Five years ago, we began to see dramatic increases in the presentation of serious mental health issues in our students. The Iredell-Statesville Schools Student Services Department staff took matters into their own hands in 2019 and applied for three large federal grants, in hopes that they could effectively and innovatively begin to meet the growing needs of their students. I-SS was the only grantee in the nation to be awarded all three grants at once.

The devastating fact is that this issue isn’t unique to Iredell County. Most public schools in North Carolina strive to address the growing mental, emotional, behavioral, and academic needs of students with a severe lack of funding.

Student outcomes, both academic and behavioral, are the focus, especially in the most at-risk schools in the county. While I-SS students continue to feel the negative ripple effects of a global pandemic, district staff is hard at work putting federal dollars into school buildings and classrooms. The federal grants have brought over $25 million and 29 staff members to help alleviate the growing pressure and meet the increasing needs of the students that we serve.

These funds have been a blessing to our students and county, especially during a time when it’s hard to go a week without news of yet another devastating school shooting, heartbreaking suicide, or other mental health crisis.

However, the other side of that is worth sharing.

Without these grant funds, the district would be forced to go from 10 social workers to three. All 38 schools would have 22 nurses instead of our current 24 that not only serve the everyday needs of all students but specialize in providing health care support to 3,501 students with an identified health condition. Without these funds, I-SS would have zero behavior specialists instead of the current six. The 16 Student Assistance Program (SAP) coordinators, who work daily to help students improve their mental health and well-being, would be reduced to 12.

To be clear, in 2023, it takes much more than classroom teachers to meet the growing social, emotional, mental, and academic needs of our youth. Without the federal grant funds, current student-to-staff ratios for counselors, social workers, nurses, and behavior staff are nowhere near the recommended allowances or ratios needed. Truthfully, even with the federal dollars it still isn’t enough, but it’s better.

School-Based Therapists and the I-SS School-Based Therapy Program would not be possible without grant funding. Once again, in 2022, the Student Services Department applied for yet another grant to make sure the support does not end for students. I-SS was awarded an additional $17 million in grant funding in January of 2023, which will allow the I-SS team to build an internal school-based therapy program.

Federal grant dollars are impactful, and Iredell-Statesville Schools is proud and grateful for the opportunity to put the federal dollars to life-changing use to directly benefit our students. However, there is a concerning pattern here. To effectively meet the needs of our student population, the I-SS Student Services Department is having to repeatedly pursue other funding sources that are temporary.

Iredell-Statesville Schools needs the public’s help. Please contact your elected state officials and urge them to appropriately allocate state funds annually so educators can support the mental, emotional, behavioral, and academic needs of our students. At the end of the day, public schools are called to meet the needs of our students, remove barriers and level the educational playing field to make education accessible to all students, regardless of their circumstances.

Jessica Smith is the program director for Student Support Services in Iredell-Statesville Schools.

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