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PITTSBURGH — Maria Hubal sent one student back to class just as another walked in. The sixth grader, slouched over with his hood pulled low, made a beeline to a hammock chair and curled up.

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Hubal, Bellevue Elementary’s behavioral health school educator, gently asked if everything was OK and what she could do to help. He said he was at a “red” — based on a color thermometer posted by the door that students can use to describe their stress level.

“OK. Give me something so I know what’s going on,” Hubal responded.

The student finally mumbled, “I’m very, very stressed.” He sighed, continuing, “There’s a lot of stuff going on at my home, and also here at school.”

Conversations like this are common in Hubal’s class, the school’s appointed “Chill Room,” where students know her as the chill therapist. The room has an open-door policy — students who are feeling anxious, stressed, overwhelmed, or just need to reset can ask for a room pass at any time during the school day. They have 10 minutes in the room before they have to head back to class, unless Hubal decides they need more.

Bellevue Elementary is one of three school buildings in the Northgate School District, a district of 1,100 students two miles from downtown Pittsburgh. As Northgate returned fully to in-person learning in 2021, educators here noticed that student mental health had worsened, and decided to dedicate nearly a fifth of the district’s federal Covid-relief funds — about $800,000 — to building out its mental health programs.

It contracted with the Allegheny Health Network’s Chill Project, a school-based mindfulness and behavioral health initiative, enabling the district to add six full-time therapists to its staff. The district also partnered with a nearby farm specializing in equine-assisted therapy, and in February, hired a full-time horticulture therapist to expand a horticulture therapy initiative launched last year.

Students from Avalon Elementary school’s after-school Kindness Club created buttons advocating kindness to pass out in their community. Credit: Javeria Salman//The Hechinger Report

Three years in, educators and district leaders say they’ve seen a noticeable change in their students — both in their academics and their behavior and mental well-being. Behavioral incidents, particularly physical confrontations between students, have dropped in the past three years, according to Caroline Johns, the district’s superintendent. The district’s graduation rate has increased by nearly 11 percent in that time, to 94 percent.

That said, the effort has come with challenges: Northgate spent many months getting buy-in from school staff and families at a time when school-based mental health had become a target of the culture wars elsewhere. The federal funding that propelled these programs is set to expire this year, so the district will need to find other ways of sustaining the work.

“Covid lit the house on fire,” said Jeff Evancho, Northgate’s director of partnerships and equity. “In a lot of ways, this became a method to tackle that problem.”

Related: The school psychologist pipeline is broken. Can new federal money fix it?

The Northgate school district serves students from two small boroughs nestled along the Ohio River, about 90 percent of whom are eligible for the free and reduced-price meal program. Even before the pandemic, the district was dealing with poor academic performance, low attendance, disengaged family members, and student mental and behavioral health challenges.

When students returned to school after months of social isolation, many were grieving family members lost to Covid or coping with parents who had lost their jobs or homes, according to district officials. The district’s guidance counselors had to shift from academic to mental health counseling.

“The needs we saw when the kids came back were more significant than anything we’d ever seen,” said Johns, the superintendent.

A few months before the pandemic, Johns had seen a presentation about AHN’s Chill Project, launched in 2019, and longed to bring it to her district. Its founder and director, William Davies, had worked in urban and suburban schools and seen firsthand the lack of mental health supports. In the 2022-23 academic year, counselors nationwide served an average of 385 students; the numbers were even more stark for school psychologists — 1 to 1,119 students.

“There’s this perfect recipe and perfect storm for an absolute disaster scenario where kids are falling through the cracks, and they’re suffering greatly,” Davies said.

Bellevue Elementary’s Chill Room is filled with stuffed toys and pillows designed to help students feel welcome and reset during the school day. Credit: Javeria Salman//The Hechinger Report

Davies sought to help schools create a culture that prioritized student and teacher mental health in several ways: by establishing universal interventions such as monthly lessons on coping with peer conflict, self harm and other issues; by providing a dedicated space that allows students and teachers to decompress or get immediate help from a therapist; and providing in-school therapy or crisis therapeutic sessions of the sort that are typically offered by a hospital or clinic.

