like to share?

         How has the pandemic affected the people in your household?

        Do you need help managing your time during remote learning?     Yes ( ) No ( )

Thanks to the survey responses, Davis-Smith felt that she had a better idea of the specific issues confronting students.

Help for isolated and overwhelmed students

“The main issue was the feeling of isolation,” Davis-Smith said. “Some were affected by parents or guardians losing their jobs. Some had money issues in the family. Overall, there was a feeling of being overwhelmed and the perception that there was a lot more demand on them to produce school work than pre-COVID. A lot of students were struggling just to keep up with their work. They were going to bed late at night because they were up working on assignments for school.”

Davis-Smith reached out to the director of Family Empowerment Associates to identify a clinician to address these students’ needs. Rosa Allen, an alumna of Atlantic City High School, was the perfect choice. She knew and understood the community and had actually walked in the students’ shoes.

Davis-Smith shared the survey responses with Allen so she could directly address students’ concerns.

In addition to identifying the right clinician, Davis-Smith wrote an NJEA Families and Schools Together Work for Children (FAST) grant that enabled her to provide another tool to help students struggling with the demands of the pandemic. She successfully sought funding for 50 Amazon Dots for the purpose of helping students wake up on time, provide weather and general information, play music, and even help with research for school.

The Dots were also useful in helping to motivate students to participate in the Zoom meeting with Allen, which was scheduled for Dec. 18. The first 50 students who registered would receive the Dot as well as a detailed explanation of how they could use it to help them with school.

“We are really concerned about attendance at school,” Davis-Smith said. “Even with students attending school remotely, attendance still matters. The Amazon Dots will hopefully help motivate them and lessen the feeling of isolation.”

Zoom event provides support, demonstrates ongoing needs

On Dec. 18, approximately 60 students, parents, administrators, ACEA members, the ACEA’s Pride and FAST chair, and ACEA President Phillip Dollard logged onto the Zoom meeting.

“The ACEA was instrumental in holding this event,” Davis-Smith said. “Our librarian handled admitting participants on the Zoom, and a teacher fielded the questions. And I had tremendous support with the grant and implementing it.”

Atlantic City High School’s administrators were also on the Zoom meeting, which helped them better understand the demands on the students.

“This anxiety with the kids is real,” Davis-Smith said. “We all heard it firsthand.”

The meeting was scheduled to begin at 6 p.m. Davis-Smith was surprised that students were still eagerly asking questions at 8 p.m.

“I wasn’t sure how the students would receive this; it can be hard to open up and be vulnerable around your peers. But it was clear that the need was so great, and that Ms. Allen was really helping them, that they just opened up.”

Davis-Smith finally ended the Zoom meeting just before 9 p.m., but she knew it could have gone on much longer.

“Ms. Allen was really kind and put the students at ease quickly,” Davis-Smith said. “Once she started, the students were all in. The questions just came rolling in because they felt like they were talking to someone trustworthy.”

Allen also provided follow-up resources that were sent to the students electronically, and she also encouraged them to use the school district’s resources by talking to their counselors and the school’s social workers.

The students were really enthusiastic and said the Zoom meeting with Allen was very helpful. Davis-Smith followed up the event with another Google survey to gauge the event’s success.

She asked:

       What was the most meaningful advice  you got from this mental health session?

       Are there any other topics that you think the presenter should have addressed?

       On a scale of 1-5, with 1 being “not at all” and 5 “very,” please rate the effectiveness of the presenter.

       How helpful was the mental health resources that the presenter provided for you? This information was emailed to you.

       Comment on how you felt before this session and how you felt afterwards.

Based on the responses, Davis-Smith felt that students could benefit from more of these sessions. She has plans for additional activities to reach out to students to let them know they are valued and cared for by their school family.

“I think a lot of students were expecting a more normal life a year after the beginning of the global pandemic,” Davis-Smith said. “National data shows that we’re seeing more younger children being depressed and thinking about suicide. I can’t stop; I have to continue. And the students are asking us for more. This is hitting the mark for them.”

Ongoing support

On Valentine’s Day, Davis-Smith distributed care packages to students who are eligible for the McKinney-Vento program, which serves homeless youth.

“Valentine’s Day can be hard for anyone,” Davis-Smith said. “These students often feel overlooked and isolated. This is a great time to remind them that they are valued by their school community.”

The care packages included toothpaste, a toothbrush, lotion, shampoo, and chocolate.

Davis-Smith also organized a Zoom paint party for students in February. Once students registered for the paint party, they were invited to come to school to pick up paint materials.

More opportunities to discuss mental health issues are also planned. For Davis-Smith, it’s all about the students and she will use every resource and connection she has to provide and care for them.

“The kids need this,” Davis-Smith said. “We have to protect our future.”

What is FAST?

Carla Davis-Smith wrote an NJEA Families and Schools Together Work for Children (FAST) grant that enabled her to provide another tool to help students struggling with the demands of the pandemic.

NJEA FAST works to encourage families to be involved in their children’s education, to enhance their academic progress, and to feel welcome in public schools. FAST is a coalition of education advocates, community groups, and schools working together to foster family involvement.

Learn more at njea.org/fast.

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