January 9, 2013

Group claims Cony High School students not getting needed health services

Depression, anxiety, homelessness, suicidal thoughts and problems at home affect academic performance, say school board members, Cony staff

By Keith Edwards kedwards@centralmaine.com
Staff Writer

AUGUSTA -- Cony High School students are not getting the health services they need to be successful in school, according to a group that studied what it said are gaps in meeting the emotional needs of students.

Kim Silsby

Staff file photo by Joe Phelan

The gaps surfaced in the wake of budget cuts to the student health center at Cony, combined with other school, city and state cuts, which together stretched resources so far that students' needs are not being met, group members said.

Those needs can be significant, with many students dealing with depression, anxiety, homelessness, suicidal thoughts and problems at home that make it hard for them to focus on academics.

"Having a student population with needs that are greater than ever, and staff and resources that are fewer than ever, it really makes it tough," said Krista Chase, a guidance counselor at Cony for 12 years. "It makes us question, who are the students out there we don't know of who are struggling?"

On Wednesday, the group proposed to the Board of Education to try to meet students' needs better by hiring a social worker and one full- and one part-time administrative assistant, paying a stipend for a nurse to serve as coordinator of the health center, and getting grants and further collaboration between school and community agencies.

The group -- including school board members, Cony administrators, a guidance counselor and nurse, as well as representatives from area behavioral health service agencies -- has met since September to discuss student health services at Cony, which takes students in grades 7 to 12.

Since 2009, according to the report, cuts in student health services included two social workers; the coordinator of the health center; a data entry position; a part-time receptionist; one guidance counselor; the elimination of a program with Family Medicine Institute, which provided a doctor who could see students; and two educational support services positions.

"We listed all the positions we had at one time and looked at all of them that have been eliminated, and it's pretty staggering to look at all that," said Kimberly Silsby, Cony's acting principal and a member of the study group. "It is significant enough that it has impacted our ability to work with students."The group's recommendations for Cony inclu sde:

* Hiring a social worker, to be paid though the district's special education funding this year if funds are available, or, if not, as part of the school budget starting in school year 2013-2014;

* Hiring a full-time administrative assistant for the health center;

* Hiring a part-time administrative assistant for the guidance department;

* Providing a stipend to a school nurse to serve as coordinator of the student health cen ater;

* Seeking and obtaining grant funding to support student services; and seeking further collaboration between school and community agencies including Kennebec Behavioral Health and Crisis and Counseling.

Silsby said the cost of the positions was unavailable Wednesday but would be available and part of the upcoming discussion about next year's school budget.

Betsy Harwood, one of two school nurses at Cony, said having an administrative assistant or receptionist to manage the flow of students seeking health services would free nurses up to provide more care for students.

The report found an average of 51 students a day are seen by nurses in the health center, an average of 50 students a day visit the guidance department for services, and Kennebec Behavioral Health therapists see an average of five students a day at Cony, five days a week.

Jennifer Lindquist, a clinical social worker with Kennebec Behavioral Health who has provided services to students at Cony for 31/2 years, said an average day there can include talking with students who are homeless, dealing with the death of a parent, having a parent in prison, struggling with addiction or suffering from psychotic symptoms.

Keith Edwards -- 621-5647
kedwards@centralmaine.com

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