When federal Covid relief funds became available, Johns was able to plow some of the money into bringing the AHN model to her district. Nationwide, other districts made similar calculations: More than a third of 5,000 school districts surveyed by the group FutureEd in 2022 said they planned to use at least some of their Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) funds on mental health programs or staff. That said, the overall share of spending on those programs appears to be low, according to the group.

Today, Northgate’s three school buildings each have two full-time therapists who, like Hubal in Bellevue, are AHN Chill Program employees, in addition to three school counselors. One therapist at each school provides traditional talk therapy, while the other manages the Chill room and teaches monthly Chill lessons to help students develop strategies for dealing with stress and anxiety.

Sydney Jackson, a senior who has been a regular in the middle/high school’s Chill room since it opened, comes in every day to water the plants that line the window sills. There’s also a “nest” filled with bean bags, and comfy couches and chairs framing an electric fireplace.

Krissy Rohr, a Northgate Chill therapist and educator, leads a monthly Chill lesson on building healthy relationships and boundaries for a group of high school seniors. Credit: Javeria Salman//The Hechinger Report

Before the Chill room, Sydney said she would often go into the bathroom and cry. Now she visits “Miss Krissy” — Krissy Rohr, the middle/high school’s Chill therapist and educator — who helps her manage her feelings and develop coping skills.

“I’ve gotten so much better at identifying my feelings,” she said. “The thing that I do the most is called “catastrophizing,” which is finding the worst possible outcome of any situation. Miss Krissy has taught me what it is and how to deal with it. I’ve learned how to challenge those thoughts and feelings.”

The regular chill lessons have helped too, she said. On a Tuesday morning, Sydney sat in a classroom with the nine other students in her advisory group, listening as Rohr taught a lesson on healthy relationships.

Rohr opened the discussion by asking the class what friendship meant to them, then asked them to consider what they expect from their friends and the qualities they’re drawn to.

Later, Rohr divided the students into smaller groups and asked each to come up with answers to two questions: “What do you say to a friend that’s pressuring you to do something that you aren’t comfortable with?” and “Why is it better to talk something out with a person as opposed to talking about them with other people?”

As Rohr walked around the class observing, she told one group, “No matter what you do your whole life, you’re never going to be everybody’s cup of tea, somebody is always going to take an issue with something.”

Nevaeh Bonner, a senior, responded: “I try to remind myself of that every day. Just do what you do, do what you want to do, because someone’s just gonna find a reason.”

Related: A surprising remedy for teens in mental health crises

About a 20-minute drive away, Orchardview Stables sits on an expanse of green fields home to 16 horses, two goats, chickens and a resident cat.

Each semester, the district selects eight or nine middle schoolers to care for a horse on the farm — feeding, cleaning and riding it. Mary Kay Soergel, a riding instructor and the director of Orchardview Stables, said when kids come to work with the horses, “they learn compassion” and how to be responsible for another living being.

Orchardview Stables in Wexford, Pennsylvania, specializes in working with young people through the use of equine-assisted therapy. Each semester, the Northgate School District selects eight or nine middle schoolers to care for a horse on the farm. Credit: Javeria Salman//The Hechinger Report

The farm is a family business for the Soergel family, who not only work but live on the farm. Soergel’s daughter, Tessa Maxwell, is a former special education teacher who serves as the farm’s executive director and the lead certified therapeutic riding instructor. The farm also employs a clinical trauma mental health professional, who also offers expertise as an equine-assisted psychotherapist.

“Horses are pretty honest through their body language. Horses are very accepting as long as you respect them,” said Maxwell. “It’s very therapeutic because kids don’t have to pretend to be something they’re not. They don’t have to worry about the shoes they’re wearing or the clothes they have on or the grades they’re getting.”

This year, the district is trying to align the equine therapy program more closely with the Chill program by having Maxwell and other professionals at the stables work with the district’s Chill therapists. The Orchardview staff try to keep the same themes and lessons the kids might be working through in school in their conversations with kids at the farm, while the Chill therapists help students debrief lessons or emotions they experienced in their work with horses.

