Greg Seefeldt sees college as a place where students ask some of the toughest questions of their lives.
“At this stage of adolescence, they’re making this identity transition,” said Seefeldt, principal of Douglas High School. “Am I the person of the family? Am I an individual? This struggle is the one that every college student goes through.
Then he added with a chuckle: “And this is the one we all try to forget.”
Seefeldt was describing the college trials that may be intensified by the pandemic and the instability it engenders. In the case of Douglas Middle School, teenage struggles are also occurring in a school whose population has, for the most part, grown over the past decade or so, and greater growth is expected. Approximately 670 students are attending Douglas Middle School this school year.
In the midst of such challenges, the school participates in Project AWARE, a national program designed, among other things, to strengthen awareness and training regarding mental health issues and to connect children and their families with needed services.
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Douglas Middle School is in partnership with Black Hills Special Services Cooperative and Behavior Management Systems. The Black Hills Special Services Cooperative administers the grant locally, Seefeldt said.
Ultimately, the grant comes from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. It is administered at the state level by the South Dakota Department of Education and the South Dakota Department of Human Services, departments that “partner with school districts and community mental health centers to improve access to mental health services, ”according to the South Dakota Department. from the Education website.
Douglas Middle School was one of a group of schools across the state that began participating in a Project AWARE pilot program in 2018, according to the state Department of Education website.
In 2019, staff at Black Hills Special Services Cooperative and Behavior Management Systems began working at the college.
“It’s really designed to focus on the whole school population and their needs,” said Carrie Carney, AWARE Community Project Manager with Black Hills Special Services Cooperative. She said that socio-emotional, behavioral and academic support are all part of the program.
Carney also noted that Project AWARE works with what is known as the Tiered Support Systems framework. This, she said, has three levels, the first involving services designed for all students – then becoming more specialized with each level.
One of the practices of the first level, Carney explained, is the framework of positive behavioral interventions and supports – known as PBIS.
“With PBIS we really focus on bonding with students and creating a cozy atmosphere with students,” Seefeldt said. “It’s a departure from the traditional model you see in movies and on television where discipline comes first.”
Carney said all students participate in PBIS and they also receive presentations focused on the National Alliance on Mental Illness. Other practices also fall under the first level, she said.
The second level, Carney explained, involves “targeted intervention.” This, she said, includes working with individual students and groups of students who may have difficulty with lessons, social interactions, or other issues.
The third level includes more intensive services, and is managed by Jennifer Marshik, Care Systems Coordinator with Behavior Management Systems, a Rapid City-based organization offering counseling and other services. Marshik said most of the children she works with can benefit from outside therapy. She also works with families.
“The (students) might need a community counselor,” she said, noting that her work with behavior management systems gives her access to such counseling. She also helps students and families locate basic needs such as food, clothing and school supplies.
Seefeldt stressed the importance of having more adults in the building ready to speak with the students.
“Students will approach a trusted adult, whether that’s a teacher, guardian, or Project Aware (staff member),” he said. “The good thing is that the adults in the building have more opportunities to have conversations and bring resources to the kids. “
Seefeldt said the school district also has a social worker who can now increase the time she spends at other schools.
“She’s wonderful at what she does,” Seefeldt said, but noted the benefit of having new, strictly dedicated staff at the college.
“Having Carrie and Jennifer here allows this social worker to spend more time in other buildings,” he said. “This strengthens the capacity of our building as well as that of the neighborhood. “
And now, after the pandemic has subsided, the presence of trusted adults can be especially important.
“Having to go back to school was difficult for the students,” said Carney.
And the search for identity, as Seefeldt explained, can be a difficult process for middle school students, even in the most ordinary of times.
Carney said the grant runs on an annual basis for up to five years. She said after January 1, residents of the district and state will discuss strategies to support progress.