Taking her son to the therapist used to be a lot more challenging for Deanna Jackson.
With a child on the autism spectrum, sitting in a sterile, often noisy waiting room wasn’t the most comfortable situation, and a rotating cast of counselors made it difficult for her son to make a meaningful connection and open up during therapy. For a working mother with two children, taking time off from work to make a weekday appointment wasn’t ideal, either.
“Now, he just comes home and says, ‘I saw Ms. Stephanie today,’” Jackson said. “He loves her.”
Stephanie Pope is a licensed professional counselor who has worked one-on-one with Jackson’s 10-year-old son, Alexander, for years. But instead of missing school and having to be driven to Mobile, Alexander now only has to walk the familiar halls at Saraland Elementary School for his appointments with Pope.
He is one of the hundreds of local schoolchildren who receive school-based therapy through AltaPointe Health Systems on a regular basis via contracts with local school systems. Those programs, primarily funded with federal education dollars, have grown over the years.
In the 2017-2018 school year, 149 students saw an in-house therapist in the Saraland City Schools system, which has just four schools. At least 84 received some type of medication during treatment, according to data compiled by AltaPointe.
Reasons for those visits included ADHD, developmental disabilities, behavioral problems and depression, as well as family problems and reports of abuse or neglect.
Referrals for the program can come from teachers, but some children were already AltaPointe patients outside the school setting. Either way, a student’s parents must give consent before he or she sees a therapist.
It’s convenient for parents, but Pope said it’s also good for therapists and teachers to have a child’s support network working together at the school level — especially when dealing with children with special needs or those with behavioral problems that can impact the classroom.
“Being here and being able to meet with the teachers, it can just really help settle some situations,” Pope said. “You’re really able to be more a part of a child’s life when you see them in their actual routine.”
Superintendent Aaron Milner had nothing but good things to say about the school-based therapy program, telling Lagniappe Saraland “couldn’t do without it” at this point. He said therapists are often able to identify what a student needs to be successful, whether it’s in school or at home.
“One of the biggest missing pieces in public schools is that we don’t have enough support in regards to mental health,” Milner added. “With the challenges our children face … it’s huge.”
That said, one thing made clear to parents is that AltaPointe’s school-based therapists are not school employees, and — like most therapists — have no obligation to disclose information shared with them in confidence unless there’s a safety concern for that student or others.
However, Pope said several of the students she works with have parents who want connection between the school system, the therapist and the family. Jackson said it’s been “extremely” helpful having Pope as an advocate when working with educators on her son’s Individualized Education Plan (IEP) through the school system.
“It’s really nice having her input, and having her there for backup at times,” she said. “It can be kind of intimidating when you go into a meeting with the principal, an assistant principal and a teacher, and there are all of these faces. To have somebody you know is on your side is reassuring.”
More importantly, though, Pope said the program seems to be working well for students.
According to data compiled by AltaPointe, of the 149 children receiving in-school therapy in Saraland last year, 78 showed improvement based on observations from parents, teachers and students themselves. At least one of those three sources reported improvement in another 58 cases, while only 22 students showed no progress at all during the 2017-2018 school year.
Like many aspects of early education, Pope said students with highly involved parents tend to show the greatest improvements from therapy. But even for students with parents who check out of the process, Pope said, receiving therapy in a school setting can be a lot more structured.
“When I’m dealing with a noncompliant parent, I always have to tell myself: ‘If they were in outpatient therapy, these kids would have probably just have been no-show appointments,’” Pope said. “So, they wouldn’t be getting anything at all.”
Outside Saraland, hundreds of other students in Mobile and Baldwin counties work with AltaPointe in their schools as well. Across its entire service area, AltaPointe reports some 2,200 students in grades K-12 are enrolled in some type of school-based therapy program.
Denise Riemer, director of social services for the Mobile County Public School System, said coastal Alabama is ahead of other areas as studies on student safety continue to suggest improved mental health services could help prevent school violence.
While she acknowledged more can always be done, Riemer said MCPSS has been somewhat of a model district in Alabama because of mental health initiatives it has tackled for years now.
AltaPointe’s therapists work in 42 of the district’s 89 schools, but there have been separate therapy programs all 12 MCPSS high schools for several years. Another school also recently took on a pilot program that invited students in the psychiatry residency program at the University of South Alabama to work with students directly.
All told, Reimer said accessible therapy has been invaluable because it complements the school system’s approach to “educating the whole child.”
“I think these kinds of in-school programs have really revolutionized the way we get services to children,” Riemer said. “If you go where they are, then it’s easier for everyone, and when children are socially and emotionally healthy, they’re almost always going to learn better.”
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