Student mental health, remote learning supported by OSPI grants

Five organizations serving Tacoma Public Schools students will receive grant funds to further their work supporting students’ mental health, remote learning and mentorship needs, among other things. The grants are part of an $8.1 million package of federal emergency funds distributed by the Office of the State of Public Instruction to provide students with additional learning supports. 

Mary Bridge Children’s Hospital and Health Network received $400,000 to help TPS students 13 and older at risk of a behavior or mental health crisis. The money will support teams of licensed mental health professionals who will provide assessment, counseling, case management and other services to students recommended by TPS staff. 

Laura Allen, director of the TPS Whole Child initiative supporting social and emotional wellbeing of students, believes this grant will serve as a powerful tool to help students struggling during the pandemic and beyond.

“Mary Bridge is top notch,” Allen said. “To have them provide these intensive supports is huge. I feel like the cavalry is coming to give an extra layer of protection. There’s something to do, someone to call, someone else who cares.”

Within the past four years, emergency room visits for children with a primary diagnosis of behavioral or mental health conditions have risen by 400% at Mary Bridge. In Tacoma schools, a fall student survey showed above normal instances of grief (38%), loneliness (25%), and requests for help handling large emotions (33%). 

Washington lacks the structure to support those needs. Mental Health America conducts an annual study assessing youth mental health. In 2020, Washington State ranked 43rd of 51, indicating high prevalence of mental illness and low rates of access to care. Pierce County suffers from a severe shortage of child and adolescent psychiatric practitioners, according to the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry.
As part of the grant, once counselors or teachers identify a student in need, they refer the student to the Youth Engagement Services (YES) team, a new group of licensed mental health professionals. The YES team can assign the student to a team of health care providers and advocates to help with care coordination and case planning, or possibly a longer-term treatment plan.

“We are thrilled to have been awarded this grant from OSPI as it will allow us to bring behavioral health resources, service navigation and care management services to Tacoma students via partnership with the district,” said Dr. Chris Ladish, chief clinical officer of Pediatrics Behavioral Health at Mary Bridge Children’s Hospital. “Our hope is that this pilot project will serve as a pivotal step in advancing similar models more broadly in the future.”

One piece of the grant that’s especially important is the family involvement, Allen said. 

“Parents don’t know how to help in these circumstances,” she said. “They desperately want to help. They want to alleviate what’s going on for the kids. This grant provides families direction, resources and a plan to help their children, who are suffering through no fault of their own. Parents who think their child might need these services can contact their child’s school counselor.”

Ultimately, with proper mental health support, students will hopefully recover and then succeed in school. 
“When a student is anxious or depressed, they’re struggling. How do they even think about a math problem? There’s no room for that,” Allen said. “If we can help students move through and clear out what’s weighing on them so intensely, they open up brain space for academics.” 

YMCA childcare and remote learning support
With its grant, the YMCA of Pierce and Kitsap Counties will continue supporting TPS students in remote learning.

During the school day, some TPS students attend their remote learning classes while in the care of YMCA staff in person at a Tacoma school site. Y counselors help students get online, support their classwork and provide enrichment activities like art and robotics. Children can also get before-school and after-school care in person through the YMCA.  

“Many of the students enrolled in our program have parents who are essential personnel or that have jobs that can’t be performed while working from home,” said Jessie Palmer, development director of the YMCA of Pierce and Kitsap Counties. “Our Distance Learning Support program helps alleviate some of the worries and stress for these parents by providing all-day care and learning support for their children.” 

The grant will help ensure that the Y can continue to offer these support and enrichment activities to all students who need support completing remote learning in the 2020-21 school year.

The Y currently serves 156 TPS students at its three remote learning sites - Mason, Truman and Stewart middle schools. 

Hilltop Artists
Hilltop Artists has creatively brought art and mentorship to Tacoma’s students during the pandemic, and $50,000 in OSPI grant funding will help that work continue. 

The Tacoma organization, which typically provides hands-on learning to 650 TPS students a year through the glassblowing, refocused its work during the pandemic. 

