Steamboat schools get creative to deliver mental health programs amid staff shortages |

Steamboat schools get creative to deliver mental health programs amid staff shortages

Micah Feagler colors in his class on the first day of school in Steamboat Springs. It was also the first day of class at the new Sleeping Giant School, where he is a first-grader. (Photo by John F. Russell)

The Steamboat Springs School District has continued to ramp up its student mental health services this year, but staffing shortages are forcing councilors to get creative.

Money isn’t the problem. Funding from the Craig Scheckman Family Foundation, UCHealth Yampa Valley Medical Center, a variety of grants and from district’s general fund is enough for the district to support 18 full-time equivalent mental health-related positions.

Currently, five full-time positions and one part-time role are unfilled.

“At the start of the school year, we were short and had to do a lot of restructuring to ensure there was equity of services across the district and to ensure that there were councilors in each school building,” said Shelby DeWolfe, behavioral health and restorative practices coordinator for the district, a new, grant-funded position.

Counselor shortages are being seen in schools and health care providers across the state. DeWolfe said Mind Springs Health, which the district has long partnered with to provide therapy, is also short staffed, meaning the services they would normally supply are cut in half.

This has required a shake up of the staff the district does have, moving them around to different buildings — DeWolfe herself is doubling as a counselor at Yampa Valley High School — and contracting with outside providers.

“Over 80% of students and families receive their only mental health support from school,” DeWolfe said, citing a survey shared at a meeting with schools across the state she attended last week. “Our school counselors have been incredible at being flexible and working hard to still meet all of our students needs.”

The district has five tiers of support for students, with the most general being services for all students.

In this first tier, the district is down 2.5 school counselor positions, which primarily focus on academic, personal and career planning for students. Two restorative practices coordinator positions are also open, a job that is meant to help foster a safe, supportive and positive culture at school.

DeWolfe said they have worked with the Colorado Department of Education to ease some license requirements, allowing them more flexibility in filling some of these roles.

The next tier consists primarily of school social workers who would typically intervene in a short-term situation that may require more complex care. While down the equivalent of 1.5 staff members, DeWolfe said they have been creative to secure memorandum of understanding with private providers to bolster what they have.

For the third tier, the district contracts with Mind Springs to provide individual sessions for students and families. In previous years, DeWolfe said they could offer four hours per week at each elementary school, but this year, there are four total hours shared among them.

School-based therapists, representing tier four of services, are also contracted through Mind Springs and have been cut to a part time role. This position is more focused on long-term intensive therapy for students and families.

The highest level of care the district offers is a day treatment program for middle and high school students, but that staffing has also been halved, with one of the two full-time positions open.

Despite staff shortages, DeWolfe said the district has made a lot of progress over the past four years to increase mental health services, more than half of which are funded by grants. DeWolfe’s role, funded by a five-year Colorado Department of Education grant, is to oversee all the district is doing to better align services as students grow through the school.

DeWolfe said the district’s Wellness Committee, which is made up of community members, parents and district staff, helps advise how behavioral health services in the district will evolve.

The committee wants to implement a universal social and emotional screening and support system, which will require the district to further increase the structure of services available and improve its referral process. Another priority for the committee would look to expand the tier 1 support for all students, better working to integrate it into the district’s curriculum.

“That is a process, and to do it with integrity and fidelity, there is a lot of work to be done regarding making sure our district is ready for that,” DeWolfe said. “We’re really figuring out how is this sustainable, what do we need to truly absorb as a district as we move forward.”

DeWolfe said the district is also working to add parent training, so they understand what is available to students and why having these programs is important. The district is also relaunching the “Eat.Chat.Parent” series for kindergarten through 12th-grade parents, which bring in guest speakers to speak about child mental health.

To address some of the shortages, DeWolfe said they have looked at some online support or counseling — something that some families preferred during the pandemic.

“A lot of what we’ve learned is how I foresee our behavioral health programming being sustainable and enhanced moving forward,” DeWolfe said. “I don’t think the creativeness that we have come up with this year is going to be just because of this year because of shortages.”

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