ESSER III funds enhance mental health resources

After the Waxahachie community was surveyed on how federal funds could address expenses and learning loss associated with the COVID-19 pandemic, mental health ranked in the top four areas of need.

In March 2021, the American Rescue Plan Act, also known as the ARP Act, was signed into law, dedicating funds for K-12 schools through the Elementary and Secondary Schools Education Relief (ESSER) III funds.

The ESSER III Stakeholder Input Survey collected over 6,000 community responses. Based on the results, Waxahachie ISD’s ESSER III funding, which totaled $8,849,529, was distributed to four areas of need for an entire three-year grant period.

ESSER III funds granted all elementary and secondary students access to an on-campus licensed mental health counselor. During the 2021-2022 school year, the district agreed to a three-year memorandum of understanding with Next Step Community Solutions (NSCS), a nonprofit that provides licensed counselors and mental health recourses.

Before ESSER funding, WISD used Title funds to hire the first licensed mental health counselor for Waxahachie High School during the 2020-21 school year. ESSER funds allowed WISD to add three additional licensed mental health counselors during the 2021-2022 school year and will continue through until year 2023-2024. 

Ginger Robinson, Director of Educational Support and Counseling Services, explained that access to a licensed counselor at school is vital because of the lack of accessibility to mental health resources in Waxahachie.

“It’s so fortunate our students are able to have licensed mental health counseling on campus for free,” Robinson said. “It doesn’t cost the family a dime. It’s amazing what this resource is providing for our kiddos.”

A licensed counselor is at WHS all five school days a week; while, all junior high campuses have access to a licensed counselor two days a week, and each elementary campus has one day a week of services offered for students. Waxahachie Global High, High School of Choice/Challenge Academy students have access one day a week as well.

Student enrollment numbers determine the amount of time a licensed counselor is assigned to a campus. Robinson would like to see the number of days mental health counselors are assigned to our junior high and elementary levels increase over the next years.

The licensed counselors see about eight students a day.

Jansen McDonald was the first licensed counselor with NSCS to work in WISD. Over the 2020-21 school year, McDonald developed a clientele of WHS students and continued his work over the summer through virtual sessions.

McDonald explained that officing on-campus is beneficial to the students because they feel comfortable in a familiar environment. He also noted that the students take advantage of counseling because of the accessibility of the services.

“[The services] are coming to them and they have easy access to them,” McDonald elaborated. “Once they find out there is a mental health professional, they really go for it.”

McDonald has noticed a ripple effect on campus as students raise awareness of mental health. He noted that students who received services later influence their peers by sharing personal experiences, demonstrating positive coping skills, and advocating for mental health.

McDonald helped over 140 WHS students receive free, licensed mental health counseling in the month of November.

The licensed counselors support an array of students who struggle with social anxiety, general anxiety, phobias, self-harm, depression, divorce, and the death of a family member — just to name a few. 

McDonald stressed the fact that mental health can affect anyone no matter their gender, age, or background.

“Kids are very important and teaching while they are young about emotions in a healthy way is vital when setting them up for success the rest of their life to be healthy adults,” McDonald said. 

A student must be referred by their campus counselor to the Next Steps Counselors to begin the paperwork process to begin receiving services. Once the parent/guardian provides consent, the Next Steps licensed counselor assesses the student to determine the level of support the student needs and the number of sessions that may be necessary.

In addition to providing licensed counselors, NSCS provides mental health services geared toward WISD students and employees. Some of these services include the Youth Mental Health First Aid program that educates employees on how to identify, understand, and respond to students with signs of mental illness and substance abuse disorders. WISD school counselors, nurses, security officers, and athletic trainers have completed this program.

Sources of Strength is a suicide prevention organization that consists of an advisor and students who become educated on the prevention of suicide, violence, bullying, and substance abuse. The student organization focuses to change peer social norms about help-seeking and encourages students to individually assess and develop strengths in their lives.

Other mental health services provided by Next Steps include small group counseling opportunities for students.