SOARS raises bar on mental-health issues, educators say

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The legacy of the Montana SOARS grant as it wraps up its final year in Kalispell is a trauma-informed community, with schools that have raised the bar on mental-health awareness and its impact on students.

“I think it has transformed the way that we view kids and the way that we work with kids,” Kalispell Public Schools Superintendent Mark Flatau said.

Montana Support, Outreach and Access for the Resiliency of Students (SOARS) was a five-year grant awarded to Kalispell in 2014 and will conclude in September. Kalispell received a total of $450,000, which was part of a larger $3.5 million grant awarded to the Office of Public Instruction by the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. Butte and Browning also received funding.

Grant Coordinator Ronda Stevens and five social workers were hired to work in Kalispell Public Schools to work toward fulfilling the mission of the SOARS.

In a 2015 Daily Inter Lake article, Flatau noted the shift in thinking of what may have once been considered a private family matter into the public education realm.

“Forty years ago when I started, there was the belief that’s not the job of the schools, that’s the job of the family. I wouldn’t argue that. It should be the job of the family — but it’s not happening in all families,” Flatau said. “We could throw our hands up and say, ‘not my fault,’ but that’s an inappropriate response. It’s our responsibility to teach the kids we have. Many of them come with issues stemmed around mental health and social emotional learning. We can’t turn our backs on it because if we do we’re also going to fail them in academic learning.”

Most of the work in regard to improving school climate has been refining and expanding systems of behavior intervention and support. One such system is the Montana Behavioral Initiative, which seeks to foster positive school cultures and attitudes by working with students to develop social and emotional skills.

While the Montana Behavioral Initiative is not new, it was not being used consistently throughout the district.

“MBI has been around 20 years, however, when SOARS came into the picture not all schools were using it, and now we can say all schools are part of MBI,” said Cassie Schroeckenstein, a social worker at Hedges and Peterson elementary schools.

Elrod and Russell social worker Devera Haegele said one of the ways the elementary schools have worked toward improving school climate is by developing a “universal language” for students to identify feelings and problem solve conflicts. Students also learn how their brains work and self-regulating techniques.

Elrod also began to hold morning meetings to help students with those techniques, and work on team-building. One area elementary schools found challenging is how and when to re-teach skills where deficits exist.

Refining a multi-tiered system of support framework, the district developed its own comprehensive approach to screening, identifying and intervening in regard to behavior calling it Systems of Support, or SOS. The idea is to place similar emphasis on behavior as is done for academics.

Through SOS, data and information on student behavior is centralized for educators to access electronically as a child changes grade levels and schools to avoid duplicating efforts of what’s worked what hasn’t and provide consistency.

Community awareness and collaboration was primarily accomplished through Youth Mental Health First Aid training, which instructs participants on how to recognize the symptoms of mental health issues, what kinds of questions to ask, how to approach youth in crisis, how to listen and provide support. The free training was first offered to adults in the community and then to students themselves.

“Youth Mental Health First Aid is one of our biggest outreach efforts and we continue to try and get more people trained,” Schroeckenstein said. “To date, we have 433 individuals within our community that have received this training. Teachers district staff and also students are getting the training now, too, so that they can help their peers.

“I walked away having skills how do you address those emergency crisis situations before it was kind of a panic and fly by the seat of your pants now we have a script and things to do and we know where to send these kids when we can’t be the ones to help them.”

The schools have also done dozens of other collaborations with community organizations and agencies as well as bringing in Licensed Clinical Social Worker Stacy York to provide training and workshops not just for educators, but the wider caregiver community such as health professionals, parents, foster families on child development, the impact of trauma on a child’s brain, and strategies to use.

In linking students and families with services, Stevens collaborated with other social service agencies and providers to join an electronic referral system called Connect, which seeks to establish a network of agencies throughout Montana. Other communities on the system are Butte, Billings, Browning, Great Falls, Helena and Livingston.

“We’re trying to close the loop in care coordination,” said Tyson Roe, the Kalispell Connect system coordinator.

He said the system means sending and receiving a referral is just a few clicks away as opposed to traditional methods of phone calls, handwritten or faxes.

“Right now we’re the only Connect grouping in that state that has schools on it, so we’re kind of ahead of the curve right now,” Roe said, noting that Kalispell also includes private therapists.

And Connect will continue after the grant ends Stevens said.

The position is housed at the Flathead City-County Health Department. Once the grant ends, the position will be funded through the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services.

Continuing to fund the level of professional development the grant will be provided will be a challenge and funding the social worker positions remains open ended. Currently, the district is working on next year’s budget.

“Again, I appreciate the work of the social workers in our schools,” Flatau said. “... We are working to hopefully maintain at least the level at which we are at.”

Stevens said sustainability is has been the key word this year.

“Education and training from the beginning of the grant has been very, very important. To me that’s sustainability. It isn’t buying programs and things like that, that can get lost in the shuffle,” Stevens said. “I think we’ve come a long way from using that word five years ago nobody really understood it or what to do with it. I think we’re in a totally different place today.”

Reporter Hilary Matheson may be reached at 758-4431 or

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