The district has also started to embrace horticulture therapy, thanks to a $70,000 “moonshot” grant in 2022 from the organization Remake Learning. Horticulture therapy uses plant-based and gardening activities to help individuals struggling with stress, anxiety and depression.

Through a donation from nearby Chatham University, Northgate received its first greenhouse, built next to the football field outside the middle/high school. Chill therapists have run summer camps there and a gardening club started by the high school art teacher now numbers more than 55 members.

In January, the district hired a certified horticulture therapist to lead the program, including working in the greenhouse with ninth graders who participate in a mandatory life skills class.

Aside from building out specific mental health programs, the district’s elementary schools launched a “Kindness Club” in 2022 and the high school has a “No Place for Hate” club.

Related: Mental health: Is that a job for schools?

Northgate leaders know their level of investment in mental health programs is unusual.  It has also come with risks: School districts in Pennsylvania and across the country have faced opposition from community and school board members when they’ve tried to create programs that address students’ emotional and behavioral needs. Groups such as Moms for Liberty and No Left Turn in Education have sued districts and targeted social-emotional learning programs in Bucks County and Cumberland County.

But Northgate has avoided that so far, in part by taking a gradual approach and being transparent with parents and school board members, say administrators. The district first invested in professional development to educate teachers about, and train them on, the Chill program. The district also started holding family engagement nights to showcase the mental health services and acquaint parents with the Chill lessons.

Mary Kay Soergel, a riding instructor and the director of Orchardview Stables, said when kids come to work with the horses, “they learn compassion” and how to be responsible for another living being. Credit: Javeria Salman//The Hechinger Report

Cheryl Patalano, who serves on the district’s board of directors, said she is glad that her middle schooler and her high schooler have a safe space in the school they can visit to decompress.

Patalano said that the Chill Room is a place where students can go during the school day when they can’t go home to “get away from things.”

“Now we have this whole room, so I think it’s great,” she said. “They are very non judgmental, and I feel like just knowing that it’s there is also a huge help.”

Evancho, the partnerships and equity director, said the programs have begun to create an atmosphere where students feel comfortable talking about mental health. “There’s no problem for a kid to leave class and say ‘I gotta go to the Chill Room.’ The kids don’t feel weird about it, it’s just built into our school culture in a pretty authentic way.”

Nearly three times as many students access therapy now than before the district partnered with the Chill Project, according to Johns, the superintendent. The district is still collecting data to determine the programs’ effectiveness, and will spend the next school year analyzing the information collected over the past two years, Johns said.

The changes the district has seen in its students are driving it to find funding to keep the programs going when ESSER money evaporates later this year. So far it has secured some additional funding through statewide grants for mental health and school safety, and it is applying for other federal and philanthropic support. Eventually, Johns said, the district will have to find ways to fund the programs directly out of its own budget, which is about $28.5 million a year. All told, Northgate has dedicated about $920,000 in private and public money to the new programs, the vast majority of it for the Chill Project.

McKenna, a first grader, plays with Legos while she chats with Bellevue Elementary’s behavioral health school educator, Maria Hubal, during her recess break. Credit: Javeria Salman//The Hechinger Report

On a Tuesday afternoon just after recess, first grader McKenna ran into Bellevue Elementary’s Chill Room for a quick chat with Hubal. She pulled a tub of Lego bricks over to the table and sat down — it’s her favorite activity when talking with Hubal. McKenna said the room is calming, especially if she hugs a Squishmello, one of the many stuffed animals in the room.

She comes into the room when she has a “really, really bad attitude or is angry with somebody,” she said. But she said going to the Chill Room — and the lessons she gets there — has helped her learn to control her emotions and better communicate with her mother and classmates even when she’s frustrated.

Just knowing the room and Hubal are near reassures her, McKenna said: “I can come in here whenever I need and she helps me.”

This story about mental health support in schools was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.

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