By Thomas Goldsmith
Willie Kay McDuffie really wanted to use responses from the nationally recognized Youth Risk Behavior Survey gathered from young people in Bladen County, where she grew up and works as the lead nurse in county schools.
But when McDuffie contemplated totaling by herself the survey’s hundreds of questionnaires, each 21 pages and 89 questions long, she asked for and received hands-on help from the members of the Whole Child NC collaborative in her county.
“I was not looking forward to counting all those surveys and being my own administrative assistant,” McDuffie told state Board of Education members at a meeting May 2.
“Directors, supervisors — people that are sitting at the table making decisions also came and helped us to administer the survey. That’s how strong our collaborative is in Bladen County.”
McDuffie and representatives from Scotland and Forsyth counties came to Raleigh to update board members on progress in the Whole Child NC program in three of the 11 counties where it’s being piloted. Created by resolution of the State Board of Education in November 2016, the program promotes non-academic efforts by school systems, professionals, parents and communities to help public school students succeed.
Those efforts include promoting new directions such as additional counselors in schools, nutrition programs, employee wellness, mentoring, and the cooperation on the youth-risk survey.
“The partners now can have a snapshot of how the youth feel about themselves,” McDuffie said of her county’s use of data.
‘Opportunities for honest conversations’
The surveys are used across the country to measure risk-taking behaviors and other factors that can affect student performance. These include alcohol use, texting while driving, the degree of safety students feel at school, and the presence of a caring adult in their lives.
In Bladen, the county’s Student Health Advisory Council, or SHAC, is using information from the survey to guide non-academic help to county schools.
“Some of our data is surprising to SHAC members, while some is not,” McDuffie said.
Eleven counties are piloting the Whole Child NC program: Anson, Bladen, Chatham, Davidson, Forsyth, Halifax, Hoke, Iredell, Scotland, Surry, WilkesRepresentatives of Scotland and Forsyth counties reported on their systems’ experiences with the “Whole School, Whole Community, Whole Child” program, referred to as WSCC, or “wisk.” The program grew out of methods developed at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
In introductory remarks to the board planning session, Tricia Willoughby, chair of Whole Child NC’s healthy responsible students committee, referred to the duty that educators and administrators have assumed to be champions for children who may really need help.
“If a child doesn’t have a great, caring adult in their life, we are still responsible for that child,” Willoughby said.
In the big picture of Whole Child NC, some of the 11 counties are still assembling their coalitions and setting goals, while others are well along the way toward putting new strategies and resources to work during the second year of the pilot. The possibilities are broad and tantalizing.
“What outcomes are we expecting from students if we have school-based mental health professionals in the building?” asked Jamie Synan, director of student support services in Scotland County.
Missing teachers harm outcomes
The county coalitions incorporate assistance and ideas from members in county government, health departments, businesses, nonprofits and others.
Each of the three presenting counties referred to employee absenteeism as a problem that affects student performance and well-being. Presenters noted that students’ personal health and success can rely on the presence of teachers and staff who also show up healthy.
“If your teachers are missing 10 or more days in a year, that’s going to affect your outcomes,” said Kenneth Simington, deputy superintendent of Winston-Salem/Forsyth County schools.
Last month, the state Department of Public Instruction released numbers showing that more than one in five North Carolina public school teachers is “chronically absent,” which translates to failing to show for 10 or more non-consecutive sick days. When the subject arose in Whole Child presentations, the focus was on the effects that a sick, absent teacher might have on children.
Among additional elements addressed in the Whole Child approach are health education and services, physical education and activity, nutrition, counseling, family engagement, and community ties.
“It’s the whole school, whole community, whole child,” McDuffie said. “It’s all connected.
We need to address these components the very first day that students walk into school for elementary school.”
‘Fear shouldn’t factor’
There’s been opposition from some quarters to the Whole Child concept, on the grounds that instruction, not social or medical work, ought to be the core mission of schools.
“If schools spend more time addressing physical, emotional, and mental problems, there will be less time to teach academics,” blogger Erik Root wrote on the website of the Roger Bacon Academy, a group of North Carolina magnet schools. “This will do nothing for the scores of the students except lower them further if experience is any indication.”
On the other hand, Synan, from Scotland County Schools, came to the state board meeting armed with charged statements from students across the grades about the value of non-academic support such as counseling.
“Students shouldn’t feel apologetic for feeling the way they do,” Scotland County High School sophomore Erik Wilson said in a video. “Fear shouldn’t factor into one’s head when asking for help. Staff shouldn’t judge a student for social anxiety or any mental illness, for that matter.
“Mental illness is drowning in a lake but not being able to die or survive; asking for help is reaching your hand above the water, but putting it back down so you won’t ruin someone’s day.”
Last year in Wake County, whether to spend as much as $10 million on school counselors to help vulnerable students became a major issue in budget talks between the county commission and school board. At the state level, board members seemed generally supportive, although there were questions about how the success of the Whole Child program could be quantified.
“It is not work that we are going to be able to measure in six weeks and say, ‘We’ve impacted this’,” Willoughby said. “If you want a child to be able to read, that child has a lot of other needs coming in.”
Said board chair Bill Cobey, “I’m sure it’s going to yield great benefits for all of us.”