Austin (KXAN) — As part of KXAN’s Save Our Students project, KXAN is sitting down with superintendents from a handful of school districts in the Austin area to talk with them about how their campuses are addressing mental health issues.
The Superintendents answer questions live on the KXAN morning show followed with a deeper conversation on mental health and safety with Digital Reporter Alyssa Goard.
Superintendent, Dr. Fred Brent
Georgetown Independent School District’s superintendent, Dr. Fred Brent, sat down with KXAN Thursday.
Throughout the interview, Brent emphasized that the district has been focusing on improving students’ emotional health and building trust with them as a way to improve academics and overall wellness.
He also explained the district has been making more investments in campus safety, in part through the help of voters.
“As you know school safety is always a priority, and, in recent years, it’s become heightened even more,” Brent said.
He says that heightened focus became visible in the 2015 bond election which got the ball rolling on securing entryways for all Georgetown schools. With those changes, no one can go directly to GISD classrooms from the outside — they have to go through a secure entryway and check in with an adult to get to where the children are.
“We just have to find all ways to protect kids, so that was an important piece, and we’ve created that project for the last two bond elections, but in the 2018 bond, we included security cameras,” Brent explained.
The 2018 bond allowed the district to install secure, digital cameras at all school entrances. In the past, Brent said, the district did not have cameras at elementary schools. Now, it does.
“In today’s world, safety and security is a top priority, but we also want to keep a healthy learning environment, and part of the answer to that is digital cameras at the entrance to every school,” Brent said. He added that first responders have access to these cameras in the event of an emergency through WiFi. Giving law enforcement access to school cameras through WiFi is a strategy other local districts, such as Hays CISD, are trying.
Brent said his district works with local law enforcement and fire departments to create a protocol for emergencies and to run emergency drills.
The 2018 Bond election also funded radio communications systems for emergencies in schools, giving the district technology to allow first responders to speak directly via radio to campus leaders and district staff during a crisis.
Brent is a parent. Two of his children actually attend high school in his district. He says it’s comforting to know police officers are on campus in the district’s secondary schools.
He added that, as a parent, he also takes comfort in the training school staff members get in building relationships with students.
Mental health and wellness
“We ask every teacher that goes through Georgetown ISD to go through a program called ‘Capturing Kids’ Hearts’ where you spend two full days focusing on positive, appropriate relationships with students — how to build trust,” Brent said.
“If a child does not feel emotionally safe in your classroom, they’re not going to learn,” he continued. “If we don’t know our kids, we can’t design meaningful work, and the only way kids make academic advancements is if teachers know their learning needs by having a relationship with them. “
Brent said that when he went to school in the 80s, students didn’t experience the same pressures his kids do now in school.
“Here’s the thing — we are living in a high-stakes testing world,” he said. “For example, the accountability system that’s out there now. I was in a meeting with superintendents yesterday and we’re like, ‘How do we navigate this new system?’ It’s changing constantly, and how do we help parents understand what academic advancement looks like for their kids?”
Brent believes that high-stakes culture can negatively impact students and their mental health.
“Years ago, we had students just coming to school nauseous, worried about the test, literally ill because of the pressure they were feeling to perform at a certain level on the STAAR test,” Brent said.
“So in Georgetown, we don’t look as good as some districts on the accountability system, but we’re accountable to our students and to our parents and to our taxpayers for what they learn,” he continued. “And so we want to make sure we meet the emotional needs of our kids while making academic advancement.”
“I think that we are driven by a lot of different factors in society and there are a lot of pressures,” he said. “I feel like, maybe our students well being has been compromised by some of the initiatives pushed down on us from the state and other areas.”
Brent believes the most powerful tool the district has to combat those pressures is the relationship GISD has with community partners. For example, a local group called the Georgetown Project helps raise money for students who are at-risk. Another program called “Nest” invites in students who are homeless to come in for meals and activities.
The district has also recently added counselor positions to better meet student mental health needs. Brent said that partnerships with some outside groups help students in crisis get connected to professional resources.
What resources would Brent want to support student mental health and wellness if money and time were unlimited?
“More adults to work with kids on their mental health and emotional needs so that kids feel emotionally safe and that there’s an advocate for them at every turn,” he said, adding that he would also like to see, “meaningful pathways for kids where they would have a plan for when they leave us [after graduation].”
He hopes that students and parents do not hesitate to make sure the district knows what their needs are for a better school experience.
“And for the mental health needs of our students, man, I just would ask our community that we continue the dialogue that we figure out what we can do to make sure we’re being what our students need us to be,” he said.
KXAN has interviewed Lake Travis ISD, Hays CISD , and Austin ISD about solutions they are trying out as well. We will also be interviewing superintendents from Pflugerville ISD Round Rock ISD, and Leander ISD as part of our continuing coverage of the solutions districts are turning to when it comes to addressing mental health and wellness.