This is the first year with a full team addressing a range of social-emotional issues at the Hollister School District.
It’s particularly important in the pandemic with the return of students to campuses in the fall of 2021-22, and the district has prioritized the Social-Emotional Team as an integral part of the learning environment.
In the past, there were typically just two school counselors in the district, one at Rancho San Justo Middle School and one at Maze Middle School. Now, there are school counselors, licensed social workers and licensed mental health therapists assigned to district sites, noted Daniel Romero, a school counselor assigned to Calaveras/AAA.
For instance, Maze and Rancho San Justo middle schools each have two counselors on site. Rancho also has a mental health therapist and School Social Worker — as do Cerra Vista, Sunnyslope, Rancho Santana, HDLA and Ladd Lane. All of them are full-time employees.
“It’s a more proactive approach — a more positive, proactive approach,” said Romero, who grew up across the street from Calaveras School and attended local schools.
Romero started as a school counselor, but went on to become an assistant principal and then a special education coordinator. He decided being a school counselor was “the thing I love most.”
“I wanted to give back to our community,” he said. “My passion has always been working with students and families.”
He pointed to a wide range of student issues to address. Often, students’ home lives are at the root of those matters.
“How can a student learn when they’re going through all these other things?” he said.
The district S.E. Team’s evolution has involved using a variety of successful programs such as Capturing Kids Hearts, which focuses on relationship building; Positive Behavioral Interventions and Support; and the Multi-tiered System of Support, which encompasses an umbrella of resources.
For instance, when cases arise, school counselors would handle the first tier of issues. If further therapeutic interventions are needed, the licensed social workers and licensed mental health therapists step in. The licensed social workers and therapists are the team members who handle more in-depth therapy, and the need for such services has amplified during the pandemic, Romero noted.
Licensed social workers such as Eliana Delgadillo, who is based at Ladd Lane but can work at different sites, have been helping students to understand the new normal after returning full time to campuses.
“We’re seeing a lot of adjustment to the school setting,” said Delgadillo, also a licensed social worker. She pointed out how students who were kindergartners when the shelter-in-place initially happened ended up spending first grade learning virtually most of the year. Now they’re in second grade, and it’s “almost like a brand-new environment,” she said.
Delgadillo said the S.E. Team members are helping students to feel less anxiety, and educating them about wearing masks and being careful about COVID-19. She noted parents are “dealing with a lot at home,” which can cause a need for more student support.
“They can decompress and express what they’re feeling,” she said.
It’s important for the S.E. Team to make sure parents are aware of the services, Delgadillo said.
“For the parents, it’s showing them that we are trying to support all aspects of their children’s development and education,” she said.
Like Delgadillo, Adina Austin has a diverse background that includes over a decade working in the nonprofit sector. Austin is a licensed marriage and family therapist who came from a six-year stint with the San Benito County Office of Education, as the SELPA-ERMHS (Educational Related Mental Health Services) Program Coordinator. Austin’s role was to ensure students within special education received their mental health support and services. With districts increasingly handling therapy on site, she moved over to the Hollister School District to be part of the development to provide mental health support for all students within the district.
She said therapists can help with a wide range of issues, such as major depression, anxiety or ADHD. She said while social workers are well rounded, the licensed therapists specifically oversee mental health therapy.
She said the S.E. Team has developed the program “from the ground up” with a referral form and a focused process. She emphasized how every site has its own social-emotional expert. Those experts may meet with a student for 10 to 12 counseling sessions. If there isn’t necessary progress, the case gets moved up to licensed therapists like Austin. The focus is no longer on punishment for students with mental health issues, she said.
“My focus is educating adults, working with students and providing a safe space for students to tell their story,” said Austin, who oversees Cerra Vista School and will assist the Calaveras/AAA campuses when there is a need for a licensed therapist.
She went on: “All of these students have not only experienced a pandemic, but they also come from somewhere unique. Everybody has a different story”.
As for the pandemic, she said there is “a lot of anxiety” on campuses. She said while some students may have actually performed “really well” at home, in other situations parents didn’t have time to help or didn’t know how.
“I just want to be able to provide knowledge and encourage all to have some empathy and understanding, especially the adults, about what our students have endured.”