When school closed to in-person instruction in March, Hilltop Artists turned to arts engagement through an online glass arts curriculum. They offered guest lectures, virtual studio tours, weekly Zoom meetings, and at-home art projects through the delivery of art kits. Eventually, activities grew to include a socially distanced after-school program at the Museum of Glass. They even created scavenger hunts around Tacoma for students to find artwork around the city. 

“With our kids online all day every day, we wanted to give them ideas on how to explore their town and find local treasures,” said Dr. Kimberly Keith, executive director of Hilltop Artists. “We will continue delivering programming, COVID or no COVID. Our mission is to connect young people to a better future—to get an education, develop critical thinking skills and use their imagination. It’s just challenging right now.” 

This fall, the organization has provided virtual learning through daytime, after-school and evening programs to Tacoma students, including elective classes at Jason Lee Middle School and Wilson High School, where the glassblowing hot shops teem with activity in a normal year. 

“Grant funds will allow Hilltop Artists to continue our incredibly important work helping students express themselves through art and use art as a means of engagement,” Keith said. “We just have to be flexible in our approach to connecting kids to art to get to their better futures—no matter the environment.”

Communities in Schools
When schools closed to in-person learning in March, the team at the Tacoma branch of Communities in Schools (CIS) made a quick pivot.

While the organization focuses primarily on helping students stay in school through providing academic support, team members know helping a family as a whole can go a long way toward individual student success. 

“We didn’t pause. We all went home with our laptops,” said Executive Director Nova Hernandez. “We started calling the families we work with and asking what they need. With COVID, a lot of our families found themselves needing help meeting basic needs for the first time, so we were able to help them find resources.”

In a typical year, CIS provides tailored academic support to about 350 students a year in five Tacoma schools: Arlington and Fern Hill elementary schools, Gray Middle School, and Mount Tahoma and Oakland high schools.

That support includes in-person tutoring, helping students develop their leadership skills, and providing enrichment activities like art, technology and community service opportunities. During remote learning, those activities are still happening in an online format. 

With the portion of the $300,000 grant provided to their statewide umbrella organization, Communities in Schools of Washington, the Tacoma branch can continue to support students locally.

“This grant means our staff will continue to be able to continue doing this good work—everything from facilitating food distribution every week, to tutoring groups of kids or helping one student at a time apply for college,” Hernandez said. “It’s extremely meaningful to receive this support. I’m grateful that people believe in and value the work we’re doing.” 

Friends of the Children
With its $75,000 in OSPI grant funding, Friends of the Children-Tacoma expects to double the number of people it serves next year by helping 48 children experiencing, or at risk of experiencing, foster care. 

Each child served by the organization is assigned a personal mentor, one person to help every child over the course of 12 years. Mentors meet with each child four hours a week, working on life skills like problem solving and perseverance that will help them overcome obstacles. 

“We create deep, lasting relationships with the child and their family,” said Executive Director JR. Nobles. “We want to be that consistent thread. As kids go from one caregiver to the next, that’s where the relationship with the mentor is so important. Mentors make that transition with them from one doorstep to the next.”
Even now, though they can’t meet in person, mentors and children keep up their connections and relationships by meeting virtually—and keep it meaningful. 

“One of our mentors created a bat cave background for virtual meetings because a young boy he meets with loves Batman. We drop off treats for the kids and then meet that night for virtual movie night,” Nobles said. “We’re building gingerbread houses together online. We have to create ways to engage kids and develop relationships and overcome these obstacles. No matter what.” 

Tacoma Public Schools Superintendent Carla Santorno expressed her gratitude for the work supporting Tacoma students. 

“I feel so grateful that these community-based organizations received financial support to continue their good work supporting our students,” she said. “They are working tirelessly and thinking creatively to give students every possible advantage, and our students are the better for it.”

Media Contact

Dan Voelpel, Executive Director of Communications | 253-571-1015 |

About Tacoma Schools

Tacoma Public Schools is the only district designated an Innovation Zone by Washington State. A leader in implementing innovative schools and programs to meet the diverse needs of every student, every day, TPS serves approximately 30,000 students from preschool to grade 12 and at nearly 5000 employees is one of the largest employers in Tacoma. Learn more...


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