Island schools plan to revamp mental health programs

‘Give us Iceland,’ Mike Marcus tells consultant MedStar.

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Martha's Vineyard Regional High School was built in 1978 and had an addition put on in 1992. – MV Times file photo

A preliminary report outlining sweeping change needed for Island schools to provide a comprehensive and collaborative health and wellness environment sparked a call Thursday night for a public-private partnership to underwrite a program that would, among other things, provide for mental health professionals in schools.

The 20-page draft, based on 500 surveys and interviews this spring with students, parents, and school personnel by MedStar Georgetown, concludes that Island schools deliver widely different and sometimes deficient levels of health and wellness care and instruction. The findings suggested that the Island school districts sponsor collaborative culture between all schools, and use a variety of best national practices.

Superintendent Matt D’Andrea, with the blessing of the school committee, contracted with MedStar to undertake the review late last year.

Three representatives of MedStar, which consults on school health and wellness programs, presented their findings to high school and district school committee members via videoconference. Medstar will return to the Island in September for a follow-up meeting before issuing its final report. That report, like the draft, will not identify individual schools, but will present recommendations at the school district level.

However, as MedStar rolled out its list of Island school health and wellness needs — some schools don’t have school nurses on staff, for example — it became obvious to Michael Marcus, chairman of the district school committee, that adding a few staffers or stretching Proposition 2½ tax overrides would not cover the scope of the health and wellness program challenges.

“Give us Iceland,” Marcus said. “We want the Iceland model.” He was referring to a decade-long and much-heralded program by that country during which rates of student stress and rates of alcohol, drug, and cigarette use fell by 90 percent. “Iceland tops the European table for the cleanest-living teens,” according to a 2016 Huffington Post article on the Icelandic student health and wellness program.

Marcus had his “what if” moment shortly after a general discussion of financial and other resources. Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School committee member Amy Houghton said, “What’s important [to note] is that we’ve brought on programs funded by schools or required by law; mental health care is involved here, but we have no control over those things. I want to see things that can be most impacted by our schools.”

Marcus noted that reality, adding, “We can fund ordinary resources from the tax base, but we have an extraordinary community here. If extraordinary funding shows up, we can do extraordinary things. There are extraordinary financial resources here — we have as many billionaires as anyplace, and they care about this community. I want to see the vision for extraordinary. If the money showed up, what would it look like?” he said.

Dr. Sharon Hoover, a MedStar researcher, agreed her team would present two final models — one focussed on prioritized recommendations “and the Cadillac model.”

Dr. Matt Thiel, another MedStar team member, offered experienced perspective. “I’ve worked with 100 school districts in Massachusetts and New Hampshire. Martha’s Vineyard is very progressive. What you’re looking to do aligns with a lot of best practices. But it’s not easily done here because you have a limited amount of resources available on the Island. We want to find ways to tether Martha’s Vineyard to those providers.”

Noting that the practices are unevenly used throughout the district, Thiel agreed with Hoover that the primary recommendation is “to universally use all guidelines on health education and curricula, so all schools and students have a similar foundation in health and wellness.”

In fact, the 20-page document delivered a real-time narrative, weaving quotes from the parent- and school-related population around research findings, including student concerns about how to seek help in a crowded school day to health and guidance counselors’ frustration with providing help in overloaded schedules, and concern from fellow teachers about the toll on their counseling colleagues.

The planned 30-minute presentation went to 45 minutes before ending as members of the All-Island School Committee, the Up-Island Regional School District, and the MVRHS school committee took in the scope of work to be done.