CASTLE ROCK - All Douglas County School District (DCSD) Middle Schools are gaining an additional full-time counselor this year thanks to a recent grant awarded by the State of Colorado totaling nearly $900,000.
The funding was made possible by the state’s Marijuana Tax Cash Fund. This is separate from the state’s B.E.S.T. grant program, which funds school capital needs. Grants from the Marijuana Tax Cash Fund specifically support health professionals and activities.
DCSD’s grant includes funding for one new full-time Counselor for Prevention at each of DCSD’s nine middle schools, each of whom will have a specific focus on school culture and prevention related to mental health and substance abuse. Additionally, the grant includes funds awarded to each middle school for evidence-based prevention programs and activities.
“There’s a lot of attention right now around mental health in our school district,” said Zac Hess, DCSD’s Director of Health, Wellness, and Prevention. “Everybody realizes that we want to make sure our kids are in the best possible space to learn. The more resources we have, the more students will be successful in their academics and life. We also know from research there is a direct correlation between mental health and substance use and abuse.”
When applying for the grant, DCSD’s Prevention and School Culture personnel targeted middle schools as the student population with the highest need for these kinds of prevention efforts.
“When we look at the data of where most of the alcohol, tobacco, and other drug offenses that are going on, this starts to increase in middle school, and then it increases even more in high school. In order to catch these students before they use or abuse, but also at a time when it may be on their minds or even around them, we wanted to focus on the middle school level,” Hess said. “We also noticed that the amount of suicide assessments and those mental health needs coming from middle schools were telling us that there is a need there at the middle school level. That’s where we need to make the biggest impact.”
School counselors helped identify the need
Hess and DCSD Prevention and School Culture personnel surveyed and talked with counselors to hear what they felt would best benefit their students, staff, families and school community.
“They are all doing such an amazing job, but they’re doing so much, leaving little time for them to do a lot of prevention work,” Hess said. “They are in a reactionary mode all day because they have kids coming in with a lot of anxiety or thoughts of suicide. These are big things and they take a lot of time. By taking some of this off their plates, this will help the counselors gain the capacity to be more proactive, such as helping them with their academics and post-secondary career readiness.”
An additional component of the new counselors’ roles will be developing relationships with community groups so that students and families who require more intensive-level intervention can be referred and taken care of in a timely manner.
“When a principal or another counselor at the school is in need of a community resource, this new position will be a bank of knowledge and resources,” Hess said.
Schools will determine the prevention activities that are a fit for their own communities
Hess and the DCSD Prevention and School Culture team will arm the new counselors with training, providing them with awareness of all of the resources available to them so that they can begin creating an impact for schools on day one. However, Hess will not be dictating what work they should be doing, as each school has its own unique needs.
“We’re hoping it gives a lot of freedom and flexibility for each middle school so they can work very specifically with their own community,” Hess said. “We don’t want to tell them what it is they should do, but we want them to come to the school with a whole bunch of tools in their toolbox so the school doesn’t feel like they have to do that work to get them trained up.”
A three-year grant
The intention of the grant is that it will renew for an additional two years beyond the first year. Hess, however, has an even longer-term vision for prevention work in DCSD.
“Ultimately, what we hope is that this work will spread and that middle schools are able to create a continuation of this work for fifth- and sixth-graders to prepare them for this transition to middle school, and that eighth-graders are prepared for their transition to freshman year.”