Ligonier Valley School District was already under-resourced when it came to meeting the mental health needs of its learners. Then the pandemic hit. At the beginning of the 2021-22 school year, the district sought help from Effective School Solutions (ESS) to meet the skyrocketing needs of its students.
The Challenge Facing Ligonier Valley
Coming out of the pandemic, the greatest challenge facing the district was access to mental health services for its learners. There are roughly 1,400 children and adolescents in Ligonier Valley, which is located in Westmoreland County in western Pennsylvania. As the mental health crisis escalated over the last decade, the district was already experiencing a severe shortage of mental health care providers for its young people. “We knew we had issues prior to the pandemic,” says Ed Moran, Ligonier Valley’s Director of Education. “And coming out of the pandemic, we knew we were going to have more.”
What problems were they seeing in their student population? Suicidal ideation. Cutting and other forms of self-harming. Depression. Anxiety. Truancy. The district regularly saw 45 to 50 young people a year hospitalized for mental health issues — and that was before COVID-19.
The Solution: Tier-2 Services through ESS
In advance of the 2021-22 school year, Tim Kantor, Ligonier Valley’s Superintendent, says the district knew it had to increase access to services. He decided to partner with ESS to implement Tier-2 programming for its middle school and high school. This would augment the efforts of existing school staff and provide support for children and adolescents with mild to moderate mental health challenges.
But as with most districts this year, the mental health needs of Ligonier Valley’s young people exceeded anything administrators anticipated, and for a number of learners, Tier 2 support wasn’t enough. So, ESS and district leaders worked together to find solutions. They enhanced the level of care at the middle school and high school to provide more frequent clinician meetings for young people and parents who needed extra support. And because the programming was proving so effective, they added a Tier 2 program at their elementary schools when needs began rising among younger children.
ESS’s flexibility has been a major plus for the district, Moran says. And he notes that ESS’s expertise has been invaluable. “We could hire three clinical social workers, but who would supervise them? Who would give them the clinical background and expertise to run a therapeutic program for children in a school setting?”
Kantor says something else that’s been critical this year has been ESS’s comprehensive support for teachers. The district implemented twice-monthly support sessions for teachers, which they call “Wellness Wednesdays.” The sessions take place in the evenings and are topical, and attendance has been high with about one-third of the teachers in the district participating.
There are many ways to measure success, but Ligonier Valley has a striking one. Before the pandemic, they were seeing 45 to 50 young people hospitalized per year for mental health issues. This year — coming out of the pandemic — they’ve had seven hospitalizations. Kantor and Moran say there’s no doubt this is because they’ve had high-quality services in place.
In addition, Moran reports that they’re sending fewer students home for discipline issues because learners have access to their therapist right there in the school building. Ninety percent of the time, says Moran, the learners are able to de-escalate and return to the classroom, which means they have greater access to instructional time.
Feedback from learners and parents about ESS’s services has been overwhelmingly positive. Referring to her daughter’s therapist, one parent remarked, “I don’t know how we would have gotten through the school year without her.”
While still in its first year, the financial benefit of the partnership is also impressive: the estimated higher-level-of-care prevention for 9 Tier-2 students is $135K.